'Glass, Metal, Plastic' Offers a Glimpse Into the World of New York's Bottle Collectors

Screen capture. The Story of Stuff (via YouTube)

The Story of Stuff's latest film underscores the importance of putting deposits on all cans and bottles.

The Story of Stuff recently launched a new video called Glass, Metal, Plastic: The Story of New York's Canners. The eight-minute film follows the day of two enterprising individuals who make a living by collecting empty cans and bottles from the streets of New York City. Neither one thought they'd end up doing this kind of work, but both say they are happy.

Pierre Simmons takes pride in what he does. "[This] line of work does have value. It cleans up the environment, which we are in deep trouble with." He also points out that discarded cans and bottles are like money in the streets. "Manhattan is a gold mine. You cannot live in New York City and say that you are broke."

Despite the potential for canners to make a living, albeit a small one, they are frustrated that the 5-cent deposit established in the 1970s in order to divert recyclable items from the general waste stream has never gone up, despite the drastic increase in living costs over the same time period. Canners are working to get a new bottle bill passed that would increase the deposit amount to 10 cents, although Simmons worries this will attract more people to the business and create competition.

The film reveals a world that many of us don't think about. It also reveals what a difference adding deposits to food and beverage containers can make from an environmental perspective. The Story of Stuff describes it as a "ready-made system that can all but eliminate one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution."

"'Bottle deposits' put a small financial deposit on a beverage container at the point of sale that’s returned when you bring back your bottle to the store. Deposits create the incentive and thereby the mechanism to drastically reduce leakage. When this is done the right way return rates exceed 90 percent.
But deposit systems don’t just reduce plastic pollution, they also reduce carbon emissions, reduce demand for new plastic and create green jobs — a shift towards the circular economy we need."

The system can be refined even further when bottles and containers are returned to companies for reuse, as opposed to recycling, which we now know happens at a far lower rate than previously assumed. Recycling, as we've stated numerous times on TreeHugger, is really a huge scam, allowing food and beverage companies to hand off responsibility for dealing with their own poorly designed packaging to consumers and usually resulting in items simply going to landfill.

But if these companies were forced to change designs to be reusable, and to impose heftier deposits on containers to encourage more returns, it would be a win-win situation for everyone else involved. Shoppers would generate less waste, canners would thrive in a booming business, landfills could gain a bit more capacity, and the Earth would be spared some resource extraction.

The Story of Stuff is well-known for its informative and engaging videos on environmental issues. (Read about 'The Story of Water: Who Controls the Way We Drink', 'The Story of Microfibers', and 'When Nestlé Comes to Town'.)This latest one, Glass, Metal, Plastic, spurred viewers to donate $4,000 in recent weeks to help the canners deal with an impending eviction from the Brooklyn processing depot that's shown in the film. You can watch it below.