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From Dimes to Dollars: What it’s Really Like to Recycle for a Living

What a disappointment. I just returned from almost an hour of canning in my neighborhood whe

re I found nary a can – not even one! Back when bottle deposits were only a nickel, I used to earn a hundred dollars a month easily. Now, I’m lucky to get 20 to 30 dollars a month.

Tomorrow, I’ll go to Lloyd Center where I’m apt to garner between 20 and 30 cans. For those working in that location, I highly recommend selling your wares at Green Zebra located at 808 NE Multnomah Street. While you can sell your cans any time the store is open, it’s best to go on Mondays through Fridays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. when they have a bottle counter on the premises. And kudos to Green Zebra for treating canners with the same dignity they treat their customers. Other grocery stores are not so friendly!

I carry a plastic bag with me everywhere I go, especially when riding the bus. There’s often a can or water bottle in the wastebasket by the door, and the drivers never care if I help myself to garbage.

I also check the recycle bins in my apartment building where I find a few cans every day. And, I can count on a few neighbors saving their cans for me. It feels like Christmas every time I open my door to a bag of cans delivered to me by a friend or neighbor.

For those of us trying to make do on limited incomes, it’s hard to stay motivated and keep your spirits up. I spoke with two dedicated canners recently to see how they carry on.


Patty W. was born and raised in Portland.

What motivated you to start collecting cans as a form of revenue?

Patty W. (PW): I had a sister who used to embarrass me on family outings. We’d be going to a restaurant and she’d pick up cans in the parking lot, take them with her! If I protested, she’d say, ‘If it was a nickel on the ground, you’d pick it up.’ My sister died in 2009. After she passed, collecting cans became a way for me to honor her memory.

Are some neighborhoods better than others in terms of collecting?

PW: Well, I used to have a car and canning is a lot easier with a vehicle. Now, I pretty much just stick to Southeast Portland.

How much can you expect to earn in a month?

PW: Between 20 and 40 dollars.

Have you found it harder to earn since the bottle deposits went from a nickel to a dime

PW: Absolutely. People who normally wouldn’t collect cans are now doing so. Fred Meyer pays 12 cents a can for people who want to drop off their cans and spend their money in the store. That’s a great way to save on your groceries if you do most of your shopping at Fred Meyer. The downside is you can only spend your money in the store where you brought your cans.


Brad has lived in Portland since 2013 and has seen a lot of changes in the canning community. I sat down with him to ask a few questions and he was kind enough to oblige.

What motivated you to start collecting cans as a form of revenue?

Brad (B): Oh, for a lot of reasons. Everything from needing money for medication to wanting enough quarters to do my laundry on the weekend. I’m not looking for a regular job, I just need some supplemental income.

Are some neighborhoods better than others?

B: I pretty much stick to the Buckman neighborhood. I’ll start out at 13th and Salmon then walk up to 25th then loop back.

How much can you expect to earn in a month?

B: About a hundred dollars.

That’s pretty good. How do you transport cans when you have a large bundle to carry?

B: I use a cart with sturdy wheels.

Do you have any advice for would-be canners or anyone looking to supplement their income?

B: Don’t trespass. I see a number of my competitors trespassing and it’s not something I recommend. Don’t go where you’re not wanted.

Above all, don’t give up. I know people who are very successful selling Street Roots. You just have to find your niche. We’re all good at something!

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