Ann Arbor, on a football Saturday, is one big party. Swarms of maize-and-blue-clad fans carouse on lawns and spill out into oncoming traffic. The air is thick with the aroma of charcoal-grilled hot dogs and hormonal sweat. So thick, it seems to catch and hold cellphone signals like flies in a web. Everyone drinks a Great Lakes’ worth of beer, vodka, tequila, boxed wine and more beer, until it’s time to head in a mass exodus to the stadium.
After they leave, it’s a ghost town. Plastic bags drift along like tumbleweeds. Thousands of beer cans litter the streets, overflow from garbage barrels and fill giant, leaking bags on the sidewalk. But by sundown, most of these cans will be gone.
A small economy, a culture even, springs up in Ann Arbor on football Saturdays. Each game day, dozens of individuals canvas Ann Arbor looking for cans and bottles that they can recycle for a 10-cent deposit. They call themselves “canners,” and practice “canning.” Each game day, the cycle takes place — thousands of cans are discarded by fans and canners pick them up, clean them off and collect their deposit. For a whole season’s worth of home games, I followed canners around Ann Arbor. All have their own reason for canning, their own successes and strategies, their own struggles with the system, their own story.
I met 73-year-old Jerry Quigley, an Ann Arbor resident, outside the Big House during the Michigan State game on Oct. 17. As clouds loomed overhead, he dragged a folding shopping cart behind him as he picked through the recycling bins, sometimes waiting for a fan to chuck a can into the bin before removing it. Short and lumbering, his wide smile shone through a dense gray beard and black stumps where several teeth had once been. He wore a crushed baseball cap bearing the name of the ship he fought on during the Vietnam War and yellow-tinted sunglasses. Born and raised in Chelsea, Mich., after the war he returned to Ann Arbor and hasn’t left.
Quigley now just cans for the exercise and to help pay the rent for his small apartment — he makes the rest of the payment by doing odd-jobs for his landlord. I strolled along with him as he made his rounds of the bright blue bins. Fans occasionally glanced at him, but no one intervened. I asked a poncho-clad usher if he cared that Quigley was canning right in front of the entrance.
“Hey, it’s a public space, you know,” he replied with a shrug.
Michigan has an unusually generous deposit system. Since the Michigan Beverage Container Act was enacted in 1978, Michigan has charged a 10-cent deposit on carbonated beverage containers, compared to the usual 5-cent deposit in the 10 other states with bottle bills. The containers can then be exchanged for the deposit at many grocery and liquor stores. The only catch is that the containers must be purchased in state.
“I’ve had times when I collected a bunch of cans from Ohio State fans and then had them rejected when I tried to return them,” Quigley said.
Some people do “can” simply as a hobby. I met Ann Arbor residents Tim, Brian and Pat as they were scavenging the sidewalks of East University Avenue during the Northwestern game Oct. 10, all of them 40-something men, scruffy, dressed in dirty T-shirts, jeans, sturdy work boots and canvas gloves. All three declined to give their last names.
“We’re just in it for some cigarette and sandwich money,” Pat said.
“It’s just about good company and some extra money in the pocket,” Tim added.
I was not expecting this. I had assumed that all canners must be homeless or desperate. But these guys are just friends out for a jaunt. They all have day jobs doing construction and carpentry. They’re all from the city — Tim’s house is actually just about a mile down Packard Street. They clearly regard themselves as a different breed of canner
“None of us drink,” Pat said.
While there are some small timers, for sure, many canners are also, by necessity, after larger paychecks. I met Ann Arbor resident Anthony Taylor after he drove past me in a beat-up sedan during the Northwestern game. Strapped to every square inch of the car’s exterior were bulging bags of cans. The trunk was propped open to accommodate more bags.
Thin, with a close-cropped beard, Taylor is decked out in Michigan gear: blue sweatpants, Wolverine zip up, block ‘M’ hat. He is 46 years old. He has a regular job at a chain restaurant in town, but regularly cans for money to support his seven children. His strategy is to raid various fraternity pregames after everyone has left and haul away hundreds of cans and bottles. In the hierarchy of “canners,” he considers himself a notch above guys like Tim and Pat, who can only carry a light load.
“I’ll let guys on foot clean up the cans — aluminum is lighter than glass, you know?” he said with a slight smirk. “I’m in it to win it.”
I walked with him into backyard of the house, through a giant blue tarp acting as a curtain. It’s a swamp — the ground has turned to mud from so much spilled alcohol and crushed cans float on it like lilypads. Taylor was trying to break his record of $245. He always starts by gathering any intact cans and bottles that he can find, ones that the foot soldiers haven’t scavenged yet.
He digs through the trash bins the fraternity had set out, picking out half-full cans and pouring out the contents before stuffing them in his bag. These will get deposited at Lucky’s Market on South Industrial Highway, where he can deposit $25 worth of containers per day, per the store’s policy. He claimed that he’ll get hassled if he hauls this much into Meijer.
I asked him whether this is, technically, stealing.
“Students aren’t going to go get the deposit — they’re too busy,” he replied. He notes that he leaves behind any unopened beers he finds.
As a canner with a vehicle, Taylor can not only deposit more intact cans, but also make money off scrap aluminum. Crushed cans are not redeemable for deposit. However, many local junk yards will pay for scrap aluminum by the pound. Anthony picks out the good cans from the bins, and then takes the whole garbage bag, which now contains mangled cans and bits of trash that he’ll have to pick out later.
Sometimes, he said, he gets hassled by residents for picking through their garbage, even though sidewalk bins are technically in the public domain.
“Everyone has their own criminals,” he said.
I help him drag a few grimy bags out to his car and ask if he’s OK with me including him in the story. He replies that he’s fine with it as long as it won’t prevent him from canning.
“This is a good hustle,” he said. “A legitimate hustle.”
That same day, I met one of the on-foot canners. Brian, 50 years old, has been canning on and off for four years. He asked that his last name not be used.
For most of his adult life, he worked a string of odd jobs. He has been plagued with health problems for much of that time: peripheral artery disease, diabetes, glaucoma and, most recently, right forearm and left shoulder injuries from a slip on an icy sidewalk in Ann Arbor. He has lost 105 pounds and gotten his blood pressure under control, but he’s far from healthy.
“I don’t want to have to collect disability, but there’s a limit to what I can do,” he tells me.
The problem, Brian said, is that he’s been rejected for disability support multiple times. He’s too ill to work a normal job, so he has to make do with canning.
“This is my sole source of income,” he said.
He lives in subsidized housing on North Main Street and cans most days and every football game day. He needs $300 per month to pay for rent and food, and the occasional can of Coke to stave off the sugar addiction he acquired during his obese days. He has no car, so he needs to make regular bus trips to Meijer and Kroger every evening to drop off his cans.
Through the getDowntown Program, the Ann Arbor Transit Authority offers something called a “go!pass,” which employers in downtown Ann Arbor can buy in bulk and distribute to their employees. According to the getDowntown website, the pass gives holders unlimited access to fixed bus routes and discounts on other commuting services, as well as many downtown stores.
But Brian, being unemployed, isn’t eligible for a go!pass, which he said frustrates him. Later on, I would explain his situation to getDowntown program director Nancy Shore. She said though he couldn’t get a go!pass, he might be eligible for “Fare Deal,” which cuts the normal $1.50 bus fare in half for low-income individuals.
Until then, he must pay $3 every day for a pass — an equivalent to 30 cans Brian has to find and lug around before he can make any money that day.
He spotted a can in my garbage, lifted it out, and looked disappointed.
“All these Arizona Iced Tea cans lying around — it drives me crazy,” he says.
In Michigan, only carbonated beverage containers — beer cans, soda bottles, etc. — have a deposit on it. Every day, Brian finds hundreds of wine bottles, iced tea cans and milk cartons, but can’t use them.
“It’s so …,” he said.
“Arbitrary?” I chimed in.
He laughed. “That’s a nicer word than I was going to use — it’s stupid.”
Brian said he was anxiously following a bill introduced in the Michigan Legislature in March by state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor), currently awaiting hearing in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The bill, Senate Bill 199, would amend the original bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverage containers eligible for deposit as well.
In a interview, Warren said the bill has received considerable support from environmental groups, but also some opposition from smaller retailers who lack the resources to handle and clean more containers.
“Our bottle bill is almost 40 years old now, so we’re just trying to modernize,” Warren said. “The original bill only included carbonated beverages because that’s what people were drinking back then. Now, people drink lots of bottled water and energy drinks, and I wanted to find a way to get those recycled.”
Warren said she did not introduce the bill with canners in mind. However, she added that she was happy to learn that it could have a positive effect on them.
“If there are folks out there who can supplement or make an income by returning more of these containers and getting them out of landfills, that’s wonderful,” she said.
But there are also some canners, unlike Brian, who just need to make some quick money. I met Ann Arbor residents Amanda James and Felicia Hamilton during the Michigan State game Oct. 17. They had a shopping cart filled with cans, and were weaving in and out of pregamers like running backs, picking up any can that someone dropped. Occasionally, the students would just hand the cans, freshly drained, to the women. Electro-soul blasted from the speakers, and Felicia occasionally stopped canning to dance along to the music.
They asked me if they could bum a cigarette, and we got to talking. Both women grew up in the city.
“Born and raised!” James shouted.
They paused to gently heckle a few MSU fans who passed by, and then explained their motives. Neither of them is a habitual canner, but they said they needed money to help Hamilton rent a U-Haul and pay a $1,350 security deposit. She has to move to a cheaper house in Ann Arbor, she said, because she was expecting to receive a Section 8 voucher from the city that fell through.
Section 8 is a form of federal housing assistance that enables individuals at a certain income level to move houses.
“Housing access, and you can print this, is full of shit,” Hamilton said.
I spoke with Weneshia Brand, a manager at the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, about that issue. She said the city issues Section 8 vouchers to help low-income residents pay rent with money comes from the federal government.
Funding is scarce right now, and the voucher waitlist is about five years. Until then, James and Hamilton said, they have to make ends meet in whatever way they can.
“And this is free money,” James added of canning. “The best free money.”
Most of the canners I met had a scrappy pride in what they were doing, even if it often seems tedious and grimy. But their work is simultaneously a symptom of economic and political shortcomings and a cure for the massive amount of waste Ann Arbor produces on football game days. It is “free money” for those without more conventional means. But given the amount of recycling and cleaning that gets done by canners, we should at least ask ourselves: Who is it really “free” for?