On a recent hot July day, a canner named Ziki, pushed a shopping cart along McKibbin Street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. He had rigged the cart with wooden beams that stood up vertically to hold more of his cargo – carton boxes filled neatly with beer bottles, and three large bags heaped on top, full of empty water bottles and cans. Ziki waited for an oncoming car to pass and then got the running start he needed to push his cart up the sloped sidewalk and into an opening framed by corrugated steel and wide enough for a large truck. Two shipping containers were stacked to his right with a mural of a boy’s face painted on them, and underneath the portrait, the words, “Sure We Can,” in bright yellow.
Sure We Can is a nonprofit recycling facility, community center, and a grassroots sustainability testbed wrapped into one. A Spanish nun, Ana de Luco, and a formerly homeless man, Eugene Gadsden, started the organization in 2007, not only to give canners – people who collect cans and bottles from the street – a place to redeem their goods, but to provide a welcoming place for them. A year ago, Agustina Besada, an alumna of Columbia University’s Sustainability Management program (2015), took over as executive director.
Agustina Besada (SUMA 2015) is the Executive Director of Sure We Can.
“I love it here,” she said, “because this place perfectly combines what sustainability is for me – triple impact – not just the environmental, not just the social or economic, but everything together.”
Some 500 canners work at Sure We Can, recycling an average of 40,000 containers each day. The canners receive the 5-cent deposit on each container, and the organization earns a 3.5-cent handling fee, which funds its operations. Some 40% of this operational revenue also goes to canners, for sorting and bagging containers. Canners, who tend to be low-income and elderly immigrants, can earn anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $3,000 a month. The organization returns more than $600,000 back to the community each year. The money comes from beverage distributors, who are required by New York State law to collect and recycle the containers that they sell.
Several canners worked around the small trailer that houses Besada’s office, counting and sorting cans and bottles. An elderly Chinese woman, nicknamed Zhong Bossy, wore a broad rimmed pink hat and made a red tray of Coca Cola cans, while someone on Besada’s staff used an electronic tablet to tally another canner’s containers. On this day, Besada wore a sleeveless green shirt and jeans, and walked among her patrons, greeting them by first name, easily switching from English to her native Spanish.
“The women especially like this job because it gives them flexibility,” said Besada.
With a visitor trailing behind her, Besada pointed to shipping containers stacked two-high and overflowing with bags of neatly sorted cans and plastic bottles. In front of the containers, there were yet more bags, and also pallets with plastic shrink wrap, holding carton boxes filled with beer bottles. In the heat, an odor both sweet and pungent wafted across the concrete lot, and Besada explained that persuading distributors to pick up the containers was always difficult, but especially so in the summer.
“For me,” Besada said, “the management has been the most challenging; I have to teach myself to delegate every day, because I can’t do it alone, and because I want the organization to be able to run without depending on a single person.”
As she talked, Gadsden, who now runs the organization’s composting operation, came into view. His corner of the lot was lined with stacks of blue and yellows plastic containers, which the organization uses to transport and store food scraps from local restaurants. A large heap of rich brown compost waited to be bagged and sold. Two other enormous bags were going to fulfill an order by New York University.
“We are always trying to figure out ways to expand,” said Besada, “and provide other opportunities for the people here.” Composting created one full-time and two part-time jobs. “To create even one new job would be fine with me.”
Back in her office, Besada sat at a small conference table; the crunching sounds of empty cans coming through the trailer’s windows. The property owner from whom the organization leases the lot has wanted to sell it, and “if that happens, it’s over,” Besada said. She has sought the help of Councilman Antonio Reynoso and the New York City Department of City Planning to avert the sale by creating a community land trust. The two sides are talking, and Besada said that she was optimistic that a deal would be reached.
As she talked, Ziki, having unloaded his cart, stood quietly by the door to her office. Besada greeted him, and Ziki left. “Sometimes they will just stand there waiting for me to say ‘hello’,” and added, “More than anything else, we are a community.”