Redeeming soda cans and homeless in N.Y.C.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

GUY POLHEMUS sits and writes ``checks'' in an empty West Side lot amid empty cans, bottles, and a handful of mostly homeless men. ``Have you talked to the brothers?'' he asks a visitor, nodding at two men culling through a bag of empties. George, warmly dressed in a bumblebee black and yellow sweater he found, looks up politely while he continues to go through the bag.

``We were Guy's first big customers,'' George says, adding that he and his brother Michael together make up to $60 a day picking up discarded cans and bottles. When they finish adding up their cans, Mr. Polhemus jots down their earnings on a ``check.'' The brothers then take it to a local check cashing shop where Polhemus has opened an account for his project, We Can.

In the subculture of New York City's street people, Polhemus, a soft-spoken free-lance writer and voice-over man, is considered something of a friend and a hero. His simple idea - a bottle redemption center in Manhattan that actually welcomes people with bags full of tossed out soda and beer cans - makes eminent sense to the men and women whose main source of income comes from the trash they sift every day.

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But Polhemus, who is passionate about his project and the people he calls redeemers, is worried about We Can's future. Running a redemption center where anyone can return empties for nickels, in compliance with the New York State bottle bill, is not that simple.

Starting on a shoestring of $2,000, Polhemus was overwhelmed by the initial response to the opening of his redemption center on West 43rd Street. He knew redeemers ran into difficulties returning the empties; he got the idea for We Can after talking to homeless people in a church soup kitchen. They told of store owners who set limits on the number of cans returned, who take empties only at certain hours, and who chase out redeemers with too many returnables.

And, like his friends on the streets, Polhemus finds he gets the runaround, too. Checks are on the way from Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola distributors, but he can't get rid of his Budweisers. The beer distributorships continue to thwart Polhemus's efforts to return the more than 14,000 cans he has taken in since he opened his center Oct. 14.

By most accounts, the bottle bill in New York has been a success. Framed as an anti-litter measure, it is credited with reducing solid waste by 8 percent, says R.W. Groneman of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. He says that 80 percent of all returnable cans and bottles are redeemed by the public.

For the redeemers at We Can's lot, the bill has also been good news. Regis Moore, a cheerful man with an amazingly decorated shopping cart, says he can live on the average $24 a day he makes. ``Who eats chicken every day?'' he asks. His cart has broomsticks in each corner decorated with dolls and stuffed toys. A bear wears sunglasses and a string tie.

Larry is at We Can for the first time. A Vietnam veteran, he is dressed in a suit and tie borrowed from the shelter where he is staying. He's going to an interview for a computer training school. He turns to Jack Moore, a homeless man who decided to stay and help Polhemus run We Can. ``Do you take plastic bottles?''

A few feet away, Polhemus sighs. He doesn't like to turn his redeemers down.

``If I had the money, I would take everything, and fight it out from here.''

Things are looking better. A few days earlier, Polhemus had been down to his last $130, while waiting for $2,000 to come in from soft drink distributors for redeemed cans. The checks haven't come in, but a $5,000 donation from the Edward Abrons Foundation will tide We Can over for a month. Polhemus envisions boosting income by getting donations of cans from church groups, restaurants, and others wanting to help the project.

When Polhemus starts writing a check for Larry's cans, Larry looks concerned.

``I don't have any ID,'' he says. Polhemus explains the deal at the check-cashing store. Larry brightens.

``You're all right, Guy,'' he says. Polhemus says the checks have brought an unexpected bonus. Originally he didn't want to sit in an empty lot with a whole lot of coins, but he has also found that it makes the redeemers feel as if they are getting a work check. It gives them a sense of acceptance.

The conservation department's Mr. Groneman admits that the rise in scavengers and the problems in returning the cans and bottles were unforeseen. ``We are rooting for [We Can],'' he says. ``The problem is enforcement. We can't stand at every redemption center.''

Put simply, when a consumer buys a can of soda or a beer, he pays a nickel deposit. If the can is thrown out, that 5 cents is up for grabs. Polhemus would like to see the homeless take advantage of that nickel, and he pays out that 5 cents through We Can.

There is a minimum $60 million in unredeemed cans a year, Groneman says, which is in essence a windfall for the wholesalers and distributors of soda pop and beer. Polhemus estimates that the figure is much larger than $60 million. If a can is not turned in, that 5 cents is retained by the distributor.

Polhemus says redeemers bring in more Budweisers than any other can. Even with the restrictions he has put on the number of Buds he will accept - and with the few he has been able to redeem quietly - there is more than $700 worth of beer cans sitting in his lot.

Stephen K. Lambright of Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., which brews Budweiser, said in a statement that all Anheuser-Busch wholesalers in New York are independent businessmen. He conceded that some in the New York City area are apparently reluctant to redeem beverage containers that were originally sold by other wholesalers.

``This situation is particularly pronounced where `subcontractors' ship large quantities of beer from one wholesaler's market into another,'' said Mr. Lambright. ``...We are instructing all Anheuser-Busch wholesalers that we expect them to live up to both the spirit and the letter of the ... law.''

Groneman says distributors created part of the problem themselves by the territorial distribution system they have adopted. And the state attorney general's office is pressing an antitrust lawsuit against the beer distributors for their system of exclusive distribution.

``The bottle law is potentially and actually a cash cow [for the industry],'' says Lloyd Constantine, chief of the antitrust bureau of the attorney general's office.

Back at We Can, Polhemus says he just wants to be able to turn these cans and bottles into help for the homeless.

``I'm not asking for anything but compliance [with] the law,'' Polhemus says. In four weeks I've proven that this can be a help.'' He looks out over the rapidly filling bins of cans. ``I should be doing more.''

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