A story of trash and class in America. Archived version of a text published with The Atlantic in 2013.

Empty beverage container collector, Uppsala 2012 (Finn Arne Jørgensen)

The Academy Award-nominated short documentary Redemption (2013) may not have won an Oscar statue in the end, but it remains a powerful introduction to the lives of “canners,” the many poor who collect empty bottles and cans on the streets of New York as a means of survival. In the film, empty beverage containers become a symbol for poverty and exploitation. They are waste — unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the beverage they once contained. But it wasn’t always that way: Bottles were once valuable objects, not to be easily discarded. Their loss of value is not just a result of technological and material improvements, but also of social, economic, and political choices by consumers, corporations, and policy makers (or, as we too often call it, “the market”). If we go back 150 years, carbonated beverages were generally consumed on-site in bars, saloons, taverns, and restaurants. You could buy bottled beverages, but they were hand-filled and hand-capped, one bottle at a time. With the development of mass-produced bottles, crimp capping, and mechanized bottling at the end of the 19th century, increasing amounts of beverages were instead sold for consumption in the home or on the move. The bottles were expensive to produce, however, so bottlers used a deposit-refund system to ensure that consumers returned the bottles after use, and embossed the bottles with their logo and name as a means of claiming ownership. Following World War II the beverage market changed dramatically. The former multitude of local bottlers and brands began to give way to fewer, larger bottlers operating on a regional and national arena. These began experimenting with disposable containers designed to no longer have any value to the bottlers. Instead of the company logo, the words “No Deposit, No Return” now decorated the bottles. We all know what happened next. We have seen the surprisingly unsettling picnic scene in…