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Long Islanders turn bottles into bucks to make ends meet 

Angel Ortega of Brentwood brings bottles and cans

Angel Ortega of Brentwood brings bottles and cans to All Deposits redemption center in Brentwood on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Erick Bonilla, 30, a truck driver and landlord from Bay Shore, redeems plastic bottles and aluminum cans every two weeks for a nickel each to keep his car's gas tank filled.

Sherry Persaud, 32, a Brentwood mother of three, visits a bottle redemption center once a month so she can save for a family vacation to Guyana.

Julia Villa, 54, of Patchogue, a factory worker who's been redeeming bottles for 10 years, says it allows her to buy more groceries for her four-person household.

And Ralph Magale, 90, of New Hyde Park, a retiree who redeems bottles at King Kullen, says he can put a few dollars in his pocket every month he wouldn't have otherwise.

They're among a growing number of Long Islanders who  take bottles and cans to grocery stores and redemption centers to collect the 5-cent refund each commands under New York State's bottle bill. Many go far beyond redeeming the bottles and cans used by their families, collecting hundreds in parks and from friends and co-workers. They say the money they make helps them cope with Long Island's high cost of living. 

"Living here is super expensive," Alicia Renderos, 56, said in Spanish while redeeming bottles and cans earlier this month at Superstar's Beer City, a beer retailer in North Babylon. "The money is more than welcome." 

Renderos and her son, Alexis, 15 — both of them wearing blue latex gloves — were grabbing bottles and cans from several bags and inserting them in machines that accept the containers, count them and issue users a receipt to be turned in to store staff for cash.

On this occasion, Renderos redeemed about 2,000 bottles and cans and made about $100.

Renderos, who makes a living cleaning houses and taking care of children and seniors in the Brookville area, said the people who live at the homes she works in "mostly throw everything away."

"So I go and take the bottles out of the garbage and bring them here. Other people know what I do and they give them to me," she said. 

Renderos said she has mostly used the money to pay household bills, but it will now be used for something else: Alexis "will buy his first car from the money he earns redeeming bottles," she said with a broad smile.

"I wanted to teach him that life is not easy, but you can still do and have anything you want as long as you work hard and do it honorably. I wanted to instill in him a sense of knowing how to value things. ... Doing this, it's nothing to be ashamed of."

The Island's high cost of living forces many residents to seek alternative ways to supplement their incomes. 

A family of two adults and two children in the Nassau/Suffolk metro area must earn a combined $11,629 a month or $139,545 a year to live comfortably, according to a 2018 Economic Policy Institute estimate.

Middle class people here often have to have two jobs just to maintain a basic standard of living, said David Sprintzen, a founding member of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a community advocacy group. 

"Individuals don't have much of a choice," Sprintzen said. "They're squeezed. They need to work more jobs or find creative ways to make ends meet." 

The value of a bottle

New York's bottle bill, which imposes a 5-cent refundable fee on water, soda and beer sold in glass, plastic and aluminum ⁠bottles and cans, was designed to incentivize consumers to recycle. 

"In terms of the environment, what the bottle bill has done in its 30-plus-year history here, is keep tens of billions of containers from ending up in landfills or in our oceans," said Elizabeth Moran, environmental policy director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a Manhattan-based nonprofit focused on research and public education. 

"It's taught us that bottle deposits work. They encourage people to pick up containers that may have otherwise remained roadside litter." 

In New York, 65 percent of bottles and cans with nickel deposits on them are redeemed, a state official said. States like Oregon with 10-cent deposits have redemption rates as high as 90 percent.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed expanding the state's bottle bill to include beverage containers for products like sports drinks, energy drinks and ready-to-drink iced teas and coffees. State officials estimate doing so would result in another 1.4 billion containers redeemed per year. 

While individuals make money when they redeem bottles and cans others have tossed, drink manufacturers, distributors and the state keep the unredeemed deposits.

Beverage companies such as Coca-Cola or Budweiser impose the initial bottle fee. They keep track of the number of redeemed containers and must turn over  to the state 80 percent of the deposits not redeemed. The companies pocket the rest. In 2017 the state's portion of these unredeemed deposits amounted to  about $110.6 million; 80 percent of that went to the state's general fund. The other 20 percent was used to fund environmental programs. 

Miguel Rodriguez, 47, of Central Islip, said while he likes that recycling allows him to contribute to a green environment, he loves the green it puts in his pocket. 

He said when he first started collecting bottles to redeem he felt embarrassed by the thought of other people finding out. That was five years ago. 

Now, "everyone knows I do this," he said. "And they give me their bottles. My family, my friends, my colleagues. ... Everyone is giving me their bottles." 

Rodriguez, who works as a cashier at AG Food Products  in Hauppauge, says his co-workers are his biggest supporters, bringing in bottles from their homes for him to redeem every week. 

"There's a negative stigma attached to collecting bottles, but once you start seeing the value in it and start seeing that you can get so much money back for them, then it's like, well, why not?" he said.

"We all have bills to pay, we all need money for different things. When I go to the redemption center, I see all kinds of people there. All ages, races, low-class, middle-class, everyone is recycling for money." 

Rodriguez, who said he makes about $40 a week redeeming bottles and cans and uses the money to put gas in his car or to treat his nephews to a pizza lunch on weekends, said when time allows he goes out on the street looking for bottles to pick up. 

"It's good for the environment, and it's good for my pocket," he said. "I'm proud to do this."  

Bottles to bucks 

Maria Maribel Guzman of Brentwood,  wakes up at dawn every Saturday to haul large bags of plastic bottles and aluminum cans to a redemption center in Brentwood.

Guzman, who is usually at the front of a long line of people waiting for the doors to open at 9 a.m., said she visits the All Deposits redemption center at least twice a week, redeeming about 500 or so containers at a time and earning as much as $50 to $75 a week.

She said she uses the money to pay for household utilities, like the water or electric bill. 

"Or if I can, I save it," said Guzman, who works in the packaging department at a Deer Park pharmaceutical manufacturer. "It's so hard to save money living here, but by doing this, I sometimes can."

For some recyclers, saving the money they make is out of the question.

Central Islip resident Juan Esteban Rosario, 57, works at a supermarket but says the need to earn more money made him turn to collecting bottles. 

"The store recently closed for renovations, so these days I'm recycling a lot more," he said in Spanish. "Some people give me bottles. They keep them for me at their homes and call me to go pick them up, but I do go out looking for them myself, too." 

Every other day, Rosario spends three hours riding his bicycle through parks and neighborhoods in search of bottles and cans to redeem. He says he visits a redemption center about three times a week, earning an average of $40 each time.

Rosario said he mostly uses the money to buy food. "For me, every five cents counts." 

Neil Mennella, owner of Superstar Beverage, a beer retailer with eight locations in Suffolk and one in Nassau, whose stores double as redemption centers, said the same applies to his business. 

Because beverage makers reimburse redemption centers the 5-cent deposit plus a 3.5-cent handling fee for each bottle or can, "volume is the name of the game," he said.

"The goal is to increase volume," Mennella, 34, said. "It's the same for us as it is for people redeeming bottles. The more bottles we process, the more money we make." 

However, margins are tight. Grocery stores and other businesses that lease machines to collect and count  bottles brought in by redeemers must share up to 50 percent of their 3.5-cent handling fee with machine manufacturers like Envipco and Tomra. 

Employees count bottles brought in for redemption at some of Mennella's stores, but most Superstar Beverage locations, including the company's stores in Amityville, Bayport, Huntington and North Babylon, have at least three machines. The Coram store has five. 

Increased redemptions at the business in the past couple of years has forced him to get more bottle-processing machines, Mennella said. 

"It used to be that only 25 percent of our customer base would come in to redeem bottles; now it's up to 75 percent," he said.

"For a long time, people had this notion that only people who live on the street do this. ... It's mostly regular, everyday people. It's extra money; who on Long Island doesn't need extra money? People are starting to realize they can turn a bottle into a buck." 

People who collect bottles to redeem get them in many ways, he said. Some clean offices and get containers from the employees who work there, others get them from friends and neighbors. Schools collect them as a way to raise funds for special activities or programs. And many have admitted to taking them out of other people's curbside recycling bins before they're picked up by sanitation workers. 

Mennella said he doesn't encourage the practice. It's against town code in several municipalities, including Islip, Smithtown and Brookhaven. 

Angel Ortega, 47, of Brentwood, and his wife, Ada Aragon, 40, both work at Visiontron, a Hauppauge manufacturing company.

Aragon also works a second job cleaning at a car dealership. At both workplaces, coworkers give her their empty bottles and cans to redeem. And on Wednesday mornings, when some towns collect residents' curbside recycling, Ortega wakes up extra early to beat them to it.

When he does this, Ortega says he usually fills about 13 bags with some 1,400 bottles and makes about $70. 

"I work hard. My wife works hard. We have a 16-year-old daughter, too. It's just expensive here, you know," said Ortega, who has been living on the Island for almost 30 years.

"This money, it helps with bills, laundry, food, everything," he said. "The price of almost everything here has gone up. ...  So, what can you do? You need to make more of an effort to figure it out somehow." 

Life after redemption

What happens to bottles and cans after consumers redeem them?

  • Beverage makers pick them up from redemption centers and grocery stores. They pay redemption centers 8.5 cents for each one: the 5-cent deposit plus a 3.5-cent handling fee.
  • The containers are taken to a recycling facility for sorting and processing.
  • At a second plant, plastic bottles are turned into small, flake-like pellets; aluminum cans are shredded into tiny pieces.
  • The containers enter a complex international system in which plastic is sold, shipped, melted and shipped once again — sometimes traveling the world before taking on new life as a piece of clothing, a pair of flip-flops, patio furniture or a carpet. A small percentage of plastic bottles are made into new ones. Aluminum cans usually become cans again, making their way back to store shelves.

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