BUSHWICK — At Sure We Can, one man’s trash is another’s treasure.
The Catholic-founded nonprofit recycling center is not a smelly junkyard in the shadow of a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn, but a processing center fueled by a motto: reducing, reusing and recycling.
Here, heaps of recyclables — neatly sorted into plastic and glass bottles, soda cans, and single-use plastics — fill the heavy shipping containers, scattered throughout the yard. In the back, there’s a sweet-smelling community garden and composting site. Urban graffiti art lines the colorful walls, with impactful messages like “Earth day, every day” and “Keep your coins; I want change.”
Co-founder Sister Ana Martínez de Luco, SFCC, walks through the yard greeting the dozens of “canners” — people who work at the facility, sorting through collected recyclables day after day to earn their keep. She says she knows many of them personally.
“When people come here, they have somebody who greets them by name; asks how they’re doing. Here, it’s that sense of belonging,” Sister Ana, a member of the worldwide Sisters for Christian Community, told The Tablet. “We advocate for the care of our common home the earth and caring for those who have no home in the community.”
Founded in 2007, Sure We Can receives anywhere from 8 to 11,000 recyclables each month. (Last year, the site collected 11 million.) The nonprofit redemption site, one of at least 100 around New York City, sees hundreds of full and part-time canners each week sorting through glass bottles, plastics, and soda cans; many of them collected from city streets and businesses.
(According to the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation, the national average recycling rate is about 33 percent, and 70 percent in New York.)
At least 10,000 people are estimated to be collecting cans off the city streets, Sister Ana said.
Inside Sure We Can’s recycling center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (Photos: Allyson Escobar)
New York state’s 1983 Returnable Container Act, better known as the Bottle Bill, helps to sustain the non-profit and its workers. It requires a five-cent deposit on most beverage containers, making it an incentive for New Yorkers to reuse and recycle. It also diverts tons of recyclable trash from landfills into redemption centers, like Sure We Can, at zero cost.
(It starts with the consumer, who pays a deposit wrapped into the price of a drink from the bar or store. When users recycle the bottle, retailers and redemption centers are reimbursed for the five-cent deposit, plus a 3.5-cent handling fee, for each empty container. From Dasani Water and the Manhattan Beer company to heaping bags of White Claw and La Croix, each bottle and can is sorted into its place for the drink distributors to pick up weekly.)
According to Sure We Can, since the Bottle Bill was implemented, container litter has reduced about 75 percent per year. About a third of its collections are water bottles.
Increasing rents and competition over the years has forced the Brooklyn site to struggle to stay open. With the help of recent grants, awards and donations, Sure We Can has now occupied the Bushwick lot for nearly a decade.
The organization is also expanding its programming and services this year, thanks to a new grant partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau to promote the decennial count. They’re partnering with local schools to start a new recycled fashion program called “Bags to Bolsas” — upcycling single-use plastics into wearable art.
But for Sister Ana and her team, it’s also about providing jobs and livelihood for the hardworking canners — many of whom are immigrants, poor, elderly, disabled, some even homeless. It’s about paying them fairly and upholding their dignity.
“We want to help people who have no other income. If they get $100 in one day, it’s better than zero. That’s our principle — something good for both them and for the city.”
“I love the fact that we’re actually helping — from our composting system to recycling,” said Angel Tavarez, who has been canning since he was 10, and now works part-time at the center.
He says he loves the social aspect of the organization. People laugh, share stories, and talk to each other while they work.
“With all the things going on in the world, like climate change, it helps to know that we’re doing something together about it.”
At 82 years old, Ana Cirado is the oldest part-time canner in the group. Each day she sifts through the colorful cans and water bottles like it’s an art.
“Sometimes I get tired, but it’s a way to make money,” she said. “And I have lots of friends.”
Living simply, ecologically
Sister Ana, 65, calls herself a “street nun.” She says she’s always had a simple life, growing up in Spain, becoming a nun at age 19, and later serving in impoverished areas in the Philippines.
“We cannot destroy our common home, that is for all of us to share as children of God,” she said. “It’s about being attentive to what we have at this moment.”
She said she never knew about canning and urban recycling until she moved to New York and met Eugene Gadsen — a homeless man she encountered while living in Manhattan — and the two got involved with a local “canners committee,” collecting trash and cleaning up the city streets.
With help from donations, Sister Ana and Gadsen opened Sure We Can after its predecessor, Manhattan-based We Can was closed in 2005. She said she wanted to provide an all-inclusive redemption center where people could “pick up their lives” and their trash.
“When it is God’s call, things become so easy,” she said. “Our dream was canners serving canners.”
She also feels supportive of Pope Francis’s recent calls to add ecological sins against the environment (including failure to recycle) to the official Catechism of the church.
Now, Sister Ana urges local priests — including at her parish, Transfiguration church in Williamsburg — to talk with the congregation about environmental issues, living simply and sustainably.
“It is not only a concern of Pope Francis but of the whole world. It is only a matter of saying yes.”