Can Collecting

I always saw elderly Asian people digging through garbage for cans and bottles when I walked around my neighborhood, Flushing and Chinatown. I always wondered what would drive a person to dig through so much trash just for bottles. Then I realized that each bottle was 5 cents at a supermarket and that a cartload of bottles would be a decent amount of money. But to me, digging through garbage wasn’t the way to earn money, and I thought that my family felt the same way.

One day in middle school, I was walking to the train and I saw my grandpa on the street. It was a chilly fall day so for him to be out with his two walking canes and vest, I was surprised. He should’ve been home in his chair, warm and watching TV as always. Instead, he was slowly walking; cane after cane, with a bag of cans tied around one of them. It was like an art form; he would use both his canes like chopsticks to pick the can off the ground and lift it to somewhere he could grab it. He would then put it in his bag and move on. He could barely walk, what was he doing out here getting cans? I didn’t get it, he lived well, ate well, and his son (my dad) could support him if he needed it. Why was he out in the cold, struggling to walk and collecting cans?

I talked to my dad that night about it. My dad explained it the best way he could to me. His family was a poor immigrant family growing up. They didn’t have much so they did their best to survive like many immigrant families did. To the Chinese, throwing away bottles was throwing away money. Why would you just throw away 5 cents like that? They saw these bottles as an opportunity for free cash. All they had to do was dig a little and after time they could have close to $30 in groceries. The Asian immigrant mentality was to not waste anything, especially not anything worth money.

Then it hit me that I was living such a good life. I didn’t need to search for cans to survive because my grandpa had done it for me. He struggled so that I wouldn’t have to. And for me, this was an eye-opening experience. That mentality of not wasting anything and seeing money in strange objects that people saw as garbage was new to me. It made me much more grateful for what I have. At first I was upset that my grandpa was doing this, but now I have taken some of that mentality of not wasting and working hard to strive for better.

From Article at

From Article at

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5 Responses to Can Collecting

  1. Sifan Shen says:

    The comparison between cane and chopstick is effective, brilliant, and comical. You zoomed in on the act of can collecting, and conveyed the importance of frugality in Asian culture. I especially love how you delivered the theme with a personal encounter with your grandpa.

  2. Professor Bernstein says:

    I agree with Sifan. I just love that visual about the cane and the chopstick. Brilliant!

  3. Joseph Maugeri says:

    If you ever go to a sporting event and tailgate, this story is very relatable. Before the game, there are always people that go around the parking lot and ask people for their cans. I always wondered the exact same thing, how much money can they possibly be making? Well Yankee stadium has about 9000 spots. And if these people can manage to get 1 can from a quarter of the cars in a full lot, then they made 112 dollars. Not too shabby.

  4. isabelzhao says:

    I can definitely relate to how you felt after seeing your grandfather collecting cans on the streets. When I was younger, I felt a little annoyed seeing an aged woman or man picking through the garbage cans down my street because I didn’t understand what they were doing it for. I always thought to myself, “Why are they picking up all the cans and the bottles if they’re only a nickel each?” As I grew older, I began to understand a little more; I realized I am just fortunate enough to not have to go can collecting. It wasn’t something the can collectors wanted to do during their free time, but it was something they just felt was right which can provide them a little extra in the long run.

  5. rubinsammy says:

    I hate them!!!!

    It’s not only Asians who do this. I have seen many whites, blacks, purples, half-giraffes do it as well.

    On a more serious note, they are very annoying. If one lives in an apartment, one may not notice this, but it is noticeable when one lives in an house. They go into your trash and start sorting through your trash. Taking out the bottles and leaving the mess there. My dad and I do this awful thing to them and the environment (and I hope no one else does this). Sometimes, we gather all of our bottles and cut them in half so that they can’t get any money out of our bottles. It’s a very sick thing we do haha.

    It’s not residential trash only, many of them open up public DSNY trash cans for cans and bottles. This causes the block to get dirty and the smell of trash becomes noticeable.

    I always knew why they did it, but how you described your grandfather’s trouble with picking up the garbage is another thing that I never thought about before.

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