Can Man

April 17, 1994|By JAMES H. BREADY

On a cold, rainy Wednesday, young Rick Gerhardt and elderly Walter Bryant were there at the stadium parking lot, involuntary witnesses to my feat.

Standing in the open back end of the Reynolds Aluminum truck, Rick hoisted onto his scale first one, then the other of the two plastic barrels containing my carload of flattened empty drink cans.

Each time, the arrow froze at 18.2 pounds.

"Call it 36 pounds," Rick decreed, writing out a payment check. Reynolds currently pays 19 cents a pound, plus 1 cent if your load reaches 25 pounds, plus 1 cent if your cans are already mashed, plus 1 cent if it's Wednesday or Thursday and you're a senior.

I was richer by $7.92.

If the arrow reads .5 or above, they give you the pound. I wound up giving them two times .2, but had no protest. Thirty-six pounds was enough, three pounds more than enough, to put me over the top.

*

Do Baltimoreans drink more from cans or more from bottles? On the evidence of bushes, gutters and trash cans, a reliable description of Baltimoreans would be: thirsty.

At the Reynolds Aluminum truck parked in the 7500 block of Pulaski Highway, the reclamation rate for moist, empty units of cylindrical sheet aluminum is more than a million pounds a year -- this area's max. There are half a dozen other turn-in trucks spread about Baltimore County; the city supports only the stadium-lot truck, but its intake (despite the departure of baseball's thronging thirsters) is impressive.

This overview is from Chuck Johnson in Joppa, as area business manager for Reynolds Aluminum Recycling. The national recovery rate on drink cans, he is glad to report, has risen to about 60 percent. A sidelight is the increase in aluminum use, rather than steel. Only in Canada and parts of the Middle West is steel (which people don't bother to recycle) still met with; even so, Mr. Gerhardt keeps a magnet in his pocket, for testing doubtful loads.

Another recent change in Baltimore is curbside pickup by the every-other-week fleet of recycling trucks. This new consumer consciousness has had, Mr. Johnson says, curiously little effect on the flow of truck turn-ins.

As a professional gazer off into the distance, I do wonder whether by retrieving all those sticky, cruddy, butt-and-wasp-infested six-packs, I have cost some Jamaican bauxite miner his job.

*

It began in June 1988, as something I could be doing while out with Duffy on his daily walk. Right away, we had real companionship: he foraged for dropped food, I for drinker discards. The nearbyness of a large school helped.

Our area was upper Roland Avenue, which, all this while, nobody else seemed to be working. Farther in town, a can man's area can be competitive, and he may work it by dark, pushing a grocery cart. Walter Bryant covers a section in Waverly, and, shouldering large plastic sacks of cans, he arrives at the truck on foot. He is by now, he told us on my big day, 86 years old. His check, too, was for less than $10; with it, he ambled off toward Greenmount Avenue. (After a couple of armed holdups, the truckmaster has no cash.)

Another regular, James Brown, having turned his cans in, often stays at the truck, to socialize with the other regulars.

Of my two main sources, alley trash cans were the more productive; the blue-bag movement ended that. Street trash cans have their own drawback. As you bend over, to fish around among the multiform riches, sometimes a voice is audible, from up above: "Jim, what on earth are you do-?" It is of course a person familiar from previous, more formal occasion. Smoothly, Duffy's leash would then slip from my grasp, he would bolt and, pursuing him, I was gone.

My wife must have flinched many times. Yet it was she who bought the metal scrunger that you use for rapid flattening. I hope she will be happy, now that I no longer have a folded plastic bag in my pants pocket, to whip out at the sight of an empty -- now that I have retired from used aluminum.

How much money have you made from this stoop labor? some vulgarians ask. Roughly, it's 28 cans to the pound. Reynolds used to pay as much as 53 cents a pound, and even offer bonuses. Today's 19 cents is the lowest yet. I'm an environmentalist, I aver, not a capitalist and, after these questioners have divided $321.01 by 5 1/2 years, they probably agree.

Anyway, after every trip to 33rd Street I wrote down date, weight and rate on the back of an envelope. After this latest weigh-in, I wrung the hand of the unsuspecting Mr. Gebhardt. At 1,003, I was now at last a thousand-pounder.

So, somewhere, somebody else has done a ton. I pop a top to him.

James Bready is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

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