Life in the Box: Picking Up


Life is more than politics. I’m taking a week off to consider “other stuff.”

I made five dollars last week by picking up other people’s trash. It’s a new hobby of mine, paid in 5-cent increments.

Let me back up: Iowa has a “can law” that adds that amount to the cost of each can or bottle of carbonated beverage that goes through a store. The store then refunds the money when the can is returned to the store’s recycling center.

The law works pretty much as it was intended: It gives people a financial incentive to recycle, and to limit the number of cans thrown out of car windows. But some people toss their trash anyway. That’s where people like me come in.

We spy the “potential nickels” lying around for the picking as we walk the parks, the neighborhoods, and the parking lots.

I started collecting this winter, on a day when some young men were partying in my favorite park. They left about three cases of beer cans, which I nabbed the next day. $ucce$$! I was hooked.

After my first few weeks of picking up cans, I started seeing them everywhere.

Over the months, I’ve become canny about cans. A can has to be in fairly good shape (not squished or too muddy) in order be scanned at the recycle center. It has to be somewhere I can get to without harm. “Leaves of three, let it be,” and so forth.

Leave it to me to also consider the ethics of can-picking. What are my reasons for doing this? Am I just in it for the money? If I’m not just in it for the money, what else am I going to pick up? Bottles that held water or other non-carbonated beverages? There are lots of those out on the streets.

Trash–like fast-food cups and wrappers? Bottle-caps? Cigarette packs? What’s too big? What’s too small? What’s too gooey (well—that one’s easy—I leave those.)

What do I do about lost clothing items—socks, gloves, shoes, jackets? There’s no lost-and-found around. Most often I find these at the skate-board park. So, I will hang them on a railing or beside a trash container, where sometimes they stay for days until someone claims them or someone else throws them in the trash.

One day, I found an entry key to a local high school with a kids’ I.D. on it. I drove that one over to the school and left it with the secretary.

But most of my finds are worth nothing. Picking them up is worth a little something to me, though. For every day that I go walking and picking up trash, I get free exercise. I count this as money because I don’t have to go to the gym that day. I hate going to the gym.

It’s a win-win for me. If I get $10 a month, that pays for my month’s membership at Planet Fitness. And if I walk long enough, I don’t have to go exercise inside. The rest is all trade-offs. My pride in cleaning up the park offsets the fact that I’m becoming more and more like a bag lady. I haven’t started dumpster diving yet, but I confess that I may have peeked!

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site.