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The Redemptive Economy, Part III


Two Pounds a Mile


By Ragan Sutterfield


It’s a sunny day and 60-something degrees with green grass beginning to grow and trees beginning to bud. I ride along the highway on my bike though half the time I have to stop and just walk it. On my right handlebar I have a large grocery sack that is quickly filling with cans.

Last week I saw a man walking along I-40 with a little beat up Mazda truck parked nearby on the side of the interstate. He carried a clear plastic bag full of aluminum cans. A few weeks earlier I saw an old man with an unshaven face and machine-shop jacket walking a bike on the highway between Little Rock and Perryville also collecting cans. They both seemed to be more than casual walkers (these are not good roads for an afternoon stroll)—they were trying to get a little money.

I am riding my bike to see what they can get for the time and effort. I come to one spot in the ditch where there are several cans. They’re mostly beer cans—Bud Light and Busch Light seem to be the preferred beers around here. I crush them on the road and put them in my bag. There are so many along this particular stretch that I give up riding my bike. In addition to the whole cans there are also little can fragments that look like they’ve gone through the spinning blades of one of the county road crew’s chippers. I pick those up too, trying to avoid a cut.

I’ve gone about a mile and from what I can gauge I’ve already collected a pound of aluminum litter. It is 80 percent beer cans, 10 percent cola cans, and the rest are unidentifiable shards. The prevalence of beer cans can be explained by the law—no open containers of alcohol in a vehicle. Those who drink and drive simply toss the cans out the window to destroy the evidence. This doesn’t make me too confident about traveling these roads from now on.

About a mile down the road I reach a bend where a large paper mill sits on one side of the road and a baseball field on the other. I get excited—the scavenger bug is kicking in. The baseball field has several trash cans and surely I can rack up more goods. I go over and check the trash cans but see that the bags have been recently replaced. As a consolation I find a gold-plated Tupperware bookmark—probably some prize for sales. I put it in my pocket.

By the time I’ve been out an hour I’ve traveled three miles and collected just over six pounds of cans. At $0.36 a pound, that’s about $2.16 an hour. In addition I’ve found one Papa Roach CD and the gold-plated book mark. I’ll put my total at $5 worth of stuff. Not a lot for an hours work, but it’s something and it’s just lying there by the side of the road.

The U.S. has just over four million miles of public roads—state highways, interstates, and U.S. highways. On my collecting excursion I found an average of two pounds of cans a mile. If that average holds for the rest of those four million miles of roads then there must be nearly $3 million worth of cans sitting on the side of U.S. highways. I don’t know how often these highways are cleaned up, but this one, I-40, is cleaned up once a month. If we were to generalize from my own collecting excursion then there must be something like $36 million worth of cans thrown onto the side of the road every year. Bill Gates might make that much before breakfast, but that’s still a significant amount of money to dump on the side of the road.

For the individual collector the returns are dismal. Are people so desperate that they are willing to make $2.16 an hour? As I ride back toward my house the sun is setting. There’s a cool breeze and I feel like hardly any time has passed. I’ve just cleaned up three miles of the road and gotten a little exercise in the process and I made enough to buy a can of beer. If I were on a pension, disability, welfare—this wouldn’t be such a bad way to spend an afternoon. It’s not a bad way even with a regular job. 


Comments

"For the individual collector the returns are dismal. Are people so desperate that they are willing to make $2.16 an hour? As I ride back toward my house the sun is setting. There’s a cool breeze and I feel like hardly any time has passed."

It's not really about desperation so much as just living on a small price tag.