Canning for Dollars
Dodging the law on the U-M Golf Course.
by "John Allen"
From the October, 2018 issue
"Drop the bag," the police officer demanded. He'd caught me wandering through the eager tailgaters at the U-M Golf Course carrying a half-full thirty-nine-gallon Hefty trash bag.
"You can't pick up cans here unless you have a permit," the officer pointed out. "Are you with the Boy or Girl Scouts?"
Thinking on my feet, I claimed I was with a fictitious church group.
"They're not on the list. Drop the bag, and come with me."
He led me out of the golf course, then left me to go after someone else. I ran back to grab the bag and fled. At Meijer, my ill-gotten loot was worth $30.
Welcome to canning. Since 1978, Michigan retailers have paid ten cents per can or bottle returned, twice as much as most states. Canning isn't just for homeless people or those in desperate need of additional money. Collecting returnables can be an additional source of income and a relatively non-strenuous way to get exercise--especially on football Saturdays, when tens of thousands of thirsty Wolverine fans and partying students blithely discard vast quantities of empty beverage containers just before the game.
My roommate Tiger and I were not alone in performing the public service of picking up what they dropped. People of all ages invade the tailgating grounds on the golf courses to get their share. We don't interact much, though. At most, conversations revolve around pointing out that a rival has a "good haul" or advice from seasoned professionals to just pick up cans and forget the bottles--"they're too heavy to carry around, cans take up less space in the bag, so you can get more," one elderly gentleman explained.
Tiger and I needed extra cash at the time--and unlike some canners, we had a car. We could hit the golf course at ten a.m., fill a couple of bags, drive to Meijer or Kroger, return for another round, and have $100 for less than two hours' work. I
didn't mind the disdainful looks from some tailgaters or the pitying expressions of others who'd gulp down a beer to hand me the empty can.
Tiger wasn't satisfied with just the stadium-area bonanzas, so we expanded our treks to area hotels. Like finding treasure, a thirty-six-pack of empty Bud Light cans, neatly preserved in their original cardboard packaging, yielded a quick $3.60 and was a welcome (if not too frequent) find. On the Sunday morning after a football Saturday, we could hit five or six hotel dumpsters in an hour and bring in at least $50. I enjoyed the camaraderie and challenge of picking out the right dumpster for exploration. Luckily, Tiger had no problem with climbing in a dumpster and scrounging through the garbage bags, and, after three months' internship in canning, could tell by a quick shake of a bag which ones held large quantities of ten-cent fruit.
We'd see hotel employees, particularly maids, struggling to push carts with overflowing bags of cans/bottles attached precariously around the circumference. Sometimes, the sheer volume overflowed the dumpster, necessitating dumping the bags in adjacent areas. Some more motivated hotel employees tried to put aside their own "stash" to claim later; they might lose out if we found it before they got off work.
I no longer "can." Tiger left for San Diego, and thankfully I no longer need the extra money. This fall, I did think briefly about heading to the golf course to give it one more go but decided I'd rather not risk another encounter with the law. I just hope those who do aren't unlucky enough to get caught.
[Originally published in October, 2018.]
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