Foot Soldier of the Planet Canny

James Devine picks up an empty Silver Bullet near the curb of a downtown Phoenix street. It's 7:30 on an early-April morning. He crushes the can with his boot, and tosses it into his large plastic sack. The bag is almost filled from the previous afternoon's work, but there's always room for a few more.

Devine doesn't chase after rainbows. Cans are what he hunts for, as diligently as a long-distance runner. He is one of Phoenix's can people, recycling empties for cash.

The 53-year-old Phoenix resident didn't get a golden parachute when he retired from the city's Water Department a few years ago. Instead, he bought a rusty bicycle. His work vehicle is a used one-speed with metal baskets flanking the rear tire.

"I didn't want to do nothin' but pick up cans when I quit," he says, tying the plastic sack onto his bike. "Something right there in front of you, can't help but notice. Nothin' wrong with that."

By 8:30 a.m., he's ready to take the plastic bag of crushed cans to the All Valley Recycling Center on East Jackson. The firm will pay him the going rate of 35 cents a pound. (On the week's two "coupon" days, the price jumps a few cents.) His bulky bag holds about 250 cans and weighs ten pounds. It took Devine about five hours to fill it.

Paul Harris of All Valley puts the sack on a scale, then hurls it into a pile. He hands Devine $3.50. On this day, Devine will earn $7. On a better day, he might make $10. He earns $200-or-so a month "canning," as he calls it, which supplements his $400 monthly city pension. The canning money keeps Devine--pronounced "Like the roots they put in the ground"--and his wife, Edwina, on top of their bills, and maybe leaves a few bucks to play with.

"I'm my own boss. I tell me what to do," Devine says, straightening out his BMW cap and hopping back onto his bike. "I'm in this to make a few dollars, and that takes work. Got to work. Never been in a jail or a penitentiary. I work for what I got."

Devine collects about 14,000 cans a month, give or take a few thousand. He is one of dozens of local can people who forage in alleys, trash bins, construction sites and convenience-store dumpsters. He is part of a proud subculture that has sprung up with the Valley's many recycling outfits.

Many can people are homeless and pick up enough cans each day to buy themselves a half-pint of booze or a cheap burger. Others, including Devine, are low-income folks for whom a discarded empty has become a unit of currency--about a penny-and-a-half per can.

The public may regard Devine and his ilk disdainfully, but he doesn't give a hoot.

"Ain't breaking no laws, ain't going into no buildings," Devine says. "Just picking up cans, man. Not botherin' nobody, not rippin' anybody off. Now and then, somebody say to you, `Go get a job.' But I already got one."

Devine takes the same route every day. That's seven days a week. "No one makes me work every day, so why shouldn't I?" he explains.

Before the weather really heats up, he awakens before dawn and works for a few hours: "I hit the Circle K's, the hotels on Van Buren, the new buildings downtown. Got my eyes everywhere. I put my hard hat on when I go onto the new jobs, and they don't bother me."

Devine then bikes with his cans back to his rented home on East Jefferson. He washes, eats and listens to a recording from his blues collection. Then it's back to the streets, sometimes until after dark. He stashes his plastic bag in his backyard storage shed, and calls it a night.

If he's got a full load, he bikes the cans over to All Valley Recycling first thing in the morning. Then he starts the whole thing again.

"Some days, I fill the bag right up," Devine says. "Some days, I can't find them." Those enormous and inexpensive convenience-store drinks--Big Gulps and the like--have cut into his can business considerably.

And the competition is fierce, too.
"I come to a spot where someone is workin', I move on," he says. "First- come, first-serve. I try to get out there before the others."

A native of a Mississippi hamlet, Devine moved to the Valley in the mid- 1960s. The City of Phoenix hired him as a garbage collector, and he worked in a variety of jobs for 22 years. In 1988, he quit.

"Was time to move on," he says. "Sat around for a little bit, and then I got to pickin' up those cans. One by one by one. I'd see them everywhere. Knew there was money in it. My kids--all five--think I'm crazy. They say, `You got five grandkids, what you doin'?' But my wife likes to see me out of her hair, makin' some money.

"Wives find plenty for you to do when you stay home," James Devine says, eyes darting about in search of yet another can. "You can't believe all the things. I want to stay out and pick up them cans long as I got the health. Plenty of cans out there."

Despite the often-dramatic fluctuation of the price of aluminum, more cans are being recycled than ever. Aluminum companies nationwide last year recycled more than half of all the empty cans, according to a trade publication. That compares favorably with a decade ago, when a third of the empties were recycled.

The Valley had no aluminum recycling operations at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. Fifteen years ago, only two local firms bought used cans. These days, the Valley's yellow pages list nearly four pages of recycling companies. Cans are recycled more than any other item. Just 4 percent of the nation's tires, for example, are recycled. No tire people work the streets of Phoenix.

"People are picking up cans 24 hours a day," says All Valley Recycling owner Nathan Sorkin. "Almost half of my business is walk-up. A lot of them are people who don't have jobs, or who don't have much in the way of money. It helps them and it helps us make a few dollars."

One of Sorkin's employees, an elderly man who calls himself "Pappy," says he regularly sees can people at the downtown recycling firm.

"We got a guy named Black Hat, who rides his three-wheeler in here all the time, and I can't tell you how many guys just like him," Pappy says. "I live downtown, and when I'm walking home, guys come up to me, `Pappy, Pappy, come here. How much is the cans going for now?' You think about it, you don't see too many cans on the city streets, do you?"

That's due mostly to the can people.
James Devine, seven-day-a-week recycler, says he's never heard of Earth Day.

"What's that?" he asks, scanning the area for cans. "Earth's Day? Oh, Earth Day. Okay. Well, I like it clean outside, nice and clean."

"I have a lot of respect for these foot soldiers," says Paul Reynolds, who owns a small recycling operation in north Phoenix. "At least these guys are doing something to earn their way, despite what people might think of them. They are the real recyclers, and they make their money the old-fashioned way."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin