The recycling center. Photo: Google Maps

For more than ten years, Sure We Can has been supporting those in our city who collect cans and bottles to make a living.

At its community center in Bushwick, it provides a sustainability hub where canners, students and others come together for recycling, composting, gardening and arts.

But right now, the center — which was founded by canners — is fighting eviction, and calling on the City for help.

Sure We Can protestors on Thursday. Photo: Supplied.

The organization received an eviction notice from its landlord in February 2020 demanding it vacate the 14,000 square foot lot at 219 McKibben Street if it can’t come up with $2.6 million to buy the property.

Last Thursday, members of Sure We Can rallied outside the NYC Economic Development Corporation in Manhattan, asking the agency to give them an exemption they need to get city funding to buy 219 McKibben.

“With a single action, one-time funding, the city can facilitate our purchasing of our lot, allowing this unique space to continue to exist, and for the canners to continue their work in possession of what we all know to be essential to a free life: dignity, security, and stability,” Sure We Can Executive Director Ryan Castalia said.

Canners are low-income recycling entrepreneurs who collect and redeem discarded bottles and cans. For over 30 years, canners have worked under the NY State “Bottle Bill” which offers pennies for cans. Canners reduce street litter and help the city recycle. There are approximately 10,000 active canners in NYC today, Sure We Can says.

On Friday, Sure We Can Board Member Rhonda Keyser went on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show to put the organization’s concerns directly to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

On the show, she said City Council and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams had allocated the funds to purchase the lot, however the Economic Development Corporation and the Office of Management and Budget would not release them due to inflexible bureaucracy.

Photo: Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a media availability. City Hall. Thursday, May 28, 2020. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

She said to release the funds, capital funding requirements specify an organization must have had $50,000 a year for three years in city grants.

However, she said there was no city funding for the work they do at Sure We Can. Instead, they can prove they’ve acquired and managed large grants as a sub-organization for several other city grants, census outreach, COVID outreach and private organizations.

In response, the mayor told Keyser he would “get some folks to call” her, and “see if we can cut through that red tape.”

Meanwhile, can collectors who rely on the organization for their livelihoods came out Thursday to show their support for Sure We Can.

Rene del Carmen, a canner and Sure We Can Manager of Redemption Services, said the work was like a psychological therapy for many, helping with problems that no doctor had been able to cure.

“One feels more useful to our society. We do not manufacture money or gold but the work that we do is, nonetheless, important – we reduce litter and help keep the city clean.”

Each year, Sure We Can diverts about 12 million bottles and cans from New York City’s waste stream, distributing over $700,000 to more than 900 canners who are overwhelmingly low-income immigrants and people of color, the organization said.

It said some of the can collectors struggle with homelessness and disability, and Sure We Can also conducts social services through urban gardening, education and outreach, composting, and single-use plastic upcycling. 

City electeds have also joined the chorus to save the recycling center.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso demanded the City agencies support Sure We Can. “So often, during times of crisis our most vulnerable communities get left behind and that is exactly what we are witnessing here today.”

And Council Member Darma V. Diaz said the organization was needed now more than ever. “It is shameful that the city will not allow us to make this space a permanent resource for hundreds of canners and their families who have been severely impacted by Covid-19 and need access to services.” 

Brooklyn Borough President Adams has been reached for comment.

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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