It's early, the morning after, and even the streets of Pacific Beach seem hung-over. The gutters team with garbage, which spills over onto the sidewalks as they approach the ocean. Near the Lahaina Beach Club, an army of city workers and volunteers toil to remove the broken lawn chairs, Styrofoam coolers and hundreds of half-full trash bags abandoned by the recently departed revelers.
Along the seawall, where the odors of stale beer, puke, sweat and piss have coalesced into a vulgar perfume, a new and growing crowd gathers to take in the scene. They stare blankly at the aftermath stretching out before them, shaking their heads in disbelief.
Farther down the beach, in the distance, where the city's cleaners have yet to tread, lone figures sift through the mess, stopping every few feet to fill plastic bags with precious metal. They are known as the "canners" and where others see post-Fourth-of-July chaos, they see opportunity. But with every empty can collected, they too undoubtedly wonder at the things others take for granted.
The Independence Day weekend is one of the busiest of the year for San Diego's canners, those who supplement their incomes by collecting and redeeming aluminum cans and other recyclables discarded by the masses. Most full-time canners are homeless and work the neighborhood alleys and dumpsters on a regular basis, using the proceeds to pay for their food and, in many cases, feed various addictions.
And while many canners may have problems, you can't call them lazy. Sifting through garbage bags and climbing into dumpsters is inherently hard, dirty work that pays poorly. A good day's haul, six to eight hours of work, for a single canner in Pacific Beach only yields about $30.
But on the Fourth and the morning after, when beer cans envelop the beach and cascade from overflowing garbage cans, the pickings are easy and many canners hurry to capitalize on the aluminum glut. With a few hours of hard work they can pull down $100 or more. However, when the money is that big and the pickings are that easy, competitors come out of the woodwork, creating a veritable aluminum rush.
Kids raising funds for a new video game, industrious beach residents and environmentally friendly citizens all compete with the homeless to collect a share of the thousands of dollars worth of beverage containers that line the local waterways, parks and other picnic areas.
"It's not just the homeless," said Marcus, a homeless canner who declined to give his last name but has collected recyclables in P.B. for the past four years. "There are some people out there in $50,000 motor homes. How do you think they paid for them?"
While the Fourth of July weekend may be a boon for full- and part-time canners, it's indisputably the busiest day of the year for Robin Faulkner. As the owner of PB Recycling, the only recycling redemption center in Pacific Beach, Faulkner's little operation consisting of a pickup truck and trailer for hauling, several dozen plastic garbage cans for sorting recyclables, two employees, a folding table and lots of plastic bags, can only handle so much business in one day.
Faulkner says that last year a new keg ban and large crowds helped her bring in a record 1,130 pounds of aluminum cans, making July 5 her busiest and most grueling day of the year.
With the keg ban still in effect and ensuring mountains of empty beer cans on local beaches, she says she expects this year's aluminum total to eclipse last year's record. Her expectations are bolstered by the California Department of Conservation's January increase of the California Refund Value (CRV), the deposit value of each bottle and can, from 2.5 cents to 4 cents per can in January. She expects more canners to make the effort as the reward for recycling has increased dramatically.
While a pound of aluminum cans was worth 70 cents last year, the same pound now has a value of $1.25. Today, a 33-gallon garbage bag full of uncrushed cans can net a collector about $12. With serious canners bringing in multiple loads of larger bags filled with crushed cans weighing as much as 50 pounds, the profits can add up quickly.
And they did for dozens of canners, who brought in bag after bag of cans. They came in waves, starting at 9 a.m., bearing their loads in pickups, vans, bicycles, dollies and on their backs. Marcus, who works at PB Recycling part-time, helped Faulkner sort them into plastic garbage cans, pour them in to bags and weigh each one.
The increased CRV made a big difference to John Cleary, a homeless canner who cashed in his 119 pounds of aluminum cans by 9:30 a.m. Cleary says he planned on using his $149 to get a hotel room, clean up and treat some friends to a meal.
"All I need is enough to get by on," he said. "I leave some for the next guy"
And there was plenty to go around.
Stanley Austin, a homeless canner, avoided the beach altogether and spent his morning working the alleys of Pacific Beach. "It is easy on a weekend like this to make as much as you would on a minimum-wage job," he said before heading off on his bike to spend part of his earnings on breakfast.
The morning after was good to some, but business wasn't all that Faulkner expected. The bags kept coming but there weren't as many canners as in the past. "Last year was busier, but I did more pounds this year," Faulkner said. "I think I served 80 people last year and 60 today."
While Faulkner collected 1,400 pounds of aluminum, exceeding last year's mark, she fell short of her 2,000-pound goal.
By 4 p.m. most of the regular canners had arrived to cash in, and Faulkner could only guess that Tuesday would be another day. "Tomorrow will be trash day so it will carry over," she said, adding that she expects to collect an additional 800 pounds of cans. "That's what I do on an average Monday, so I'm just going to act like tomorrow is a Monday."
By the end of this Monday, she was able to fill her storage container at the processing plant at the Miramar Landfill and left happy.
And many of the canners left happy, as well. Some made additional runs while cans were plentiful and the getting was good. Others retired to alley hideaways and beach alcoves to feed their habits. And others said they planned to use the day's earnings to get their lives back on track.
But, as one homeless man said, "This is our job." For the canners, every morning until next Independence Day will be just another day at the office.