Can You Make a Living Recycling 10 Cent Bottles and Cans?

This guest post comes from Michael, a contributing editor of the Dough Roller, a personal finance and investing blog, and Credit Card Offers IQ, a credit card review site.

I may write about it at length in the future, but I actually spent the better part of my early teenage years helping my step-dad collect cans from the streets of New York. While it may sound gross and unsanitary to many of you, consider that we were not only doing a good public service, but it wasn’t unusual to make $20-$30 on a weekend morning.

For an 11-year-old, that was like hitting the lottery. It was one of my first lessons into how much hard work it takes to make a buck. With that in mind, I really enjoyed Michael’s guest post, and I hope you will too.

Seinfeld quickly became one of the most well-known and well liked comedies of all time. One of the greatest episodes in the sitcom was when Kramer and Newman developed a strategy to collect bottles and cans in New York and deposit them in Michigan, where the money returned was doubled (5 cents vs. 10 cents). Comically, the plan falls through, but I was left to wonder whether or not a good enough profit could be made with the right circumstances.

When you think of career choices, recycling bottles and cans probably never comes to mind and if it does, well, you’re in pretty bad shape. But at 10 cents apiece, have you ever thought about just how much money you could make in a month by having your full time job be to recycle bottles and cans? If you haven’t, no worries, that’s why I’m here.

First, let’s give you a set of circumstances so that you actually have a chance to succeed in this venture. Michigan is currently the only state in the US to offer a flat 10 cents for every bottle or can recycled. You can bet that if you live in Michigan, you are less likely to simply throw these away. Roaming the streets for unreturned items will be much more difficult in Michigan, so let’s say you live in a border state of Michigan. Indiana currently has no recycling earnings in place and we’ll assume you are two hours from the Michigan border (if we put you right on it, your bottle and can situation may not improve).

Second, because you live so far away from Michigan, you’ll need reliable transportation large enough to haul bottles and cans once a week. A Ford F150 has a nice size bed in the back and should be able to hold its fair share of cans not only in the back, but in the front as well. Assuming you fit the maximum amount on each trip, you should be able to hold around 100 bottles and cans in each garbage size bag you seal, and the F150 should have no trouble fitting 50 of those full garbage bags, for a total haul of 5,000 bottles and cans.

Doing some quick math, you realize that at 10 cents a return, 5,000 bottles and cans a week would net you a total of $500. Certainly not bad for a weeks worth of work but, let’s look at this a little bit closer. Would you be able to find that many bottles each and every week?

Working five days a week, you would need to roundup 1,000 bottles and cans every day. You’re a hard worker, so you work 10-hour days, making sure to hit the heavily foot-trafficked areas during lunch and dinner. Breaking it down even further, you would need to collect 100 bottles and cans every hour. And when you’ve found a hot spot, you could probably accomplish this feat in 5-10 minutes. Indianapolis would be a perfect spot to start this business because it’s the right distance from Michigan and is industrial enough to have enough recyclables for you to cash in on.

If you’re really good, you may need to make two trips to the recycling center per week, in which you could stand to earn $1,000 weekly. This all depends of course on how many bottles and cans you can find per day, and just how fast you are. With a big truck comes a big gas bill, and driving 4 or 8 hours a week will probably cut into your profits. Other than gas, you really won’t have any other expenses to speak of, other than a load of laundry every day.

So when you break down the numbers, Kramer and Newman were actually on to something. Unless you’re extremely efficient, you probably won’t be able to earn enough to make a living, but spending a few hours a week might turn into an extra few hundred dollars a month. When you add in the benefit to the earth of recycling everything, collecting bottles and cans could turn into a very profitable hobby.

Wojo’s note: By the way, I have no idea how you fit 50 garbage bags into the back of a pickup, but then again, I don’t own a F-150. :) I just move out of the way when they roll by…

Wojo’s second note: As some of the comments below have pointed out, Seinfeld’s scheme isn’t legal in Michigan. What’s more–local laws only protect your right to return a small amount of cans to any single distributor. Still, if you are motivated enough…

42 thoughts on “Can You Make a Living Recycling 10 Cent Bottles and Cans?

  1. Here in Toronto, lots of folks with presumably very little means, cruise the recycling bins to peel out the liquor store or beer store bottles for return. Those are the only bottles worth anything here in Ontario.

    Being a full-time bottle collector would most certainly mean the collector would need a big vehicle. Add in the cost of the vehicle, insurance and gas…and I wonder if it’s still worthwhile? The big picture is – we should all return our bottles, there’s money there!

    Since I live without a car, if I have anything to return, I usually leave it outside my recycle bin so those on the hunt don’t have to look too hard. Interesting post!
    .-= Tracy´s last post: Death and Taxes =-.

    • Wojciech Kulicki says:

      Well, that’s nice of you! :) Great points about the overhead, too. I do wonder if it makes sense as a “second job,” though, in which case some of the overhead would disappear.

      On a side note, I obviously wasn’t driving at 11, so we used our bicycles to cruise the streets instead.

  2. Funny junk! Unfortunately the Seinfeld scheme is illegal. Michigan’s law only allows beverage containers from Michigan to be returned for the deposit. Here are a couple of links…

    The other thing to consider is that it is doubtful that a single store will take back all 50 bags of cans. State law protects the right to return up to $25 worth of cans (250 cans) to a single retailer, but after that it is at the discretion of the retailer. If every retailer limited you to 250 cans, you’d have to make 20 stops to unload all the cans.

    It is still a funny theory though…
    .-= BillyOceansEleven´s last post: $75 bonus for free checking account at Bank of America =-.

    • Wojciech Kulicki says:

      Two great points! (Like you, I was also trying to figure out how long it would take to return everything over the span of each weekend).

    • Marian says:

      While it is illegal, it is possible. I have returned cans that my family drank from in PA to MI when returning to college between semesters. They have specific bar codes. Because plants distribute to tri-state areas, certain cans/bottles purchased in OH and PA can be returned to MI.

  3. That was one of the best epsidoes – where the mechanic and police were horrified that Jerry didn’t treat his car good lol.

    In their plan they had the mail truck!

  4. Great article! My grandfather lives in NYC and used to collect cans and bottles during the day throughout the year. At the end of the year he would buy a plane ticket to go back to China (where he happened to start a school in our home town). After he returned from his trip, he would start collecting for the next year’s plane ticket. Very resourceful guy (and this was in his 70s and 80s)!

    • Wojciech Kulicki says:

      What a great story! I’m sure a ticket to China was no small feat to finance, especially at 5 cents a pop! :)

  5. Olivia says:

    Our local recycler gives us 41 cents a pound for aluminum. Collecting is not a bad thing to do during our daily walks, though certainly not nearly as profitable as other places.

      • Wojciech Kulicki says:

        So about a penny a can. Not bad, considering you don’t have to stick them in a machine one by one to return them. :)

      • Daniel says:

        Since you can recycle the cans for 10 cents each you can collect the tops from them and cans from canned food since you can not recycle them in a grocery store. And I know it take awhile for you to get anything worth while from aluminum can tops but if you collect enough it shouldn’t be to hard.

  6. CAS says:

    Great idea, except that it is against the law to redeem cans bought in any other state when you’re in Michigan. If you are caught doing so, you can face a fine of over $500. A no-win situation there. And, it’s not free money. We have to pay a 10 cent deposit when we purchase such items, so basically, we’re just getting our money back. Even if there is not a deposit, you can still recycle them!

    • Wojciech Kulicki says:

      CAS, Great points, there are a few links a previous commenter left to the same effect. Since this legal dilemma would cut our income in 1/2, I wonder what the effect would be on the potential income (since you now would not have to drive to a neighboring state, either).

      You’re absolutely right–it’s not free money, but this guest post assumes that someone else is carrying the initial deposit load for you, and discards the can. So in some ways, you’re “stealing” money from thousands of other people, but doing it perfectly legally and with benefits to yourself and others.

  7. Pingback: PFCoach » Best Money Tips: Girl Scout Cookies on the Cheap
    • Wojciech Kulicki says:

      I definitely think this is a VERY localized phenomenon. Some communities take such good care of their streets and trash that it would be impossible to make a living on cans. Elsewhere, conditions are more favorable–like the tourism you mention!

  8. Wendy Baxter says:

    Let me tell this idea of recycling and deposits on bottles and cans. I walk over to my shopping center almost daily. And whenever I go by one of the trash receptacles, I see a few bottles and cans right on top of the trash. Well, I don’t dig down under trash…………..but do take out clean bottles and/ cans if I don’t have too much to carry home. And have an extra bag I can put these into, to carry home and clean out and put in to my recycling bin. The many that I carry home are just out of two or three receptacles out of the 10 trash bins in the whole shopping center…………….and are only 5 or 10 minutes out of a 24 hour day that fill up with bottles and cans all day long!!!!! When I think of how much could be given to adults and kids for a deposit on every one of those cans and bottles instead of put into litter bins to be piled up in dumps……………….and be recycled. It is just too bad what we are doing today instead of what had been done when us ‘baby-boomers’ were kids and had us cleaning up the roadsides for those deposits on bottles. Little did we know what we were doing to help keeping this country beautiful in that respect of litter-bugging. Every little bit helps to have those bottles and cans off the roadside…………….and how much trash we could keep out of the receptacles and back to a recycling place if ALL OF THE STATES had deposits on bottles and cans. And lots of kids AND adults would help do it if ALL OF THE STATES would do it, not just a few. How many others of us Americans agree? And could somehow work on getting it to happen??????

  9. Aury (Thunderdrake) says:

    It’s a stereotype that hobos and homeless people do this on a regular basis as a means to get a bit of spare change. But I think it’s a great one, And I also think it’s pretty darned resourceful. It’s like they know something we sheltered people do not. I guess it works fine if your overhead is low. :P

  10. HenryP says:

    I collect cans and bottles when I have spare time. I have a regular job also and consider it a resourceful means to get some exercise and get paid for it. I ride my bike and put the cans in a bag. I have noticed though that local co-workers have recognized me as the weird guy that picks up ‘trash’ along the side of the road. I wear it as a badge of honor. The time it takes me to collect $5 worth of recyclables is huge and reminds me of trouble it takes to make an honest buck today. It has taught me that we have it pretty good in the USA too. If we ever get real hard times, I expect to see more folks picking up cans and bottles instead of jeering me and looking at me a leper or something.

  11. Jared says:

    Well I’m located in the midwest here, and I earn on average $20 dollars a day collecting cans. I do this 5 days a week, so that’s around $400 extra dollars per month plus I also collect coper wire. Not bad for trash diving. That $400 dollars comes in handy.

  12. THEATEAM says:

    CAS is incorrect The price here in Michigan is cheaper for beverages than most states even ones without deposits, plus alot of states have higher sales tax. But you would need a vehicle that was extreamily good on gas, but it is good extra income, plus there are alot of things people get rid of that you can get money for that are in realy good shape or need alittle fixing up, p.s. you can return some bottles and cans from other states I drive truck so i always keep my emties and pick up a few when im parked and have to walk to get somthing to eat or somthing.

  13. Cathy Anderson says:

    I live in Minnesota and the local recycling business gives us fifty cents per pound. It doesn’t sound like much but it does add up. My husband and I have started an adoption aluminum can drive to cover our travel expense for 2 trips to the Ukraine. So far we have gotten local companies to assist us and in two weeks time have made well over $200. Doesn’t sound like much but it adds up. We just signed up a local middle school to our cause and have requested the public high schools and other middle schools to join our drive. If you network, promote and your local area recycles, then it is well worth doing. First to benefit the individual but it simply is the right thing to do.

  14. markkuss says:

    Costco sells their Kirkland brand mineral water in 500 ml bottles (16.9 oz)
    for $3.60 a case. there are 35 bottles in a case!
    We usually go through 3 cases every two weeks, If i could return these bottles at a rate of $0.05 each, I’d be getting 50% back!!!
    Unfortunately, the deposit is returned only in Oregon, Maine and Hawaii. :(
    But I guess that’show they charge only 3.60 a case, instead of $5 or 6 like they do for Ice Mountain or Poland Spring.

    Great article, btw!

  15. Hector says:

    i know this is going to sound insane but i get 20oz sodas for .25 cents! the company i work for has a huge vending machine and soda is .25 cents so i dig the trash (yes i dig i have no shame we were once cavemen get over it) i can buy a soda for .25 cents get a nickle back (so i paid .20 cents) and 3 points to my coke rewards not bad :)

  16. "For Ale" says:

    In MA, I make an average of $20 a day collecting cans. I have a cart that attaches to my bicycle and can hold $40+ on a good day with bungee cords. If I have more cans than I can safely carry, I hide bags of cans until I can retrieve them. In college towns where there are large parties, cans are all over the street and on lawns. In residential areas, there are recycling bins that are put out every week. It’s hit or miss at first when checking bins for cans that fetch a deposit, but I quickly learned how to predict which bins are likely to have cans (large bins with cardboard soda/beer cartons are usually fruitful, for example.) Kicking at garbage bags for that distinctively aluminum jingle helps. It’s the same people who put their cans out every week. A good memory for houses and geography saves time. I hunt by flashlight at 2:30 AM or earlier because there is competition. Though, some people don’t put their recycling out until the next day, and by hunting after dawn, one is able to pick through these bins, too. People are more likely to cause you trouble if they know you are out there.

    I know I switched from first to second person. Don’t care about continuity at this point.

    Also, I studied for 5 years in college.

  17. shwnna says:

    I just moved to colorado, from michigan. Ad I was wondering, I I save all my cans/lbottles can I take them back to michigan and get money for them? I’m going up their for christmas, and my husband has been throwing them away…

  18. mark says:

    yes thats right i live in australia i work for the local council as a concreter was trying to figure out how to make ends meet when speaking to a fellow workmate i was trying to figure out how he owned a nice harley and car when hes on the same money as me he said im not i earn about 10000 dollars a year more u said i how do you do that he said simple while at work if i see a can i pick it up and you dont.hence 10000 dollars a year extra. so guess what i do now.

    mark . perth western australia

  19. JDL says:

    Interesting, very interesting indeed. I happen to live in Michigan, the king State of bottle recycling. I did collect bottles while at school but stopped the project because my friends began to look at me in a different, unpleasant way. However, I know one person who used to collect bottles and take them for recycling, he paid his schooling through recycling. Meanwhile, I still owe 15,000 in student loans. :0

  20. TLC says:

    Opportunity for people who collect cans and bottlesl! Everyone’s favorite cable network: TLC just completed two awesome seasons of Extreme Couponing. Now we’re looking to cast a new type of thrifty genius. Are you proud of your ability to save money? Are you (or is someone you know) the thriftiest person in America? If so, we want to hear from you! Here’s what I’ll need to submit you for the show:



    -Current Location

    -Current Phone Number

    -Skype Name (If you have one)

    -Any close friends or family members who have opinions on your money-saving methods.

    -An explanation of all the EXTREME things you do to save money.

    We are specifically looking to cast people who collect cans and bottles on the side of the road for money.

    Send all submissions to

  21. Colten says:

    Yes, it is good to recycle and earning money is a good motivation. But there is one problem. Over time, if more people start to decide to recycle for the money, then there will more than likely be a possible surplus of aluminum, thus not earning as much money for recycling all of it.When prices for aluminum go down and people aren’t making money for recycling it, people will decide since they aren’t earning anything, they minus well not recycle anymore. Then, on the plus side of everyone not making money from cans, but still recycling them, the US economics would increase due to not having to spend as much for producing it. Either way, everyone should still recycle.

  22. Robert Tetlow says:

    Your numbers are way off base! Here in Texas I recycle empty pop and red bull cans all year. I have a can crusher that flattens them nicely. The garbage bags that I take to the recycle place have on average ten pounds of cans before I go. At 1/2 oz per can these bags have approx. 3200 cans in each. I own a 92 Ford F150 and I don’t know exactly how many bags would fit but it would certainly be more than ten. (I have never had more than 4 at any one time). I don’t scrounge for cans we just put every one that we and our friends drink here at the house in there. Note that it takes between a year and a half and two years to collect 3 bags full.

    • Robert Tetlow says:

      Sorry I fat fingered an extra zero. Sixteen ounces to a pound and half ounce per can is 32 cans per pound and 320 cans per ten pounds not 3200

  23. Carter says:

    I make my living off of collecting recyclables, paid programs, paid surveys, finding money, finding things to sell or keep… Yes it is hard but I have managed to put away more money in my savings than a relative who has a part time job… Making money this way is not for everyone but I am content with the way I make my living I am not worried about most things except for competition getting the recyclables first… I use most of the money I get to put away into my various savings accounts and to build an emergency stockpile of supplies since I live in Hawaii where we are prone to disasters that happen in almost every country and including ones that happen directly in our state…

  24. JJL says:

    Me and my brother go can collecting on our bikes regularly. We never make much, but its because we just stay around our neighborhood. 5 cents each is great to us as kids. When we turn them in, we use the money to buy groceries our anything else our family needs. It’s pretty fun.

  25. I scavenge in general. I don’t even do it for the money. In fact, I do it for exercise. And when you go out of your way to exert as much physical effort as possible and have practically no perception of discomfort and adversity, you find a lot of crap. I can honestly say everything I own is scavenged or paid with money earned through scavenging, from food and clothing to prescription glasses and firearms.

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