When it comes to recycling, yes we ‘can’

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

I’ve always had an intimate relationship with scrap metal, having been raised on a salvage yard out in Zim, a swampy lowland scrub-brush township just off northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. My family indexed junk into piles of refuse so large as to function as my childhood landscape. Some people remember seeing the mountains as kids; I remember Tire Hill and Mt. Hubcap.

One of our favorite activities as kids was to walk from our trailer house out by Highway 7 back to the junkyard to ask grandpa for the 45 cents we’d need to get a pop from the machine. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s entirely possible that the sodas my sisters and I drank were the only ones not eventually blended with whiskey by several generations of my family and their loyal customers. It was further no big deal to drink the pop on the way home, tossing the can into what would eventually become an aluminum pile in the weeds separating the trailer from the junkyard sprawl.

I remember one of the first times the beverage companies started doing contests with their pop cans. If I’m remembering right it was 7-Up that would list numbers on the inside of some cans, indicating how much money you won if you redeemed the can. I drank a lot of 7-Up and had become accustomed to not winning anything. But one time I remember drinking a 7-Up and only taking a halfhearted peek into the can. Reflexively throwing the can into the brush on the way home, I had some dim thought that maybe, just maybe, I had seen a number on the bottom of that can. A three-digit number. C-notes. Nintendo money.

I told my mom and, given our situation, it didn’t take much to get her to come out and help me look for the can. Alas, amid a sea of losing cans, we never found the winning soda vessel (if it ever existed in the first place).

A bale of cans

A bale of sweet aluminum gold. Or … well, just aluminum. It’s aluminum. PHOTO: Mojave Desert / Creative Commons

Nevertheless, between the family business and the can episode, I’ve always associated cans with money. Even though buying pop is a deeply impractical investment, the leftover cans have always to me represented a revenue source. I remember being awed by the prospect of returnable bottles in Michigan or Iowa (a subject revisited in a “Seinfeld” plot years later). I heard that the local taconite mines had steel cans in their pop machines, a mysterious remnant of economic isolationism. I wonder what those cans are worth?

It’s still a big day when I take half a years worth of Diet Coke cans to the local scrap dealer to cash out. My in-laws and I have a policy of “carrying out” the cans we drink at each others’ houses. I find myself coveting a better can crusher … one that works in bulk.

According to the St. Louis County Environmental Services Department, more than 40 tons of aluminum was recycled last year. That’s an amazing number, until you learn that 20 times that much ended up in the landfill instead. Who are these people? What is wrong with them? Do you throw away aluminum? WAS IT YOU?

My goodness, I hope not. Cans are money. Money for you, or at least money for some deserving charity. Or me. Money for me is good, too. And you should recycle other things, too, because even if they don’t pay you for that stuff they pay some eager worker to drive it around or poke it with pitchforks. I bet they have kids. Recycling feeds children.

Apparently, physically removing yourself from a scrap yard isn’t enough. Because scrap is everywhere. And wherever you can gather scrap, weigh scrap and sell scrap, you will find the hungry souls of junkyard children.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. The next show will broadcast live from the Fosston Library Arts Center on Saturday, Dec. 14. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 17 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. It sounds like it’s time to ramp up recycling there. The revenue from those 800 tons of aluminum could make a big difference in St. Louis Co. — at $0.40/pound that’s $640k, and if recyclers are paying that much for it, it’s worth a lot more than that in the market. In Mpls. the recycling rate is only 17%, and they want to burn more garbage. Are there separate bins, or is there nothing at all? Is garbage there something individuals have to contract out? Families have to haul in their own recycling to some local center? Garbage policy is pretty schizophrenic in MN, the MPCA has a “burning garbage is making poison” burn barrel program, yet it promotes garbage incineration. It comes down to teaching and training — found a choice 7-8 grade math unit from Cornell’s Dept. of Economic and Community Development. “Trash Goes to School” http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/TrashGoesToSchool/Math.html

  2. It was me. I used to recycle until… I didn’t. I don’t know what caused the change but one day I just quit separating them out. Nowadays I don’t drink pop at home so there’s no cans here…. but, yes. It was me.

  3. Michigan’s ten-cent can and bottle deposit was great for me as a kid. By diligently patrolling the roads of town, I could clear two dollars a day or better–not bad for a ten-year-old kid in 1980. I guess my two brothers and I embarrassed our parents when we went to parks and the three of us would fight and jockey for position as we raced to root through the garbage cans, but I don’t remember feeling embarrassed. Quite the contrary. I had can fever.

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