Trash Money: The Art of Collecting Aluminum Cans, Plastic and Glass

Photo used by permission of Henry Garciga
Photo used by permission of Henry Garciga
Blue and green trash containers
Blue and green trash containers

Collecting is a great way to make extra cash

Many people are in need of sidebar money and one of the best ways to make it is by collecting stuff people throw away. If you can ignore the label of being a scavenger, or collector as I prefer to call them, picking up this stuff is a great way of making money that is nontaxable and, as far as I know, not considered “income” at government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, Employment Development Department or the Department of Human Services. Let’s put it this way, since there’s no audit trail with this money, do what you want.

Collectors can make as much as $100 or more per week, particularly during the summer months when more thirsty folks are drinking bottled water, soda pop, energy drinks, beer and wine. It would be hard to make a living doing this, but as a supplement to a fixed income such as social security or SSI, this is hard to beat.

So, if you can do work that is messy, smelly and perhaps déclassé, please read more about Trash Money:

Who pays for these recyclables?

In California, recycling centers are located at many different locations in towns and cities, so check the Internet or the phone book to find the one nearest you. These California centers will pay for items for which CRV taxes have been paid. CRV is an abbreviation for California Refund Value, which is paid by consumers every time they purchase these items – five cents for each 12-ounce aluminum can, for instance. Moreover, the CRV value is listed on each container. (This value could go up or down depending on state legislation.) Other states will have their own rules and pay more or less for recyclables; therefore, if you live in Michigan, you’ll have to go online and check for details regarding that particular state.

Please note that from here on, all information in this article will pertain to recycling only in California.

Aluminum cans

Recycling centers will pay from $1.50 to $2.00 per pound for aluminum cans. You’ll probably find more beverage cans than any other collectable. Each recycling center pays a different amount for aluminum, plastic and glass, so find the best deal and haul your stuff there. Incidentally, scrap aluminum sells for about $2,000 a ton.

Bimetal cans

Recyclers pay 20 to 40 cents per pound for bimetal containers, such as the ones used for Sapporo beer and some health drinks. This is such a small amount of money I don’t bother to collect bimetal containers. But if you can find lots of them, then haul them away.


Plastic comes in two main types: #1 plastic, the clear kind used in beverage containers, which is worth about one dollar per pound, and #2 plastic, the cloudy, opaque kind that’s worth about 50 cents per pound. (The number of the plastic is located inside a small triangle at the bottom of the container.) Number one plastic sells for about $400 per ton.

Recyclers pay somewhat more for other types of plastic, such as that used to hold detergents and solvents, but I don’t bother with these because they’re too much trouble to find and identify. Also be advised that recyclers won’t pay for the type of #1 plastic used for food and toiletries. Since no CRV was paid when these containers were purchased, recyclers won’t pay you for bringing them in!

Here’s some important advice: go to the recyclers who don’t make you take the caps off plastic bottles, because the caps add weight to your collection!

Glass bottles

Glass bottles pay 10 cents per pound, but you’ll need to separate them by color and be aware that some have no CRV value. Also keep in mind, since glass bottles weigh a lot, you’ll need a cart to carry them. Better yet, bring you pickup truck or van; however, paying for gas could cut into your profits. My advice is that if you don’t have a motor vehicle, don’t bother to collect glass bottles. But there’s certainly plenty of money to be made if you can find hundreds of pounds of bottles and are willing to lug around the heavy weight.

What’s the best method for finding collectables?

As with many other pursuits, the first one there gets the treasure, and it’s the same with “canning,” as some people like to describe it. You may not believe this but I get up as early as two in the morning to beat all the other collectors. Since I’m a walker, I also get exercise as I walk briskly about the neighborhood in Downtown Sacramento, California, essentially knocking over two cans with one stone. Ha!

With plastic bag in hand, I can find cans and plastic bottles lying on the sidewalk or in the gutter or street. Since there are plenty of litterbugs in town, this method works okay. But if you want to find many collectables in one place, you must hit the trash receptacles, those large, plastic containers, a blue one for recyclables and a green one for green wastes. Monday through Thursday people put these out near the curb so the trash can be picked up by the disposal companies. Bring along a flashlight if you like, but I usually do without, using the moon for light and feeling my way. If I don’t find something near the top, I go to the next container. You can dig way down if you want, but I never do; it’s just too messy and smelly. Hey, I’ll only stoop so low!

These plastic receptacles can also be found in alleys, so you can comb through them as well, any time of the week.

Sometimes I’ll check those huge metal dumpsters generally found in alleys or parking lots. Unfortunately, these containers are often locked and if you don’t have the key you’re out of luck. However, the private disposal company that empties these dumpsters during the week uses the same key that fits all the dumpsters they empty. So if you can get that key, you can open many dumpsters. Like most people, I have only one such key, the one that opens the dumpster behind my apartment building. Interestingly, some dumpsters have combination locks.

A friend of mine named Aaron has two different dumpster keys; therefore, in theory anyway, he can open twice as many dumpsters as I can. And Aaron knows one lucky guy who has four such keys, one of which is the key to municipal dumpsters. This quartet of keys, if you will, is the Holy Grail for local collectors!

Aaron actually climbs into these dumpsters and pulls out the collectables. This down and dirty approach is beyond an old guy like me, so I simply pick out what I find near the top. Some people use these so-called Piksticks for pulling stuff out, but I haven’t bothered to get one.

Beyond the aforementioned tips, I think it’s important to know your “collecting route,” because some containers will tend to have more collectables than others, more times than others. The dumpsters near restaurants and nightclubs are the best to hit, but you better get there early - two or three in the morning and have some entry keys with you. Competition is always a factor.

Some final advice

Please be as courteous, quiet and neat as you can be while collecting; otherwise, residents and business owners may complain and send the police after you and other collectors.

Also bear in mind that an article in the September 20, 2008 issue of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that many cities such as San Diego, California have ordinances prohibiting scavenging from curbside containers. The citation for such an infraction is $100. The reason for this law is that the city of San Diego and its registered haulers use money from the sale of recyclables to offset costs for disposal. In addition, San Francisco has tough laws against what they call the “poaching” of recyclables.

In Sacramento, however, I’ve never heard of anybody getting busted for scavenging. Simply be advised that you need to know what the laws are regarding collecting (or scavenging) in your area before you set forth with collection bag in hand to get down and dirty.

Please leave a comment.

Comments 42 comments

Recyclix 2 weeks ago

Generate high and stable revenue by purchasing waste, processing it, and then selling it!

Kody 4 weeks ago

My mom drinks a ton of diet coke. She goes through like 24 or so a week. I could make a ton of money just recycling those cans. It would be nice to make a little extra cash and help the environment out at the same time.

James Bergman 4 weeks ago

I'm a big fan of recycling metal cans and plastic bottles. They are easy to find and it is not a bad way of supplementing your income. You won't make a ton, unless you have a way of finding a lot of scrap metal, but $100 a week is nothing to sneeze at. It is also something you can get your kids involved in.

Kody Loveless 7 weeks ago

I used to recycle aluminum cans quite a bit when I was a kid. I saved up for a bike that way. I used to go around my neighborhood and collect cans and bottles. It really can help out your pocketbook and help reuse our resources. I feel like it benefits society in many ways. It is amazing that aluminum can go for 2,000 dollars a ton. That is not bad money.

Watcha 4 months ago

Dude I've made as much as $100 in one week from one trash bin at a motel. Motels can be an excellent source of recyclable's. If you get permission.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 9 months ago from California Author

Thanks for your comment, Chapper1. Yes, indeed, one must be very careful while collecting; people love their privacy. Later!

Chapper1 10 months ago

I think you can forget Elem/High Schools/etc They all have their own recycling projects, and collect cans in school. Be careful going into peoples trash, my friend got SHOT doing that!

BodaciousAces 13 months ago

Would have been great to read this prior to being busted collecting cans. I bumped over a big blue bin and the neighbour came down to flip out.

Key to be Stealthy!

RicoLyrix 14 months ago

Gotta be careful.. Homeless everywhere n local neighborhood mental persons have made this life! It is almost rediculous how they fight over blocks space also just area. You come from North Flint you'll understand. As a kid of 9yrs old I moved to Nashville, Tn with the big GMotors boom (Saturn). They arent as violent but very hostile over a can. I still got sent back home every Summer. I wasnt allowed to stay in Tennnessee.. Went back to North Flint but one year returning to North Flint some times my last weeks I'd go see my second home Grand Rapids, Mi.. Anywho but my Uncle n Grandad father saved me over the summer almost 2 grand.. Would have been more if my Uncles and Cousins did take from me. They ended up locking it them up. I no idea what areas you all are in but 10c per bottle plus the cans. You could make a nice amounts. The key is to save them all...SAVE FOR 2 Summers and until fall or December 1st ;) wow! Can take car of children if you none then spent that great money on a gift for any partner. Target your friends that drink pop(drink)soda(coke) I say Pop(Michigan). If are going by the pound? You might just quit.. My friend had roughtly 60-70lbs. He was paid 17 bucks.. We got my many cans, his almost the same.. One more friend chipped in his cans for free... Talk about pilled up but out come 17 bucks.

mick 21 months ago

be quick and make it look like you've never been there just a simple walk

through town at gas stations in late afternoon will be the best time after

people have been getting their gas for the day

Jamesm1968 3 years ago from UK


In the UK you now need to provide photo ID at the scrap merchant before they will take your scrap.

KatNance profile image

KatNance 3 years ago said FREE

Great hub..

.great show kids how to collect and see how much they can get from their hard work

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 3 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Cas Merchant. Collecting can net a person some extra cash, but making a living from it would be very difficult. Later!

Cas Merchant profile image

Cas Merchant 3 years ago from Worcester, Massachusetts

The income gained from recycling bottles and cans can add up big time. It's a free tank of gas at the end of the month. recycling metals like copper and steel is also becoming a popular way to make extra cash.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 3 years ago from California Author

Hey, Jlo 123, there ain't much science involved in collecting cans and plastic. If you prefer science, read about archaeology or astronomy, two subjects about which I write at great length. Later!

Princeton love 21 3 years ago

Hi! That was great. I need to start recycling cans.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Jamesm1968. I recycle all the time, and so should everybody else. Later!

Jamesm1968 4 years ago from UK

I started saving my aluminium foil/cans and steel cans as well a couple of years back. I now have at least 3 people picking-up/saving cans and any other scrap metal they find.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Hey, MigsMcGee, many people have written stories about collecting cans and plastic - but mine's the best. Hey! Anyway, collecting doesn't pay much, but the stuff is tax free, so in some cases it's worth doing. Later!

MigsMcGee 4 years ago

Wow, I can't believe an article like this exists. If digging through people bins isn't your thing, try to find a place that uses a lot of cans, such as restaurants, bars and banquet halls. If you live in a city, this may not be too feasible, because most business already have some guy who comes buy in a truck to pick up their recycle products. I work in catering, so after some events I make sure to take the empty cans and bottles with me.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, GmaGoldie. You're right - everyone should recycle, whether or not they keep the money for such. Later!

GmaGoldie profile image

GmaGoldie 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

When my husband and I moved, consolidated households, picked up items left by two tenants at a rental, I was very organized and gave literally thousands of items to Goodwill yet the metal - the really heavy metal I took to recycling. Lo and behold it paid for lunch that day! Which isn't much but a 100% more than what I had gotten directly from Goodwill.

I grew up too poor to waste. I don't collect aluminum I do recycle with my municipal trash but I learned a great lesson that day.

Metal is precious and can pay.

Excellent hub!

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Angela Kane. I agree this is a very helpful article. Hey! Later!

Angela Kane profile image

Angela Kane 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

I work with people who are always looking for ways to make money and this hub will give them a great idea.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Hey, ckiser16, I'm not surprised many people are collecting nowadays. Thanks for the comment. And you're right, Earn4free, collecting cans and plastic is a tough way to make meaningful dough. Later!

ckiser16 5 years ago

My mom used to make me and my sister collect cans when we were younger. It was pretty embarrassing! Lately, though, I have seen people in my neighborhood collect aluminum and things on a much bigger scale. For instance, my friend across the street had her old watercooler picked up by one such “scavenger.” She was very relieved that she didn’t have to call the city to come pick it up. Seems to me that everyone won in that situation! So it can be done, because there are quite a few different people who scowl my neighborhood on trash day.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

What pays off much better than collecting recyclables is panning for gold. I'm not kidding! At $1,800 an ounce, you gotta love this way of making sidebar money. I haven't tried it yet, but I almost certainly will. What would work best for your mother or grandmother would be working online, but earning decent money with such work is not easy as well. Good luck for all concerned. Later!

Cagsil profile image

Cagsil 5 years ago from USA or America

Hey Kosmo, yeah it is tax free, but as you said, unless you collect many pounds each week, which is difficult for those who are collecting such checks. Those who are on it, either are too old to do a good enough job to supplement their income or have medical issues which would also prevent them from doing so. These are the other factors I mentioned in my first comment. My mother is 64 years old and presently works 2-3 days at her present job, just to make ends meet, and her salary at that job isn't chump change, like minimum wage. She makes over $16 an hour at her job and it's barely making it, due to costs of rising rental expenses and food, and gas for her car(so she can get back and forth to work). She is not a person who has good credit anymore and she is no longer interested in credit anymore. If she cannot afford it, then she goes without. My grandmother was the same way. If trash money- was to be done, it would need to be done seriously and in huge bulk. That's all.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Hey, Cagsil, living on social security is always going to be a challenge, and supplementing this low income with collecting won't improve matters much, unless you collect many pounds each week. The best thing about collecting is that it's tax free income. Thanks for the comment. Later!

Cagsil profile image

Cagsil 5 years ago from USA or America

Hey Kosmo, great hub. However, I would like to touch on one thing you said and in my current living situation, your statement would be untrue. I am currently living at home with my mother who is collecting social security on as a part-time retiree and she would be unable to live on what she receives and collecting as you suggested. There would not be enough income actually coming for her to live, without cutting out something important. There are plenty of other factors with her particular situation, but with just those two it would not be adequate. Just thought you should know. Voted up! Marked useful. :)

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

That's right, Kathy, collecting is an excellent way to make tax-free cash. It has certainly helped me through my recent lean times. Later!

Kathy Justi 5 years ago

After living in the Silicon Valley for 10 years where recycling is required for residential pick up, we started setting the can and bottles aside for the kids, and it resulted in a nice profit for them increasing their disposable income coming from parents, birthday, and holiday cash gifts. Years later we still do it and average over $100 a month! The amount is higher if we have had a party, so that's over $1200 a year tax free! Great article and a reminder how a little bit adds up and can positively effect your quality of life.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Yes, Sunnyglitter, girls can collect too. You gotta love tax free cash. Later!

Sunnyglitter profile image

Sunnyglitter 5 years ago from Cyberspace

Nice. I totally want to do this.

howcurecancer profile image

howcurecancer 5 years ago

One vote up, I like your hub.

mreslam206 5 years ago

a great article

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Great hub, as an hvac service tech who gets his hands and tools all over many scrap a/c systems, I well appreciate the value of scrap.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Hey, makd1788, thanks for calling my article useful - that's what I always want to hear. Later!

makd1788 profile image

makd1788 5 years ago

you have mentioned one different approach for making money...collecting! nice way to make extra income...because in these days additional income earning sources have became main need... so your suggestion is much useful..

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Yes, friends, it's easy to joke about this modest endeavor, but when you need pocket money your imagination tends to wander until you're out at two a.m. contemplating your descent into the nether world of stinky trash cans and shambling derelicts . . . yikes has my life come to this . . . or something like that. Later!

lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

Thank you for opening the doors to an exciting new career path. Think, even those of us who are undocumented (though I am in the process) can enter this new and entirely green field. Lynda

Megavitamin profile image

Megavitamin 5 years ago

The timing on this is funny because I just started collecting cans from my friends after weekends of beer-drinking. I'm going to cash them in this week and see how much I can get back. Great minds think alike :0)

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