9 MIN READ
How Do I Make an Extra $150 a Month? One Nickel at a Time
Correction: This post previously stated that picking cans from recycle bins in Oregon was ‘technically legal'. We updated this post to reflect the current prohibitive law.
I’ve always been the type of person who picks up recyclable items and puts them in their proper place. But in 2015, I moved into a building in Portland, Oregon, where a number of residents cashed in on the copious amounts of beer they consumed by returning cans to the market.
So I thought, why not make a little money on the side by recycling for profit?
I also needed to come up with a way to make extra cash after adopting my first pet, a dog named Sunny. I had no idea what I was getting into financially: vet bills, grooming costs, etc. I don’t begrudge a penny I spend on my pooch, but he does use most of the money I earn from collecting cans and bottles.
Collecting cans isn’t going to make me rich, but I try to top the previous month’s proceeds every month. When I started, I made around $70 a month. Now, it’s more like $150 a month.
Here’s how I make the most of my time to bring in this extra cash.
Which States Have Can and Bottle Redemption Laws?
Unfortunately, this strategy will only work if you live in one of the 10 states that have can and bottle deposit laws. In my opinion, all states should do this, but for now, here’s where you can make money with can and bottle redemption.
Californians can earn 10 cents for 24-ounce or greater containers, or 5 cents for smaller ones. Cans or bottles must be marked “CRV” for “California Redemption Value” or “CA Cash Refund” to qualify.
Bottles or cans can be from beer, malt beverages, wine coolers, hard cider, soda, sports drinks, water and most other non-alcoholic beverages. Bottles or cans from wine, milk and baby formula, as well as large fruit juice containers, aren’t eligible. (But please recycle them anyway, even though you won’t get cash for them!)
In Connecticut, consumers earn 5 cents for every returned container from beer, soda, mineral water and non-carbonated beverages such as Vitamin Water and non-flavored bottled waters.
Hawaiians can return glass, aluminum and plastic containers from beer, malt beverages, wine coolers, soda and water — almost anything except milk, wine and liquor. Just look for the “HI 5¢” logo.
Iowans earn a nickel for every beer, wine, liquor, wine cooler, soda or mineral water bottle or can they return. As long as it’s alcoholic, carbonated or water, and it’s marked with “IA-5¢,” it’ll net you 5 cents.
In Maine, you can get 5 cents for every beer, wine cooler, hard cider, soda, non-carbonated water and other non-carbonated beverage container you return, excluding dairy products.
Wine and liquor bottles will earn you 15 cents each!
Check container labels for “Maine” or “ME.”
Massachusetts offers a 5-cent redemption reward for the usual suspects: beer, malt, soda and other carbonated beverage containers.
Bottles and cans from wine, dairy products, non-carbonated drinks and liquor don’t count.
Progressive Michigan has long applied a 10-cent deposit to beer, soda, water (sparkling and still), wine cooler and canned cocktail containers. You can’t return liquor or wine bottles, or containers from dairy products.
My only question for Michigan is: Who drinks canned cocktails?
New Yorkers should look for the “NY 5¢” mark on the label of cans and bottles of beer, malt beverage, soda and “water that does not contain sugar” (so presumably Vitamin Waters are out).
There’s no redemption available on wine, hard cider, liquor, milk, sports drink or juice containers.
Finally, we get to my state. As if I needed another reason to love Oregon, the Oregon Bottle Bill was updated on April 1, 2017, and I now earn 10 cents for every can or bottle of beer, soda, malt beverage, and bottled water, including Smart Water, Vitamin Water and mineral waters.
Juice, tea, coffee, coconut water and hard cider bottles and cans aren’t currently covered, but will be starting in January 2018. Liquor, wine and dairy product containers will still be exempt, but again, you should still recycle them.
In 2015, Oregon’s redemption rate had fallen to 64.5%. Presumably, that will change as empty cans and bottles morph into extra dollars. The state’s goal is to get its redemption rate above 80%.
In the vanguard of the recycling industry is Vermont with a respectable redemption rate of 85%. That’s probably due to a 15-cent return refund on liquor bottles.
Beer, wine cooler, malt beverage, soda and other carbonated drink containers can be returned for a nickel. Wine, hard cider, milk, water and juice bottles and cans won’t earn you anything. Check the container for the “Vermont 5-cent” or “Vermont 15-cent” marking.
Where to Redeem Cans and Bottles for Cash
Redemption rules vary by state, but in most places you can return your containers to grocery stores, convenience stores or redemption centers.
Most grocery stores have an area cordoned off for their redemption machines, sometimes behind the store or in their underground parking lots. My favorite store keeps its machine on the rooftop and even though there’s only one, it rarely breaks down and if it does falter, a friendly clerk appears to fix it lickity-split.
If you don’t live near a grocery store, ask at nearby gas stations and convenience stores. My local convenience store only lets me return 50 cans a day, but that’s five bucks and it’s just down the block — much closer than the grocery store.
Before you go return your containers, make sure to check them for your state’s imprint, if it has one. I check all my bottles and cans, hoping to see “OR” in the mix. If a can has a “CA CRV IA-ME” stamp, it won’t garner me a dime — so I put it in my recycling bin instead.
Best Practices for Collecting Cans and Bottles
Not only is it tacky, but in some states, it's actually illegal to pull stuff out of curbside bins without permission. There are better ways to go about the gleaning business.
1. Ask Friends and Neighbors for Their Unwanted Cans and Bottles
Many of my neighbors say they don’t want the hassle of going back to the store to get 50 cents or a buck. Why not let yours know you’re willing to put in the effort? If you can return many containers at once, you’ll earn more money.
Once word got out in my building that I needed $50 to pay for my dog’s pain medication, I was so touched by how many neighbors offered me their cans. It got to the point where I couldn’t even open my front door without nudging plastic bags filled with returnable containers.
2. Offer to Pick Up Empties From Bars
Visit local bars and ask whether you can collect and return their empty containers. Offer convenient times for pickup and assure bar owners you will be prompt and responsible — no mess, no fuss.
I haven’t done this myself, but a friend of mine circulated letters with her phone number and got a few hits. In the end, she made verbal agreements with the bar owners, who were happy to help a starving student earn some extra cash.
3. Look Around Constantly
A large percentage of my side gig money comes straight from litter, which is sad but has morphed into a major motivator. I’m forever peeking under shrubs to find recyclables, and I even bought a grab stick for those hard-to-reach hiding places.
Whenever there’s an event downtown or in my neighborhood, especially a marathon or street fair, I clean up — fiscally and literally. It’s astonishing how many people feel compelled to drink purified water to cleanse their bodies only to diss the environment by tossing the bottles in gutters and on the ground!
4. Be Prepared and Protect Yourself
Always wear gloves, please. As a recycling newbie, I learned this lesson right away. It’s too easy to cut your hands on broken bottles or the sharp edge of a can someone poked holes through. Now I wear a pair of garden gloves to keep my hands safe.
I’ve also missed out on moneymaking opportunities by forgetting to pack garbage bags in my purse or backpack. When I go for a walk, I always make sure I have a bag or two stashed away in case I find returnable containers.
And know when the reward isn’t worth the risk. I once thrilled at the sight of a white plastic bag on the sidewalk near a bus stop, figuring someone left it there for a hungry gleaner like myself. But when I unfurled the twist tie, I noticed a few syringes bobbing in the mix, and realized I had to pass on the potential bounty.
How Much Money Can You Make From Can and Bottle Redemption?
When I first started collecting bottles and cans, I made about $70 a month.
Now, it’s closer to $150, and with Oregon’s newly raised return incentive, I expect my revenue to remain the same or go up a notch, possibly to $200 a month.
The time I spend collecting and recycling for cash varies from the two minutes it takes to accept a bag of cans from a neighbor to standing in line for 30 minutes at a redemption center. Since I normally combine collecting with whatever else I’m doing — walking around after a doctor’s appointment, for example — I don’t keep track of the time I spend gleaning.
For me, it’s worth the two to three hours of daily exercise and effort to afford the little extras for myself and Sunny. His bully sticks are more expensive than my lattes, but that’s OK.
Gleaning Keeps Money in the People’s Pockets
Tossing your soda can into the garbage is not only bad for the environment, but it’s also great for filling corporations’ pockets and state coffers.
Bottle and can distributors charge you a deposit when you buy a bottled or canned beverage. If you don’t return your cans or bottles for redemption, depending where you live, either the state or the distributor gets to keep the money.
You might not care if the distributor or the state gets an extra nickel or two, but multiply that by millions of consumers, and you can see where I’m going with this.
Why not let those extra nickels and dimes — and dollars — add up in your own pocket?
Your Turn: If you live in a state with bottle redemption rules, do you collect beverage containers?
Sandra E. Stevens is a Portland-based writer who has contributed to Salon.com, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Skirt Collective and many other publications. She can be reached via Twitter: @sestevens4pdx