This section presents the results of the interviews. It focuses on participants’ demographic characteristics and the contextual factors that influence them to engage in collecting cans and bottles at football tailgates, and on livelihood capital assets, policies, and practices that enable or constrain canning livelihood activities at football tailgates and influence their outcomes.
5.2. Livelihood Capital Assets
Respondents use natural, social, human, financial, and physical capital; in the interviews, they explained the challenges associated with accessing some capital types.
5.2.1. Social Capital
Social capital consists of the relationships that canners draw upon in pursuit of their activity. The qualitative analysis from the interviews indicated that knowledge sharing and social relations are essential forms of social capital to earn income from canning. They were discussed in the context of the canners’ relationship amongst themselves, relationships with their next of kin, and with tailgaters.
Knowledge sharing: The majority of those interviewed expressed that canners tend to share knowledge about canning at tailgates through their friends, family members, and workmates. One canner said, “Actually, a good friend of mine told me about it, and I don’t mind picking the cans now.” This information includes schedules of football games, how to get access to cans at tailgates, and efficient and effective ways of collecting and redeeming them.
While canners may share information about canning activities with those canners who are their friends, a few canners expressed that there is limited trust among canners who do not know each other as they engage in collecting cans at football tailgates. Others expressed that canners are from different social circles of friends, which weakens their interaction with other canners outside their circles. In addition, most canners complained that some canners are known to steal unattended cans that other canners had already collected, weakening the level of trust among canners.
Social relations: From the interviews, canners have built social networks with other canners and tailgaters, and they also rely on family members for help. Canners with such relationships tend to collect bottles and cans more efficiently and effectively at football tailgates.
Most canners reported that during canning, there is minimal interaction with each other. This is because canners want to collect as many returnables as possible, and there is not much time for social interactions. A canner said, “I just say hi... I got to keep on moving. I really have got no time for conversation because am collecting cans. I ain’t going to waste my time.” In addition, some of the canners have a perception that they are in some competition to access the same resource.
A few canners indicated that they tend to work as a team with people they know well, for instance, their spouse or family members. All of the female canners interviewed indicated that they collect cans and bottles with a male companion who is either a partner or brother. In a few cases, the male partner goes around collecting cans while the female partner guards what they have already collected. In addition, a few couples mentioned that canning is also an opportunity where they can spend time together. Lastly, a few mentioned that they rely on other members of the family for transportation resources to support their effort.
Moreover, most experienced canners have built mutual relationships with tailgaters, which have led to more efficient resource recovery of cans and bottles at tailgates. Such interactions have increased canners’ easy access to returnables during tailgates. For instance, the canners revealed that some of the tailgaters save cans in bags for them to collect later during the football tailgate. “A lot of them (tailgaters) bag it up (cans) and tell you to come back and save them for you,” one canner said. Another female canner said, “Because some people, like, they’ll save the cans for certain people; that does happen. Not too often. But sometimes, I’ve seen them (tailgaters) do it.” Another male canner who has been canning for the past fifteen years indicated that he hands out bags to tailgaters who save cans for him for later collection. However, a few canners mentioned that they avoid interacting with tailgaters at all, as this distracts from their activity.
Some of the canners think that tailgaters acknowledge their presence with limited interactions between them. The tailgaters toss their cans away from their tailgating party or close to the sidewalks, which minimizes their interactions with canners. Most of the canners indicated that tailgaters tend to dispose of their cans and bottles in accessible locations close to disposal bins or on open spaces, making it easier for any canner to collect.
5.2.2. Human Capital
Human capital includes the knowledge, skills, health status, and ability to engage in canning activities. While canning does not require any formal training, it does require a certain amount of experiential knowledge and good health.
Knowledge and skills: Canners who have been collecting cans over a long period tend to develop skills and techniques to collect cans at tailgates. The three types of knowledge and skills that emerged from the interviews included how to carry out the actual canning activity, how to approach tailgaters to have access to cans, and how to select returnable cans and avoid non-returnables. Such knowledge and skills sometimes are shared with new canners depending on one’s social networks. For instance, many experienced canners have developed efficient and effective ways of collecting bottles and cans at tailgates. One male canner said, “My methods are now more organized definitely…. The first time ever, I was kind of like, everywhere, like, …instead of following down the line, I am now zigzagging…”
During the interviews, several canners mentioned that they have specific locations that they visit at every football tailgate, and the canners now know how to navigate those spaces as they collect cans easily. Some of the canners prefer tailgating spaces close to the football stadium where the number of cans disposed of is higher compared to other spaces. This also minimizes the distance they must walk to collect the maximum number of cans. On the other hand, the elderly canners expressed that due to poor health, they collect cans in spaces that they can easily access from local public transport, even though the density of cans available is lower. Nonetheless, most canners tend to specialize in collecting cans only and avoid bottles due to their weight.
Furthermore, most of the canners have developed skills to access cans and bottles from tailgating spaces without encroaching into personal spaces of tailgaters. During their first-time experience, most of the canners expressed self-consciousness of the stigma associated with canning. However, they have learned to develop specific skills to carry out their livelihood activity through time. The skills include maintaining eye contact, being respectful to ask for cans, and minimizing any forms of interaction with tailgaters. A first-time canner said, “It’s like eye contact, body language, and I could read people pretty good. At first, I was nervous, but now, I think I got it. I got it (he is excited). I mean, look at my bag (showing me his full trash bag)!”
Lastly, the nearest grocery store does not accept every brand, and people learn that through experience as they develop skills in selecting only the bottles and cans they can redeem for money. For instance, one canner expressed disappointment the first time he collected cans at a tailgate and realized that some cans were not returnable at the store he had gone to, and he had collected them for nothing. Such a lack of experience may increase a canner’s vulnerability as they will not maximize their productivity as expected.
Good health: The main form of human capital that canners rely on is their physical strength and ability to collect and transport the cans and bottles during canning activities. Most participants emphasized that one needs to be physically healthy to participate in canning. In addition, some of the canners interviewed indicated that there are positive health outcomes associated with canning that strengthen their human capital. Some canners perceive canning as not only an opportunity to make money but also to engage in physical exercise.
On the other hand, some canners revealed that their poor health is a detrimental factor for them to participate fully in canning activities. A male canner, aged 58, said, “What slows me down is my health.” They indicated that physical problems, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, asthma, and back and leg pain, limit their ability to walk long distances and the number of cans and bottles they can collect and carry at any given time. This, in turn, limits their earnings from canning at football tailgates.
5.2.3. Physical Capital
While canners rely on their human capital to collect cans, they also rely on physical capital in the form of equipment and supplies, transportation facilities, and bottle redemption centers. They have developed coping strategies to overcome challenges in accessing and using physical capital.
Transport: Many of the canners interviewed revealed that they either use public transportation or use their vehicles or bicycles to transport cans to the redemption centers. Many of the canners stated that the local public bus service is the most accessible means of transporting cans. However, public busses may not be accessible while carrying cans, as discussed below. Just a few canners interviewed have a personal vehicle, and they tend to collect as many returnables as they can, including both cans and bottles, unlike those who use public transport and bicycles. In addition, canners with personal transport can easily transport their cans to redemption centers that are not congested compared to others. One canner said, “I walked around and to a soccer field over there. There were so many cans lying out there... If I had a truck or car, I would have probably had been out all night... I can only carry so many.” For those with their own vehicle, the main challenges are paying for parking or else parking far away to avoid paying.
Equipment and supplies: The equipment and supplies include trash bags, a household cart or shopping carts from the grocery stores, and gloves. During the interviews, most canners reported that they get the trash bags from their household, and a few revealed that they get them from the homeless shelter where they live. Lastly, most canners receive more trash bags from the university officials who patrol the campus during tailgates and hand out garbage bags to those who need them. However, most canners highlighted that the trash bags are difficult to transport as they tend to be bulky when they are full, making them difficult to carry or to take onto a public bus. These challenges limit what people can earn from canning. Most canners indicated that they double bag the trash bags to reduce the chances of tearing or buy industrial-strength bags.
Shopping carts or household pull-carts or wagons are common types of equipment that canners use to deal with the weight and bulkiness of bottles and cans. We observed some canners on bicycles with pull-carts attached. Such canners with a cart can transport as many cans and bottles as they can collect. Also, the use of the cart enables the canners to transport the cans and bottles without much physical strain. In contrast, a canner without a cart is sharply constrained. “I wish I had some kind of way to carry more. Basically, that’s it. If I could carry more, I could collect more money,” said one canner with no cart. As discussed below, canners revealed that they had been denied access to grocery carts from nearby stores over the past years, which threatens the effectiveness and efficiency of their canning activity.
During the interviews, a few of the canners revealed that they use gloves. These canners highlighted concerns for health and safety as they sometimes are in direct contact with liquids, and some dig in the trash cans. Another canner said, “I need these gloves because some of these people they put cigarette butts in the cans, I want to be clean at the same time.” Moreover, some of the canners indicated that some tailgaters spit tobacco or stick gum in some of the cans, posing a health hazard to the canners. Some reported that sometimes they are offered food by tailgaters, but they cannot eat the food because their hands are dirty from canning. Given access to gloves, most of the canners would want to use them for canning activities.
5.2.4. Financial Capital
Financial capital refers to financial resources available for people to acquire resources and tools they need to earn a livelihood. In the interviews, canners emphasized the importance of having financial resources to help them begin to engage in canning activities. They need money to buy carts, trash bags, and gloves that they use to collect cans and bottles. Furthermore, they use their income to pay for their transportation costs to access recyclables at football tailgates and to transport them to the redemption centers. Most canners said they have other sources of income that enable them to pay for the necessities of canning. These include disability allowance, social security income, and income from seasonal jobs. On the other hand, some canners cannot afford to buy the tools they use for canning, limiting their capacity to can.
5.3. Policies and Practices
Policies and practices are mediating processes that create barriers or opportunities that allow canners to engage in their activity. There are decisions made by other stakeholders that have a negative influence on canners’ livelihood activities. When interviewed, the canners expressed how some policies shape their canning livelihood activities and how they influenced access to and use of different forms of capital assets. The local grocery stores and local public transport service providers have policies that negatively affect canners’ livelihoods. In addition, most canners are concerned about the possibility of policies that may limit their ability to collect cans.
Local grocery stores: The use of shopping carts from the local grocery stores and shops is now prohibited. Although there are still a few canners who take the risk of using grocery shopping carts, most of them have stopped. Some canners who previously used grocery carts are now finding it difficult to collect and transport their cans, which limits their earnings. In interviews, the canners indicated that what they would want to improve about their canning activities is having access to carts. However, some canners acknowledged that their use of grocery shopping carts inconveniences customers to the grocery stores; they understand the justification for the ban.
Public transport system: As highlighted earlier, many canners would like to use the local public transport system to transport their returnables to the redemption centers. However, most canners are denied use of the bus because the trash bags full of aluminum cans tend to be bulky and give a pungent smell of alcohol, which may bring discomfort to other passengers. A male canner said, “Sometimes I ride [the] bus if I don’t have too many cans. But the driver always tells me that next time I won’t give you a ride because you have all these cans which disturb people.” This forces most canners to walk to the closest redemption centers, which is physically straining and time-consuming. However, one elderly female canner said she does not face challenges in using the bus as much as the younger canners, maybe because she is elderly.
Redemption centers: Most of the canners expressed two concerns about redemption centers: the limited number of returnables one can redeem at some redemption centers and congestion at the redemption center nearest the stadium. The closest redemption center has a $25 cash limit that it pays for any returnables on a given day, and they get a receipt for excess cans that they can redeem another time. Therefore, canners are forced to find another center where they can redeem the excess cans and bottles, or else wait and return another time, risking losing their receipt in the interim. This becomes difficult as most of the canners do not have access to convenient transport. In addition, canners indicated that the closest redemption center is always congested. Most of the canners spend more time redeeming the cans than collecting them. One male canner said, “Like, the first time I did it, I think I waited in line for two hours before cashing the cans.” However, some canners with vehicles can go to more distant grocery stores that are not crowded and that do not impose a limit on returnables. Some others take their cans and bottles home and prefer to redeem them days after the football tailgates.
Speculation about the university: Interestingly, most canners raised concern that the university might ban them from collecting cans at football tailgates. Through their social networks, there has been speculation that the university may want to earn income from collecting the cans and bottles at their football tailgates. One canner said, “I hope they don’t stop us, you know because it’s an opportunity for whoever wants to do it. You know, there’s no discrimination. If you want to do it? You can do it too.” During the interviews, some of the participants asked whether the university was planning to stop them. The interviewees considered it necessary that the university knows that this source of income is essential for their welfare, and they must continue to have access to canning.
5.4. External Shocks
The seasonality of football games and the seasonal changes in weather conditions at football tailgates affect canning opportunities, as does the level of attendance during tailgating. Football games are seasonal, from the end of August to the end of November. Some of the canners indicated that outside of the football season, they struggle to meet their needs, and they do not have much choice.
In addition, changing weather patterns during the football season create climatic shocks that influence attendance at tailgating events. Most of the participants explained that when the temperature drops towards the end of the football season, the number of tailgaters decreases, which reduces the number of cans and bottles they can collect. “But I noticed that some games, especially if it’s poor weather, oh, there’s not as many people out there collecting,” revealed one canner. In addition to that, due to ill health, some canners are not able to fully engage in canning activities once it becomes cold, thereby resulting in reduced income. Another canner pointed out that when it is rainy and windy, it becomes harder for him to continue collecting returnables and push his cart. Most of the canners agreed that adverse weather conditions during football tailgates reduce their incomes and the number of returnables available. However, some canners highlighted that they will always collect cans irrespective of bad weather because they need the money.
Canners also indicated that the performance of the MSU football team affects attendance and thus the opportunity to earn from canning. When the team is doing well, crowds are more substantial, and income-earning potential grows. In 2019, the team did poorly towards the end of the season, so the crowds were smaller, and there were fewer cans to collect.
Although people collect aluminum cans and bottles to earn income, they cited other benefits as well. These include improved physical well-being and environmental stewardship according to the interview data. On the other hand, one canner clearly stated that she was canning to earn money for fundraising purposes and nothing else.
Income: In interviews, canners indicated that canning is an important income-generating activity for the unemployed or underemployed. Only one canner stated that he does not only can at football tailgates, he also cans in and around the city of Lansing. Most of the canners who receive disability allowance or are employed part-time revealed that meeting their basic needs is still a struggle. The income earned from canning, no matter how small, is important to meet their basic needs. The income is used to increase food security, pay for bills such as the internet and phone, and buy basic toiletries. One female canner said, “It’s money to go to my income in my household. Basically, it is for food, and I pay bills. I paid my phone bill at one time.”
Increased well-being: The data analysis revealed that increased physical well-being emerged as one of the relevant outcomes for some canners. Three participants who identify as males indicated that they do not only make money from canning, but it is an opportunity for them to work out. One of them said, “It’s definitely your workout. But that’s kind of why I’m doing it as well. It’s a workout with carrying the bottles and picking them up.” Another elderly canner felt that canning increases his physical well-being despite his poor health.
Most of the canners also expressed that the canning experience gives them an internal feeling of well-being. These canners expressed a good feeling from having been treated with respect while canning. Furthermore, they felt appreciated for their role in keeping the environment clean. One male canner said, “I actually got good comments from the tailgaters like you’re doing a good job picking these cans, and this made me feel good…it feels warm inside here… (beats his chest). At times tailgaters will come and talk to you, which made me feel better”.
Environmental stewardship: While canners acknowledge that they can earn a living, some of them also revealed that they even perceive this activity as a contribution to the environment in several ways. Most of the canners interviewed expressed that by recovering cans and bottles from the waste stream, they are helping maintain the environment; while at the same time, they are providing a service to the university by cleaning up during tailgates. One canner said, “I’m helping the environment because, like I said, if you look at it, just think of all these cans were just left on this campus… it will not look good. It will be nasty and dirty.”