An experiment in making extra cash

How to Pick Up Cans for Fun and Profit

by Buck Weber

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My state of Iowa is one of eleven in the United States that has a container deposit law. Iowa mandates a deposit of five cents per container of carbonated beverage at the point of purchase.

Other states charge ten cents or more depending on the size and type of material the container is made of, and some include fruit juice and bottled water containers.

When the containers are returned to a grocery store or redemption center you get the deposit back.

Enough Background…What About The Profit Part?

Not everyone returns their cans for the deposit they paid. When that happens, it is up for grabs, if you can find the cans.

Some of the homeless people in my area have almost turned the skill of can hunting into a science. You can see the best ones coming into the redemption centers at the end of the day with bulging plastic garbage bags full of found treasure. A few, the real pros, have modified shopping carts or even bikes with huge wire baskets to speed up the job and take a load off the back.

In the face of such devotion and skill, I am but a lowly part-time amateur, but I can point out some places I have had success and share my observations of homeless techniques.

Rivers and Lakes

I have had pretty good luck around bodies of water, which seem to bring out the inner-slob in a lot of people. Fishing spots can yield a collection of beer cans among the empty night crawler containers, fishing hook packages and dead carp.

By checking the woods around a lake or along a river, you will surely come across an abandoned teenage party spot. These can offer the greatest variety of cans and bottles, such as a few cans of six different kinds of beer along with, for example, a banana wine bottle, a couple liters of Mountain Dew and a whiskey bottle. If there is the presence of vomit or the smell of urine, you are on your own. I don't know how the homeless handle this situation, but I just keep on walking.


Shelter houses and the park woods can also produce teenage party spots, as mentioned above.

A real bonanza can be park trashcans or barrels. Families or twenty-somethings many times don't want to hassle with who is going to return all of those cans so into the trashcan they go with all the rest of the garbage. Usually you have to dig a little, but it can be worth the patience. Gloves can speed up the job and embolden one to dig a little deeper. For me, a can with unidentified spoogie on it stays in the trashcan, but I suppose that's a judgment call.

Roads and Highways

This option is mentioned as observation only, as I have not walked roads looking for cans and bottles. My guess would be the more traffic a road has the better your chances of finding cans. Also, a higher concentration of people along a road, such as downtown streets, could increase the yield.

Thinking about roads led me to ponder the bounty Interstate Welcome Center trashcans could produce. Not practical to drive around checking them, but maybe worth a spot check while you are traveling.

Outdoor Sporting Events and Concerts

Trashcans and parking lots near where sporting events and concerts have been held can be easy pickings. Try soccer fields, high schools, Little League fields, etc. Apply the same hygiene precautions as mentioned above.

Seriously, Buck…Where Is the Fun in That?

I guess it is a bit like a treasure hunt. You are probably not going to find a chest of gold, but you will usually make a few dollars per outing, get some exercise walking around and help keep your community clean. What's not to like about that?

Buck Weber blogs at He has been experimenting with making extra cash and saving money in the real world and online. His blog describes the ideas he has tried.

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