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COVID-19 fundamentally changed how we work. In our series "At Work," we hear from folks in the Bay Area about how what they do has changed.

Summer's redemption: At work at an Oakland recycling center

A view of a mural at Cash for Cans in Oakland, CA
Priscilla Naa Ankrah
Cash For Cans, Oakland, CA

Nationally, recycling is a multibillion dollar industry. Here in San Francisco, it yields millions of dollars in revenue annually. In this story, we introduce you to Summer, who makes a living rummaging through bins and dumpsters, sorting cans, bottles, and glass out of the things we discard.

It’s November and freezing by California standards. I’m at Cash For Cans on the corner of Bancroft and 44th Street in Oakland. It’s a recycling redemption center that pays people for bottles, cans, and glass. It looks like a hybrid between a garage, market, and assembly line.

There’s a frenzy of sorting plastics, glass, and aluminum into large gray trash bins. The smiling face of a psychedelic green and red painting is juxtaposed with the stoic faces of the customers, long accustomed to waiting. And here I am, trying to satisfy my curiosity about the lives of the people who uphold this vital, but invisible labor.

Pretty soon, someone comes forth who can answer my questions… Summer.

Now, I’m 5’11, and Summer’s taller than me! She glows. For a moment, her smile drives away the cold.

As the 2 p.m. closing time nears, the lines of people sorting through cans, bottles, and plastics become more frenzied.

I feel intrusive as I ask Summer if I can learn more about her work. Graciously, she agrees to meet me the following week to walk me through a day in her work life.

We meet at Thrasher Park in San Leandro, and she tells me about her routine.

Recycling, as it turns out, is Summer’s salvation.

"It's a lot of work," she says, "but I mean, it benefits me. It keeps me out of trouble ... I'm able to work and think about life by myself ... and just get things done."

Summer tells me that prior to this, she was in the medical industry, but because of a back injury she had to leave.

It doesn’t bother her back as much, but recycling is grueling and takes up much of her waking life.

Here in California, business owners and nonprofits can submit an application to the state to operate recycling centers. The only requirement is to pay collectors the California Redemption Value (CRV). Currently, that’s five to ten cents per item, a cost customers pay whenever they buy soda or bottled water.

Operators have the discretion to add extra money, or the scrap value, to redeemed recyclables. For people like Summer, this can mean the difference between a meal and a good place to rest, or sleeping on the street. Survival depends on it.

Despite Summer’s tireless labor, she still describes herself as just “the homeless lady.” But, after spending some time with her, I see this work as worthy of respect and attention.

We part ways at sunset, Summer is jovial, as she hugs me goodbye. I ask her to share last thoughts on what she would want people to know about her work.

Tonight, Summer will go back to one of the abandoned BART bunkers, where she and her love have made a home.

As she fades into the business of the evening, I think of William Waring Cuney's poem, “No Images.” If only she could see, perhaps in another time, in another place, just how valuable she is.

I am an immigrant from Ghana, navigating race, place, and being in a time of great possibility and turmoil. I believe in the power of us, and of our collective imaginations, to bring forth a world that fulfills the entirety of our beings. I believe in the power of our dreams. I am a law school graduate and a budding optimist. Forward ever.