COLUMBIA - For Debra Knight, the money she makes selling cans to Civic Recycling, a private business that buys and collects recyclables to resell for profit, is important.
As a single mother with an 11-year-old son, she spends two to three days a week collecting blue bags of cans that residents set curbside for the city to pick up. Since she lost her job last month, she relies on the money as her sole source of income while she waits for a check from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Knight's survival strategy, however, might soon be illegal. On Monday, the Columbia City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposed ordinance that would prohibit people from picking up cans in city recycling bags that residents leave at the curb.
The idea came from Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, who said her husband and others have told her they've seen lots of people loading up cars and trucks with recyclables intended for city collection crews. It's a practice that costs the city money, but one that people like Knight rely upon for cash.
It's also a source of income for Civic Recycling.
Just last weekend, Knight pulled into Civic Recycling to drop off 10 blue bags full of aluminum cans. Civic employee Derrick Ivy weighed them and gave Ivy a receipt she redeemed for $30 to $40.
"I'm just one person trying to survive," Knight said. "This is what I have to do."
Knight wasn't alone. Jeff McCully also pulled up with a load of cans in garbage bags that his kids collected as a way to get some spending money. Then Joe Long brought in a batch he saved up at home so he could give a little cash to his grandson.
Once Ivy weighs the bags full of cans that people bring in, he throws them on the floor of a dimly lit warehouse that smells like beer. This past weekend, piles of bagged cans covered the warehouse floor waiting to be compacted into one-ton blocks that are stacked in a corner until they're sold.
Civic pays about 80 cents per pound of aluminum.
"A lot of people do it for the money," Ivy said. "But a lot of people are just recyclers."
Nicholas Paul, collection superintendent for the city's residential recycling program, said about six months ago, the city began receiving regular complaints from residents who see their trash or recycling bags being picked up by people who don't work for the city.
Hoppe said she's concerned not only about the city losing money, but also that non-aluminum items in the bags, such as plastic bottles, might end up in the city's landfill because they cannot be traded in for cash.
"The city makes money for recycling the aluminum, and it helps pay for the recycling program," Hoppe said.
She said she thinks the council will pass the ordinance.
"I can't imagine why anyone would oppose it," she said.
Solid waste utility manager Richard Weiman wouldn't speculate about how the new city ordinance will impact the city's intake of aluminum, but he did say aluminum is a source of income for city recycling programs. The city sells three loads of aluminum each year at about 40,000 pounds per load, he said.
The current market price for recycled aluminum is about 87 cents per pound, Weiman said.
Civic Recycling owner Brett Allen said his company's volume of aluminum has risen about 40 percent since it started advertising in the spring on TV, radio, in the Add Sheet and through coupons that Civic would pay 80 cents per pound. He wouldn't comment on how the proposed city ordinance would affect this business.
"It doesn't matter because people are starting to save their cans, and they're going to start saving their other recyclables because they're going to get money for them," he said. "It's all a good thing. We're keeping more out of the waste stream."
Allen said Civic Recycling also plans to pay for plastic bottles and steel food cans in the near future.
Knight said she will probably continue collecting aluminum cans even if the city ordinance passes. After last Saturday's MU football game, Knight said, she and her son went to a parking lot off College Avenue and picked up cans until they grew tired.
The payoff: $92.