Recycling, Sustainability, and Community in the Heart of Brooklyn
“Sure We Can,” proudly proclaims the mural sprayed graffiti-style on the gate of an industrial lot in Brooklyn, New York. Behind the gate are shipping containers packed with countless bags of bottles and cans waiting to be recycled. Over the rumble of the L train you can hear the faint pop of countless plastic bottles expanding with the day’s heat.
Sure We Can is a nonprofit recycling center serving the local community through recycling, composting, gardening, and arts. The name is a pun, projecting a positive attitude while also describing the work. To can is to collect recyclable containers for redemption. Canners are people who collect cans and bottles to earn income. In busy summer months Sure We Can processes up to 60,000 cans and bottles a day, paying canners 5 cents per item. Some canners make a living from redemption; others do it as a side hustle. The nonprofit welcomes them all with a sheltered place to store their gear and sort containers.
But it’s about more than just providing a safe and reliable redemption center, says Ryan Castalia, Executive Director, Sure We Can. “There’s this big need in the community for compassion, community belonging, acceptance, and understanding,” he says. There’s a community garden with compost created on site, and the nonprofit showcases local artists and invites schools in to learn about recycling and circular economies.
Join NFF’s Ryan Williams, Manager, Consulting as he tours Sure We Can to learn about what is far more than a redemption center.
Sure We Can: Building a Sustainable Urban Culture
The economics of can and bottle redemption are difficult for canners and nonprofit redemption centers alike. Under New York’s 1982 “Bottle Bill,” consumers receive a 5-cent fee for each bottle returned, and redemption centers receive a 3.5-cent handling fee. Those fees have frustratingly not changed in the subsequent four decades. Adjusted for inflation, the 5-cent fee canners make would be more than tripled to around 15 cents per bottle.
As with many nonprofits, a main financial challenge for Sure We Can is reimbursement for work performed. Sure We Can pays canners 5 cents for each recyclable collected (and a little more for sorting), and then ships the cans and bottles to a recycler, who reimburses Sure We Can that 5 cents, plus the handling fee. Sure We Can faces constant delays in reimbursement from recyclers, which sometimes interrupt cash flow for months. And despite offering the valuable service of cleaning the community, New York City government doesn’t offer sanitation contracts to redemption centers like Sure We Can. Foundation grants and direct contributions from supporters help keep the organization in business as a recycling center, community space, and sustainability hub.
Join Ryan Williams as he meets with Ryan Castalia and community development consultant Tenzing Chadotsang to see how NFF’s tailored lending and technical assistance helped Sure We Can meet its daily operating needs amid these challenges.
Sure We Can: Why Cash Flow Matters
Sure We Can is uniquely positioned to serve New York City’s canning community in part because many other nonprofit redemption centers have closed in recent years. “They couldn’t make their rent,” explains Ryan Castalia. “They just couldn’t afford to continue operating.” To continue to serve their community where they are, “Securing a space has been the number one priority.”
In 2023 Sure We Can achieved that long-held dream: owning the property they work out of on McKibbin Street in Brooklyn. An acquisition loan from NFF facilitated the purchase, along with lending from SeaChange Capital Partners.
With property ownership securing its place in the community, Sure We Can plans to expand their workforce, pursue community control and governance, implement green infrastructure projects, and process harder-to-recycle materials.
Join NFF’s Richard Barnes, Director, Underwriting; Ryan Williams; and Ryan Castalia as they explore the impact and challenges of Sure We Can owning their community space.
Sure We Can: Owning Their Building, Owning Their Future
How Sure We Can shows up as a sustainable, community-centered organization
TEXT ON SCREEN: Sure We Can is a nonprofit recycling center, community space, and sustainability hub in Brooklyn, New York.
RYAN CASTALIA: It’s not just about the recycling. It’s not just about the money. It’s not just about even mutual aid or these kinds of things. But really finding a way that we can serve the community by serving people in their entirety: economically, environmentally, socially, in any way we can.
RYAN WILLIAMS: I have benefited as a child, canning. It was the first opportunity I had to have my own money. Seeing the community at Sure We Can for me just kind of recenters our innate connection to resources.
RYAN CASTALIA: It’s very beautiful in a certain sense because it’s so directly empowering. You know, you can just pick up the can and you can bring it and you can make some money.
RYAN WILLIAMS: Mhmm.
RYAN CASTALIA: And as a form of work, it can be itself like an engine for environmental justice. It’s people picking up litter in their communities, earning money in their communities. And these are people already marginalized, so already in communities that are experiencing environmental injustices, overburdened with litter, under-supported in terms of economic input.
There are people who work 12 hours a day, seven days a week collecting cans, and they’ve been able to, for example, put their children through college on this work, you know, at the very least to feed their family day to day. There are other folks who do it at different levels. They might supplement an income with canning. They might be on benefits, and they need a little extra on the side. They might come once every six months and just collect the stuff that they buy for themselves.
But in general, what it does is creates that context of empowerment. No matter what level you want to participate in, every single canner is making something for themselves, and every single one is also serving their community.
JOSEFA MARIN (translation): There is no other place like this. Here we have a grown a kind of family between all of us. That’s what Sure We Can is, a second home for all the recyclers who come here.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Sure We Can diverts 12 million pieces of waste from landfills and waterways annually while distributing nearly $1 million to the canning community.
RYAN CASTALIA: We think sustainable urban culture comes back to this holistic approach to service and community work. So that sense of, oh, the manufacturer makes the material, it gets sold to the consumer, it gets recaptured by the redemption system, returned to the manufacturer, and repurposed into a new container – that’s the structural idea of the circular economy.
When we want to talk about sustainability, we can’t just talk about materials. We have to talk about communities and people as well, in terms of the way we empower folks, the way we work against exclusivity, the way we break apart imbalances in terms of economic power and social power, work against stigma like racism and classism – that these are part of a sustainable culture.
We’re not just talking about better recycling systems, we’re talking about a transformation in terms of culture, in terms of the way we are with each other, and the way we treat each other, and the way we treat materials as well.
RENE DEL CARMEN (translation): Our community itself has the right to sow something and see how their seedlings are going. And these are the results. For our people.
RYAN CASTALIA: Our dream is to not just be redemption center, but a circular community center, is what we call it. Where you can come to engage in art, creativity, sustainability, gardening, redemption, repair, upcycling – again, a sustainable urban culture, that’s what we’re after.
Canners are the front line of the new culture. They embody all the clichéd things you’d think about New York and what makes New York special. You know, the melting pot, the hustle spirit, the get it done, the working together, you know, everyone up in the mix. The canners bring that like nobody else, you know?
If you look at the work that the canners have done over 40 years of the Bottle Bill existing, I mean, it’s just monumental. Millions and millions of tons of waste diverted. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas prevented from reaching the atmosphere. I mean, if there were more of that, more Sure We Cans, more of this spirit of, “How can I serve the person who has the least while also lifting myself up, while also lifting up my whole community?”
You know, we’re all here at Sure We Can trying to figure out what makes a better world. And I think those environments are very rare, and if that’s not deserving of support, I don’t know what is.
How NFF’s tailored lending and technical assistance helped Sure We Can meet its daily operating needs
RYAN CASTALIA: The legislative context is really important because it very strictly governs the system in which we exist.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Under New York’s “Bottle Bill” law, you pay a 5-cent deposit when purchasing certain beverages. You get that money back when you return the container to a store or redemption center.
RYAN CASALIA: The bottle bill is actually the most effective recycling system in the whole state for the materials that it covers. It has like a 65% diversion rate. Compare that to the city’s curbside recycling, which is under 20%.
RYAN WILLIAMS: Our economy is not really supportive of these types of efforts. Sure We Can is one of few organizations that really operate on a nonprofit model. And so the focus is really less on financial return, but more on social impact.
TENZING CHADOTSANG: It’s not just like hunky dory, like, “Oh you take the bottle and you send it back and you get the money from the company.” No. The companies don’t want the bottles redeemed. They make it very difficult for Sure We Can to get that money back. And what happens is Sure We Can has to upfront pay all the canners to get their bottles, right? So, all these bottles that are here, Sure We Can’s already paid the canners. Now they have to send it back to the company who sends them the redemption fees at some point – like sometimes quickly, sometimes for years they don’t. So then Sure We Can is out of money for a long period of time, and running the organization needs a certain amount of cash flow.
TEXT ON SCREEN: In 2021 NFF provided Sure We Can with a $250,000 zero-interest bridge loan to cover delays in reimbursement made worse by the pandemic.
RYAN WILLIAMS: And so they didn’t have a cash issue. They had a cash flow issue, something out of Sure We Can’s control. So, when we’re able to provide capital to an organization that allows them to meet those day-to-day operating needs, they can then start to think about the opportunities and strategies that they want to put in place to persist into the future and hopefully in perpetuity.
How NFF's financing facilitated Sure We Can's purchase of their property to serve their community where they are
RYAN CASTALIA: The nature of the canner community– many of whom are older folks, most of whom all work on foot because they can be penalized by the city if they don’t – we’re in a position where if we were to move, there would be just, again, a huge gap for these people who’ve come to depend on us. What we’ve built here on this site can’t be translated somewhere else. I don’t know how we could ask people to come together and envision a future without to say like, “This is where that can happen.”
TEXT ON SCREEN: In 2023, Sure We Can purchased the property they have operated on for over a decade with the help of a $2 million loan from NFF and a $600,000 loan from SeaChange Capital Partners.
RICHARD BARNES: It just provides certain assurances, owning property versus renting, as anybody who lives in New York can really attest to. It then provides some more operational longevity for them. They now have a platform now as owners to really plan into the future. The community that they serve is growing in various needs and it’s just more operationally astute for them to be able to call their own shots, guide their own destiny in terms of really providing a safe space into the community.
RYAN CASTALIA: Renting out a big space like this is not easy. And space is key because, I think as we know in environmental justice terms, denial of space is a huge part of marginalization. To be able to come into a space where they’re protected by the elements, they can take their time counting and sorting, have space on site where they can store materials in between sessions. For canners who say, have spent, you know, 10 to 12 hours outside collecting bottles and cans, in this sense, just the provision of space really serves to promote that dignification of the experience of being a canner and the work itself.
RYAN WILLIAMS: It’s not just a place for folks to come redeem their cans. It’s a place where folks can come and really be in a community. I think that’s such a powerful part of what Sure We Can does. Their space feels like it belongs to everyone, you know, not just an individual, not those who just work at Sure We Can, not just the canners, but really a community.
Learn more about Sure We Can’s work to support their local community through social inclusion, environmental awareness, and economic empowerment.
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