Tailgaters toss empty cans onto the grass as they gather on Sept. 11 in East Lansing, Mich., to watch Michigan State University’s first home game of the season.
Other cans and bottles are stacked on the ground surrounding trash cans.
These fans aren’t littering. They’re merely playing a role in the game day ecosystem.
Canners make money by collecting empty cans and bottles, and most canners prefer when tailgaters leave those recyclables in piles — it’s easier than rooting through the garbage.
Canners are a byproduct of a state law adopted in 1976 to promote recycling. People in Michigan can get 10 cents for each can or bottle they return to a store.
Nine other states also reimburse people for returning beverage containers, but Michigan’s redemption rate is one of the most generous.
Roy Morgan ties trash bags to his bike and weaves through the most popular tailgate lots just after kickoff. He says he makes about $100 from a typical game day.
“I probably hustle a little bit more than others,” Morgan said. “You hustle a little bit more, you get more cans.”
MSU officials cut off Morgan’s side hustle last year when they banned tailgating because of the coronavirus pandemic. And that came after the state suspended bottle returns for nearly three months in 2020 due to concerns over possible COVID contamination.
Now, bottle and can returns are back and so is Holly Rutter. The long-time canner pushes her cart across campus looking for cans that aren’t crushed. She scoops the cans into trash bags, and double bags each one to prevent ripping. The bags have their corners cut off so liquid can drain out.
Years ago, Rutter and her husband, Bobby, were short on grocery money when she was struck with inspiration: What about all those cans sitting in their basement?
“I said, ‘Hey, Bobby, all these cans are down here from the game,'” Rutter remembered. “We turned all those cans in. We had over $300 worth of cans. We had food for the house, didn’t we?”
Noleen Chikowore studied canners’ culture for her doctoral dissertation at MSU. She says many canners are low-income and they face harassment if they dig through other people’s trash.
On game day, that stigma is lessened.
“Because of the celebratory kind of atmosphere at football tailgates, it makes it easier for canners to be more socially acceptable than in other places,” Chikowore said. “Most of the canners indicated that they only collect cans at football tailgates because it’s a much safer kind of environment as compared to collecting in neighborhoods.”
MSU’s stadium seats more than 75,000 people and those fans generate a lot of trash. For canners like Mike Benjamin, the garbage represents a lucrative side gig. He makes between $80 and $150 each game day.
“It’s not that bad,” Benjamin said. “I’m only out here usually for like an hour and a half.”
Canners say early season games are best because of the warm weather. And it helps when Michigan State plays its archrivals like the University of Michigan or The Ohio State University.
“The more the people, the more the drinking, the more the cans you pick up,” Morgan said.