WASHINGTON—A report on growing disparities in the concentration of U.S. aluminum-can wealth, released Tuesday by the Department of Commerce, revealed that 66 percent of the nation's recyclable assets are now held by the poorest 1 percent of the population.
According to the sobering report, the disproportionate distribution of soda-can wealth is greater than ever before, and has become one of the worst instances of economic inequality in the nation's history. Data showed that over-salvaging of cans by a small and elite group of can-horders has created a steadily growing and possibly unbridgeable gap between the rich and the mega-poor.
"Although our nation's upper middle class actually consumes the most beverages, a staggering percentage of these cans wind up in the hands of a very few," said economist Cynthia Pierce, who worked as a consultant on the three-year, $14 million government study. "It's a troubling trend. And as a tiny fraction of the population continues to maintain its stranglehold on redeemable can wealth, it's a trend that shows no sign of slowing."
According to Pierce, the study points to a distinct economic advantage for the most can-affluent—those who possess the resources necessary to collect, transport, separate, and accumulate more and more cans than the rest of the population.
"Members of this exclusive group come from exceedingly poor backgrounds and have access to outrageously low levels of education, which makes them much better prepared to reap the benefits of digging around in garbage," Pierce added.
The report details several key factors involved in the lopsided distribution of container wealth, including aggressive foraging, which leads to higher returns on deposits and a tendency to reinvest can profits in additional redeemables, such as beer. In addition, the report found that those involved in the returnable-gathering industry often minimize financial risk by diversifying between aluminum cans and glass-bottle holdings.
While less than 1 percent of Americans own the domestic rights to a majority of Coca-Cola and Pepsi cans, this same group has also cornered the international market by branching out into such imported container commodities as Fanta and Perrier.
"The typical American spends an average of $65 on beverages for every dollar he or she earns back through redeemable deposits, and the rest of that money goes to the country's can and bottle barons," the report stated. "Americans who are at a foraging disadvantage due to over-employment and home ownership therefore have limited access to these discarded commodities, causing the market to unfairly favor those with an exclusively disposables income."
Perhaps more alarming, the report continued, the can monopoly enjoyed by the poorest 1 percent has been unintentionally buoyed by millions of environment-conscious Americans who leave plastic bags full of recycling in front of their homes, which are in turn preyed upon by enterprising collectors.
"These people were born into a lifestyle, often going back generations, where any can left on the street is seen as their birthright, whether they purchased it or not," Houston resident Dale Palmer said. "They have the knowledge and ability to get out there and scoop up all the good cans before anyone even knew they were there."
The vast disparity in can-wealth distribution is difficult to understand for many Americans. Most people, according to the report, cannot relate to the lifestyles of the super-poor, who never have to go to work, pay a mortgage, or struggle to find money for rent.
One canned individual cited in the study is can tycoon Will Dorsey, a 33-year-old Detroit resident who spent his childhood living off the funds collected from his family's vast can holdings. At the age of 16, Dorsey inherited five carts and dozens of garbage bags overflowing with recyclables when his father passed away unexpectedly one cold December morning.
According to economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, people like Dorsey, who maintain an ultra-poor lifestyle that is vastly different from the rest of the population, are egregiously out of touch with the everyday economic realities of mainstream America.
"Dorsey is one of those select few who come from old can money," Krugman said. "They're just hoarding their assets so nobody else can benefit. And then they parade down the street with their carts full of recycling."
In the wake of the report's disturbing findings, many citizens claim to feel exploited by those who convert their discarded property into cash or change without sharing the incredible profits.
"It's not fair," Chicago native Melissa Arnold said. "Something should be done to even the playing field."
In an attempt to mitigate the disparities in soda-can wealth distribution, Congress is currently exploring numerous options, including levying an 80 percent tax on the incomes of those possessing 100 or more refundable containers, with the ultimate goal of eliminating all recycling programs by 2010.