If you have ever spent time in the Mods on early mornings or after football games, you may have noticed an older woman searching through the recycling bins for cans. Sometimes there are two or more women in the Mods at the same time, and they often carry a cart stacked with can-filled plastic garbage bags. Wearing gloves, they pick out our empty cans of Natural Light and Coke bottles stained with the smell of rum. Most BC students refer to the women in the singular as “Can Lady.”
The practice of collecting discarded cans and returning them is pretty common among the poor and homeless across the United States. In Massachusetts, there is a five cent deposit on many beverage containers, and under the “Bottle Bill,” retailers must redeem these containers for the value of the deposit.
I found an article about can collecting in San Francisco, a city with a homeless population around 6,800, slightly larger than that of Boston. California has a similar “Bottle Bill” in place, rewarding recyclers with around five cents for returning found cans and bottles. The article told several stories about the competitiveness among can and bottle collectors, who must reach the recyclables early in the morning or late at night before other people get to them. It also addresses the hard times that led people to scrounge for extra money by digging through recycling bins. Most are unemployed, many are immigrants and retired seniors trying to supplement social security or welfare benefits.
During the 2008 recession, the Greater Boston Area saw an increase in individuals and organizations returning empty cans and bottles for revenue. The Boston Globe reported that bottle and can return locations saw increases in deposits, with retirees, unemployed people, and even young families looking for a few extra dollars.
When Michael McGee, CSOM ’18, lived off campus, he once witnessed a woman tearing open trash bags to look for recyclables, leaving a mess on the sidewalk that he then had to clean. McGee also noted that he had seen the women on campus hundreds of times where they were not destructive. I think this story helps draw a distinction between digging through curbside trash and collecting cans from mod recycling bins. The bins outside the Mods are nearly always brimming with bottles and cans, and they are very easy to take without being too disruptive. It is no wonder that these women flock to lower campus for recyclables.
At Boston College most people seem to treat “Can Lady” as a joke. In 2016, the trashy clickbait outlet The Tab published a piece declaring Can Lady “the real MVP.” It featured photos of several clearly different elderly women hauling bags of recyclables. And, on April Fool’s Day of 2005, The Heights reported in a satirical article that the “Mod Can Lady earns her first million dollars,” poking fun at someone clearly very desperate for money. This was in 2005, so people (most likely not the same women) have used BC as an ideal spot for collecting recyclables for at least a decade.
Is it supposed to be funny that there are desperate—possibly homeless—women collecting our recycling? It seems pretty dehumanizing to reduce a group of women to a single caricature, giving them all one nickname. It assumes that they are similar enough to be regarded as one person. I also find it interesting that the word lady was chosen, as it connotes high status. This seems to be used to mock the perceived low status of the women.
BCPD officers have been accused in the past of forcing “Can Lady” to leave. I spoke with one student, who wishes to remain anonymous, about an incident that occurred last fall after a football game. According to this student, three male BCPD officers surrounded the woman—one revved his motorcycle engine while another threatened to arrest her. Apparently the woman had relieved herself outside one of the Mods, and someone had reported her (honestly, who hasn’t peed or barfed near the Mods at least once?).
According to the student, the woman seemed to speak little to no English and looked very disconcerted and confused when accosted by police. The student intervened, and described the officers as being generally disrespectful to the woman and the whole experience as very upsetting. BCPD did not respond to a request for comment on this issue.
Some of my fellow Mod denizens support BCPD’s removal of can and bottle collectors—our campus is private property. But don’t people deserve to be treated with respect? And isn’t it the responsibility of a Jesuit institution to educate students—both in the classroom and in practice—to help people who clearly need it?
From talking to my peers, the BC community seems to know very little about these women. One student mentioned that one of their names might be Theresa.
I’m not sure what the solution should be, but surely there’s a better option than treating people in need so disrespectfully. “Can Lady” seems like more of a joke in this community than it should be. Clearly the cans and bottles outside the Mods are a reliable form of revenue for desperate people, but that doesn’t mean we can treat the people who collect them like trash.
Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor