LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Michigan State University is welcoming tailgaters back to campus for the first time since the start of the pandemic. In a stadium that seats more than 70,000, fans can generate a lot of trash. But with the return of tailgating comes the return of a lucrative sidekick and game day tradition. Sarah Lehr of member station WKAR reports.
SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: Here in East Lansing, Mich., one tradition is for tailgaters to toss empty cans onto the grass during Michigan State's home games. 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. So-called canners make money by collecting these 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 the 1970s 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 says he makes about $100 on a typical game day at MSU.
ROY MORGAN: I probably hustle a little bit more than others.
LEHR: Morgan ties trash bags to his bike and weaves through the most popular tailgate lots just after kickoff.
MORGAN: If you hustle a little bit more, you get more cans.
LEHR: MSU officials cut off Morgan's side hustle last year when they banned tailgating because of the pandemic, and that came as the state suspended bottle returns for nearly three months due to concerns over possible COVID contamination. Now bottle and can returns are back, and so is Holly Rutter. The longtime canner pushes her cart across campus, looking for cans that aren't crushed. Rutter says, years ago, she and her husband Bobby were short on grocery money when she was struck with inspiration. What about all those cans sitting in their basement?
HOLLY RUTTER: I said, hey, Bobby, all these cans are down here from the game. We turned all those cans in. We had over $300 worth of cans. We had food for the house, didn't we?
LEHR: Noleen Chikowore studied canners' culture for her doctorate dissertation at MSU. She says many are low-income and are harassed if they dig through other people's trash. But canners told her that in part because of that stigma, they only collect recyclables at tailgates on game day.
NOLEEN CHIKOWORE: 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.
LEHR: Mike Benjamin is glad to return to Spartan Stadium after a long pandemic-related hiatus. Music blares as he stoops over to pick up cans. He says his earnings depend on how long he stays at it.
MIKE BENJAMIN: Anywhere from, like, $80 to $150, so - yeah, it's not that bad. I'm only out here usually for, like, an hour and a half.
LEHR: Benjamin says early season games are best for canners because of the warm weather. And it helps when MSU plays its arch rivals like the University of Michigan or the Ohio State University. That means more fans and more drinking and increased income for everyone targeting football games to collect recyclables.
For NPR news, I'm Sarah Lehr in East Lansing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FIGHT SONG, "VICTORY FOR MSU")
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