How to Pick Up Cans for Fun and Profit

My state of Iowa is one of eleven in the United States that has a container deposit law. Iowa mandates a deposit of five cents per container of carbonated beverage at the point of purchase.

Other states charge ten cents or more depending on the size and type of material the container is made of, and some include fruit juice and bottled water containers.

When the containers are returned to a grocery store or redemption center you get the deposit back.

Enough Background…What About The Profit Part?

Not everyone returns their cans for the deposit they paid. When that happens it is up for grabs, if you can find the cans.

Some of the homeless people in my area have almost turned the skill of can hunting into a science. You can see the best ones coming into the redemption centers at the end of the day with bulging plastic garbage bags full of found treasure. A few, the real pros, have modified shopping carts or even bikes with huge wire baskets to speed up the job and take a load off the back.

In the face of such devotion and skill I am but a lowly part time amateur, but I can point out some places I have had success and share my observations of homeless techniques.

Rivers and Lakes

I have had pretty good luck around bodies of water, which seem to bring out the inner-slob in a lot of people. Fishing spots can yield a collection of beer cans among the empty night crawler containers, fishing hook packages and dead carp.

By checking the woods around a lake or along a river and you will surely come across an abandoned teenage party spot. These can offer the greatest variety of cans and bottles, such as a few cans of six different kinds of beer along with, for example, a banana wine bottle, a couple liters of Mountain Dew and a whiskey bottle. If there is the presence of vomit or the smell of urine you are on your own. I don’t know how the homeless handle this situation but I just keep on walking.


Shelter houses and the park woods can also produce teenage party spots, as mentioned above.

A real bonanza can be park trash cans or barrels. Families or twenty-somethings many times don’t want to hassle with who is going to return all of those cans so into the trash can they go with all the rest of the garbage. Usually you have to dig a little, but it can be worth the patience. Gloves can speed up the job and embolden one to dig a little deeper. For me a can with unidentified spoogie on it stays in the trash can, but I suppose that’s a judgment call.

Roads and Highways

This option is mentioned as observation only, as I have not walked roads looking for cans and bottles. My guess would be the more traffic a road has the better your chances of finding cans. Also, a higher concentration of people along a road, such as downtown streets, could increase the yield.

Thinking about roads led me to ponder the bounty Interstate Welcome Center trash cans could produce. Not practical to drive around checking them, but maybe worth a spot check while you are traveling.

Outdoor Sporting Events and Concerts

Trash cans and parking lots near where sporting events and concerts have been held can be easy pickins’. Soccer fields, high schools, Little League fields, you get the idea. Apply the same hygiene precautions as mentioned above.

Seriously, Buck…Where Is The Fun In That?

I guess it is a bit like a treasure hunt. You are probably not going to find a chest of gold, but you will usually make a few dollars per outing, get some exercise walking around and help keep your community clean. What’s not to like about that?

Additional Reading:

10 Interesting Ways to Make Some Side Cash

How To Save Money By Salvaging

Save Money By Foraging

Ten Ways I Have Made Money Since Loosing My Job

Bottle Bill Resource Guide


  1. A suggestion if you don't want to be bothered with can redemption yourself, leave the cans by the curb and someone less fortunate than yourself will come along & pick them up. My neighbor does this for one of the older gals in our neighborhood who routinely walks her dogt. We know she lives on a fixed income & is always thankful for the can left out for her.

  2. Yeah mate - South Australia (down under !) is the ONLY Australian state to have container deposit law (10c)....the homeless guys and not so-homeless guys make a nice buck or two from this ! Great :)

  3. My brother went to school in Michigan where they also have can redemption. He and his girlfriend at the time used to collect cans. It helped put them both through school. He was always so amazed that even with their high redemption price (I think 10 cents) and availability of places to return them, that so many people wound just cast aside their cans. He said their were always lots of other "poor college kids" that would be collecting them.

    Great way to get rid of some of the litter. I wish my state (Illinois) would start doing this!

  4. You didn't mention that states without deposits still have recycling centers that will buy aluminum and other recyclable metals (alum cans range from about 30-60 cents/lb). Just check your phone book. We collected roadside cans during twice weekly walks- a different route each time- and made over $200 in just a few months. (Plus got extra exercise from all that bending). With pieces of scrap aluminum and copper wiring my boyfriend got from his construction worksite trash- we made over $1000 in one year!

  5. any rural, non iterstate highway has more cans along the side of it than carter has peanuts.Also the interstate rest areas and ramps are a hot spot,I use to work maintainence at an interstate rest area. The truckers are pretty genourous about throwing the cans away.

  6. Thanks for the tips. Some of these ideas I never even thought about. I need the exercise anyway. Thanks again!!!!!


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