When Kate and I were kids, returnable bottles commanded a hefty two cents apiece. One of my early memories was of she and I sitting on the tailgate of Dad’s 1949 Dodge pickup as he drove slowly up East Sennebec Road. Each time he saw a bottle, he’d stop and we would retrieve it. When we had a sufficient amount, he’d take us up to Appleton where we’d wander around the store as Merton Wadsworth counted our booty. The money was split and usually immediately invested in candy or soda.
Not long after, Maine did away with deposits. By that time I was earning better money raking blueberries or taking care of Berta Dirion’s laying hens after school and on weekends, so I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I returned to Maine after graduating from college that I resumed my career as a ditch miner.
I’ve always loved the idea of treasure, whether in reality, a story or in a computer game. It’s a big part of the allure in entering sweepstakes, but that same feeling exists, albeit on a smaller scale, when looking for returnables. Most people don’t bother, especially younger ones. Old farts like me, however, get a sense of satisfaction at picking up something discarded and turning it into cash. Heck, five cents is five cents, more if you find a liquor bottle (then it’s fifteen cents). The government can’t tax what you take in, the roadsides are a tiny bit cleaner and exercise is generally involved. Over the years, I’ve developed a ritual: Pick up one can/bottle a day and good luck will eventually accrue.
When Sara and Lisa were little, we replicated (with a safer seating arrangement) what Dad did with Kate and I. We’d make out like gangbusters right after snow melted, revealing all the ones tossed over a three month span. The money accumulated, coupled with money from refunding, went into mutual funds for the girls. By the time we needed to tap it, there was enough (thanks to a bull market) to cover a significant part of their undergraduate expenses.
I still try to snag one a day and now that I’m retired, I sometimes park my car and walk a ways on both sides of a back road. For every one I see while driving, there are generally four more I can’t see. During my forays, I’ve been kicked off I-95 three times by state troopers, found a wallet with no identification, but containing a dollar bill, found more working disposable lighters than I can count and even found a couple music CDs.
Sometimes, I come across something that’s more valuable than meets the eye. Twenty years ago, I found a V-8 can that had a contest form on the inside. I filled it out, sent it in and a month later got a check in the mail for $1,000. Another time, I was taking care of Mom after eye surgery. When she took a nap, I grabbed a plastic bag and worked the road from one end of the property to the other. Halfway down the road, I spotted a baggie sticking out of a pile of leaves. Inside was a large plastic needle and a note informing me I’d found a needle in a haystack. Birds & Blooms Magazine had sent people in all 50 states out to deposit these along roadsides to see how many would be picked up by people cleaning up trash. I mailed mine in and got $50.00 for my effort.
Over the past fifteen years, bottles from Coke and Pepsi products have included something above and beyond the nickel deposit, codes that can get cool stuff. Coke started it with their My Coke Rewards program. Codes were printed under caps that could be entered online for prizes. Pepsi jumped in and codes from their products could be redeemed for movies on VHS (this was the late 1990s). Library patrons got behind the idea while I was working in Boothbay Harbor and we were able to add close to 100 new videos to the collection.
When I started at the Hartland Public Library, the codes could be used to enter sweepstakes for better prizes. One summer, we were able to give young readers over $1000 worth of bikes, MP3 players and music CDs thanks to Pepsi. Best of all, one cap entry netted Beth and I a weekend trip to Jacksonville, FL., where we had luxury box seats for a Jaguars/Browns football game. We also spent a morning at the beach and another at the Jacksonville Zoo. More recently, we used Coke points to get magazine subscriptions for the library.
Anyone can set up an account to use Coke caps and codes from 12 and 24 packs of any of their products. My current favorite redemption is for Amazon.com gift cards,
In the course of ditch mining, I’ve learned a few interesting things. The best time to work a roadside is Sunday morning because all the drunks toss more redeemables on Saturday night. Interstate off-ramps are good too as are dirt roads any time. People are creatures of habit. When I used to work the property in Union, I found the same contents in a paper bag in almost the same spot every weekend: 2 empty Bud bottles and a Big Mac wrapper. Another thing I’ve learned, don’t ignore discarded instant scratch tickets. A guy named Leroy clued me in on the fact that many people are a bit too hammered to know whether they’ve got a winner. (He said the best places to look for them is in convenience store parking lots on Sunday mornings.) I’ve found a few winners myself.
Looking for a funky revenue stream, exercise and an occasional surprise? Ditch mining might be for you.