Living: Give Me Your Wretched Refuse

Volunteers and vagrants alike make can picking a big business

When London Merchant Peter Durand patented the tin can in 1810, the world was changed forever. Canning revolutionized life on the farm, in the kitchen, on the battlefield. In the 20th century, life would seem primitive and deprived without cans. In 1986 some 102 billion canned items were manufactured. One category of container, the aluminum easy-open beverage can (69 billion produced last year), has so proliferated that the mere existence of empties has engendered a brand-new folk industry. Can picking, some call it.

Thousands of Americans are now caught up in harvesting empties for profit. Charities, civic clubs and groups like...