Research Findings

Mismatched meaning making at a bottle and can redemption center


August 28, 2020

Every day — even in the midst of a global pandemic — men and women known as “canners” spend hours trawling city streets for empty bottles and cans. Many bring their containers to redemption centers, where they sell their wares for five cents apiece. In turn, redemption centers sell recyclables at a profit to beverage distribution companies, which must purchase them under local laws like New York’s Bottle Bill.

What motivates these workers? In a recently published study, I find that canners are motivated primarily by the money they make from bottle and can redemption, and by work conditions like job autonomy and the ability to work without papers.

But when I asked what motivates management of a non-profit redemption center, they offered a different answer. Instead, they said that recycling provides more than just economic return, but also does social, environmental, and even spiritual good. These divergent interpretations are not surprising: while canners often come to recycling as a result of their precarious economic position, research shows that those working in the social sector are often driven by an organization’s mission.

What is surprising is that these mismatched interpretations of the meaning of redemption work led to disputes around organizational policy, as both sets of workers viewed their relationship to one another divergently. I documented these disputes at the non-profit redemption center where I spent over a year conducting an organizational ethnography.

For example, management required canners to sort recyclables by brand, viewing the practice as a way for canners to spend more time at the redemption center and thus build positive community and pro-social behaviors. By contrast, canners complained about the requirement as an example of organizational control. While management saw sorting as imperative to the organization’s mission of social intervention, canners saw the requirement as a time-consuming, restrictive labor practice.

To take another example, the non-profit did not readily provide supplies to canners, like protective gloves, trash bags, or cardboard boxes. Instead, the organization sold these items to canners or dispensed with them reluctantly, using the logic that the canners needed to learn to provide for themselves. Canners often expressed frustration with not being given the tools to do their jobs.

Canners also refused to relate their work to environmentalism, even though it would not cost them time nor money to do so. While management held an annual Earth Day celebration where they touted the ecological benefits of recycling to the public and hired an expert from overseas to install a methane gas electricity generator, canners denied that they recycle for environmental reasons and expressed that they wished the organization spend funds on directly improving their work conditions.

These examples show that disputes over organizational policies can arise simply from mismatched interpretations of work’s meaning, and need not stem from overt coercion from management nor resistance from canners. The ambiguous relationship between canners and management — canners saw themselves as employees and management their employer, while management saw themselves as service providers and canners their service recipients — led to unintended consequences. Canners viewed the non-profit as less supportive of their work than for-profit redemption centers, where they were treated more akin to employees or customers.

When I asked management about these divergent meaning making practices, they responded that they knew that canners were not motivated by the social or ecological benefits of redemption. Yet they continued with the moral project of the non-profit, refusing to alter tension-provoking policies or re-orient the organization away from moral pursuits to meet canners’ immediate needs.

Why not?

I found that several reasons guided management’s decision to allow social, environment, and even spiritual considerations to guide organizational practice. First, they viewed the moral work as the most important practice of the Center, even more so than helping canners to earn money.

Second, moral meaning making helped management “clean” the dirty work of their day-to-day responsibilities, like sorting through garbage. While management endured punishing work conditions similar to those of canners, infusing the work with moral meaning made the tasks more manageable, allowing management to retain their identity as service providers. 

Finally, this moral orientation was sanctioned by actors external to the organization. Local politicians, other non-profits, and donors gave support to the organization that for-profit redemption centers did not receive. These external actors’ support offered a more salient barometer of organizational success than canners’ reported on-the-ground experiences.

My research shows that mismatched interpretations of work’s meaning, and ambiguously constructed work relationships, can lead to disputes over organizational practices. Non-profits may end up operating in ways that their service population interpret as directly contrary to their mission.

Mismatches in meaning making likely create similar points of contention in comparable industries like health care, education, and child care, where “mixed-form markets” (where non-profit and for-profit providers coexist) permeate. As this model of service provision grows, it will become increasingly important to study the competing interpretations of work among local actors.

Read more

Sarah Iverson. “The Value of Five Cents: Mismatched Meaning Making at a Bottle and Can Redemption Center” in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 2020.

Image: Matt Green via Flicker (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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