ST. ALBANS, Vt. -
You could call him Franklin County's king of cans or the boss of bottle returns-- earning a living less than a nickel at a time.
"It's got to be tough, but he's doing it and he's staying busy," said Trever Gosselin, a customer.
Todd Lawyer runs Bottles Returns on Wheels from the back of a box truck. He drives his mobile redemption center to businesses and homes, giving customers cash on the spot for their empties.
"I'll build a route up so I'm not just going for one customer, but I'm going for four or five customers, that way we build up. We can get 5,000 to 6,000 empties sometimes in a route just like that," said Lawyer.
The idea came to Lawyer during one of life's low points. In 2009 he lost his job with Champlain Cable. Uncertain when or where his next paycheck would come, he started dreaming up new ways to support his family. The silver lining of his layoff turned out to be aluminum.
"I went to my mother's house one day and I saw a bunch of empties on her porch and I said, 'just wouldn't it be great if somebody were to come by and take care of those for you,'" said Lawyer.
Lawyer cashed in some of his 401(k) and took a chance on a company with his son. But Joe McGuire was skeptical his dad's plan would pan out. The profit margin was mere pennies. Initially they were offering customers 3 cents for empties and 11 cents for liquor bottles.
"That didn't work at all. So we called the state up to see what we had to do in terms of being a redemption center ourselves," said Lawyer.
In 2011, they increased their payouts and opened up shop at the Quansit Hut off Route 7 in St. Albans. He jokes it's the very best lemonade stand he's ever built.
Walk-in customers get 6 cents for their bottles and cans, and a nickel each for pickup service. Lawyer converts that into real cash by selling the bulk empties to a sorting solution business called Tomra. The company pays him 9 cents for Coke products and 8.5 cents for the rest.
"We only make 2.5 cents per empty but we count on the volume that comes through here to be able to maintain a living," said Lawyer.
On their busiest day, 24,000 empties came in. I tagged along to see how it's done. Our first stop was a pharmaceutical company in Milton. We hauled in more than 600 empties. They're all sorted by hand in the back of the truck. And you've got to be quick.
Reporter Jennifer Costa: Coke. Coke. Coke. Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew. You're a little bit faster than I was. Oh wait, I wasn't counting.
Lawyer: It's OK. You've got 10.
I should have known I couldn't keep up with a pro. Lawyer nearly doubled my sort.
Costa: How many did you have?
Costa: Oh man.
Lawyer: My son kicks my butt all the time. His hands are bigger and he just flies right through. We get in competitions and I always lose.
Costa: I lost this one, but I'm learning.
Back on the road he hits a few more stops, scooping up empties from a Boy Scout bottle drive and finishing his route with a residential pickup.
"Here you go, 131 empties came out to $6.55," said Lawyer.
Trever Gosselin has used Bottles Returns on Wheels for more than two years. He says you can't beat the convenience.
"This guy reeks of honesty," said Gosselin.
Five years after Lawyer picked up his first can, he's earning about $1,000 per week. He's attracted high-volume clients like Smugglers' Notch and Hannaford. He rakes in 40,000 empties per week. But he can't take everything.
"This bottle here is a non-deposit and this one is a deposit. It just doesn't make any sense. It just plain doesn't make any sense. They're the same thing. Take the label off and you wouldn't know the difference between the two of them," said Lawyer.
Vermont law says only carbonated beverage bottles are eligible for redemption, a rule Lawyer would like to see change, arguing it would keep recyclables out of landfills and put more people back to work.
"Anybody can do what I'm doing and make a profit out if it," said Lawyer.