Locals Give Back, One Can at a Time

December 12, 2023
• “The people in Needham are very thirsty,” Christine Dinneen said Saturday morning, watching bins at the Recycling and Transfer Station fill up. But the more soda bottles, beer cans and sparkling water containers, the better.

Many of those cans are rounded up outside a sizable shed at the station, originally built and used by the Boy Scouts but since repurposed for Cans for Calcium, a program Christine’s brother-in-law Jeff Dinneen started in retirement. With a small crew of teenage volunteers, he sorts and redeems those bottles, donating all the proceeds to the Needham Community Council’s food pantry.

In Massachusetts, the purchase of certain drinks comes with a five-cent bottle deposit, but residents can earn back that nickel at redemption facilities across the Commonwealth. While the average consumer may not make the trek with just a few cans in tow, Jeff Dinneen will.

NHS freshman Lucetta Walters sorts through bins of redeemable bottles for Cans for Calcium at the Recycling and Transfer Station Dec. 9, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

With thousands of cans in the back of his car, Dinneen drives to Macy’s Liquors in West Roxbury three to four times a week, aiming to redeem $2,000 per month — that’s 40,000 cans. As the end of the year approaches, he said Cans for Calcium is on track to make around $30,000.

“I’ve never had a problem having a meal, as you could tell,” Dinneen joked, “but people do, and I feel bad. This is something I felt as though I could do to help that nobody else was doing.”

Under NCC Executive Director Sandy Robinson’s direction, Dinneen started buying milk for the pantry with the money he earned redeeming bottles. Previously, the council gravitated toward shelf-stable milk, as it lasted longer and was less expensive. But milk is on everyone’s grocery list, Robinson said, and is by far their “greatest need.”

“Getting fresh milk on a regular basis is hard,” Robinson said. “Particularly to have somebody bring it to us two to three times a week is just phenomenal.”

Cans for Calcium celebrated 2 million cans collected in September 2023. With a five-cent bottle deposit, that amounts to $100,000, all of which went to the Needham Community Council food pantry. (Courtesy of the Needham Community Council)

Since starting the program five years ago, they’ve expanded to bananas — another source of calcium — as well as laundry detergent and other grocery items. Over a 12-month period, Cans for Calcium donated 20,000 pounds of groceries, according to the NCC. They reached their 2 million can milestone in September, the equivalent of $100,000.

And Dinneen isn’t alone. Needham High School students — including his nephew Kieran Dinneen, Kieran’s friend Max Hammer and freshmen Maisie Berger and Lucetta Walters — help out.

Volunteering with Cans for Calcium started as Berger’s mitzvah project, wherein bar and bat mitzvah students find ways to give back. Now at 15, Berger said she just “never really stopped,” and has since recruited her friend Lucetta Walters, 14, to the cause.

The girls spent their Saturday morning sorting glass and aluminum before bagging them up for Dinneen to redeem. The work is a little dirty, and they sometimes encounter bees and mysterious liquids, but they see the impact. And they wear gloves.

Needham High School freshmen Maisie Berger, left, and Lucetta Walters, 14, dump a bin full of cans into a 60-gallon trash bag at the Needham Recycling and Transfer Station Dec. 9, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

Less than halfway through her freshman year, Berger has already spent 30 hours volunteering — the NHS graduation requirement is 60. But even after she completes that, Berger said she doesn’t plan on slowing down.

“It’s the least I can do because I’ve been lucky enough to, all my life, never have to have any food insecurity,” Berger said. “I never had to worry about where my next meal would be… and that’s not true for everyone.”

As she scoured through the bins, Walters picked out non-redeemable items, including plastic water bottles, Gatorade and plastic food containers. Engaging with locals at the station helps both promote the program and gather more cans, she said.

“It’s great to talk to people and educate them,” Walters said. “We just try to tell them what they can and what they shouldn’t bring.”

A Cans for Calcium barrel begins to fill with redeemable bottles at the Recycling and Transfer Station Dec. 9, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

Cans eligible for redemption can be identified by a small “MA” and “5¢” somewhere on the can.

Robinson said 335 Needham families rely on the food pantry twice a month, and the NCC conducts 350 monthly food pantry visits. They’re anticipating an even greater need as a result of the conflicts in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, which may bring more refugees to the area.

After retiring from Roche Bros., Dinneen was looking for a way to support the community in which he grew up. As a child, Dinneen joined the Cub Scouts, where troops were tasked with collecting bottles for a bottle drive. By himself, he raised more than any other group, he said. At the time, deposits were two cents, he said.

His passion for service comes from his mom, he said.

“One year, (the town) decided to put flower pots around every single parking meter in Needham. My mother had eight kids. She’d wake up at 5:30 in the morning, and she would go pick the weeds out of all those pots,” Dinneen said.

Of the 10 states with bottle bills, Massachusetts boasts the lowest redemption rate of 38% as of 2021, according to the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute. Back in the late 1980s and ’90s, the state rate was about 81%, and in 2019, it was 50%.

That means Cans for Calcium doesn’t receive potentially millions of cans. By Dinneen’s loose estimation — not accounting for population — Needham specifically misses out on more than $100,000 through bottle redemption.

Lucetta Walters, left, and Maisie Berger pick out redeemable bottles and cans from a dumpster at the Recycling and Transfer Station Dec. 9, 2023. (Cameron Morsberger)

A proposal to increase the bottle deposit from five to 10 cents is on the horizon, but progress is slow. With its passage may also come the inclusion of other bottles, including drinks like Powerade, which would more than double Dinneen’s earnings.

At the various commingle sites at the Recycling and Transfer Station, there’s a green, labeled bin exclusively for Cans for Calcium. But as Berger knows well, not everyone uses it.

On Saturday, Berger looked into the big dumpster, pointing out redeemables she could spot at the top of the pile. Using a shovel, she tried gathering a few to add to the Cans for Calcium stockpile. Berger and Walters also flagged down residents tossing their recyclables, asking frantically to take their cans from them. Some were confused, but most were happy to oblige.

Maisie Berger, 15, holds up bottles she picked out of a dumpster at the Recycling and Transfer Station Dec. 9, 2023.  (Cameron Morsberger)

The girls thanked Needham resident JR Drabick as he placed his cans in the bin.

“It doesn’t cost anything,” Drabick said. “I’m extremely grateful for the work they’re doing.”

Hung Dang, another resident, off-loaded his bags of cans at the shed, something he said he does frequently. When asked why he chooses to donate to Cans for Calcium, he put it simply: “We drink beer.”

Dinneen said he also collects cans from landscapers, as well as the Needham Golf Club and Charles River Country Club. With assistance from his younger counterparts, he said he’s looking to expand the effort to local restaurants.

Seeing the positive effect his work has — including the purchase of a new fridge at the NCC — keeps him going.

“It’s just a feel-good for me,” Dinneen said.

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