If you had a way to collect empty cans and convert them into cash, you’d be hard-pressed to find more fruitful hunting grounds in Charleston than the block across from Recovery Room.
Unfortunately for you, that territory is most definitely already taken.
You know that ever-present trailer always piled high with empty PBR cans tucked beneath the Crosstown (formally known as the Septima P. Clark Parkway)? That unassuming downtown fixture is one of Ryan Howard’s top earners.
“There was a little bit of strategic thought” that went into choosing that location, she said with a chuckle.
The registered nurse administers the Medical University of South Carolina’s Burned Children’s Fund, a program founded in 1986 to fund the hospital's pediatric burn center. That trailer under the overpass, like similar ones near Revelry Brewing Co., Riley Park and over a hundred more throughout the state, contains bundle upon bundle of beer cans faithfully drained by Recovery Room regulars.
“Those people like to pump out some aluminum” she said. “They rock and roll.”
Here’s how Charleston’s beer habit is converted into charity cash:
The Burned Children’s Fund partners with fire departments throughout South Carolina; in Charleston, the Fire Marshal’s office coordinates the effort.
“Last year we were No. 2 in the state turning stuff in,” said Deputy Fire Marshal Josh Smith.
Once a trailer is full, a firefighter will tow it to Charleston Steel & Metal, where the load is weighed to calculate its value.
“Then they cut us a check,” Howard said.
The trailer returns to its parking spot under the overpass. The cycle restarts anew.
“I’ve seen it up to 50 cents a pound” locally, Smith said.
With their high cages, trailers like the one by Rec Room can amass around 300 pounds for each load, but they also cost the BCF around $5,000 each to build. Howard and the fund’s board monitor the numbers to make sure they pay for themselves and begin generating revenue.
“We shuffle trailers around to make sure we’re getting the most bang for our buck,” she said.
That’s never been an issue at Recovery Room.
“We can fill that trailer every other week or so,” owner Chris DiMattia said proudly.
No surprise there: the beloved Upper King Street bar is famous for its regular appearance atop Pabst Blue Ribbon’s national sales chart.
“We go through plenty of cans, and we're already saving them anyway,” said DiMattia, who opened Rec Room in 2009.
He said he developed the habit decades ago while working at a bar in his native Massachusetts, where cans and bottles can be returned for a nickel deposit. That’s also why Rec Room’s cans are always rinsed, which keeps the flies away.
“If every trailer could be like Chris’ ...,” Smith said appreciatively, noting that the bar owner even handles the towing himself.
Different locations and trailer sizes mean the payloads vary, but the one outside Rec Room generates around $1,700 annually, said Howard. The money helps underwrite Camp Can Do, an annual retreat BCF and MUSC hold on Seabrook Island for burned children in recovery from throughout the Palmetto State.
This year’s installation, held earlier this month, welcomed 36 kids to Camp Can Do with a per-child cost of around $1,200. In addition to their injuries, said Howard, "a lot of these kids are underprivileged."
DeMattia guesses that only a fraction of his customers know about the cans-for-cash-for-charity arrangement.
“Most of the real regulars know, but probably most (customers) don’t,” he said. (Drinkers might be more familiar with the bar’s pop-tab collection effort thanks to bar-top receptacles advertising it. Rec Room donates those to the Ronald McDonald House.)
You don’t have to sidle up to DiMattia’s bar or hit Revelry's happy hour to ensure they eventually turn into cash for the BCF’s coffers, either.
“Any Joe Blow off the street can bring them up and dump them, and then they're giving to the good cause, as well,” said Howard.
Businesses that want to participate can contact the Charleston Fire Marshal’s office to arrange collection bins in the workplace, added Smith.
As for that familiar trailer beneath the Crosstown, Howard had words of encouragement to the Rec Room faithful that fill it: “Keep on drinking!”