Before dawn most mornings, Jose Lopez and his father slip on rubber gloves and steer their old pickup through Allston and Brighton searching for cans and bottles littering streets, parks, and alleys, as well as those destined for landfills in dumpsters and trash cans.
They don’t work for the city, but the men do serve the public, and they make a living from their long days scouring Boston, enough to afford a cramped, three-bedroom apartment in Allston and necessities for their family of seven.
If a ballot question that would expand the state’s bottle deposit law passes next week, it would allow them to redeem bottles from water, sports drinks, and other non-carbonated beverages that they now ignore. That would provide a major financial boost to their family and help clean up their neighborhood, they said.
“We could more than double our income,” said Lopez, 23, while delivering a haul recently to the Allston Redemption Center, where he and his dad redeem as much as $50 a day. “There are so many water bottles that we have to leave behind.”
The bottle bill that lawmakers passed in 1982 was designed to reduce the mounds of glass and plastic refuse polluting the state. But the law has served another, unintended purpose, one that even its supporters are loath to mention.
The nickels from the estimated 35 billion bottles and cans redeemed since the law took effect have provided a significant source of income for retirees, the unemployed, and other low-income residents, helping many like the Lopezes make ends meet.
No one in Massachusetts has tracked how much the poor have earned from recycling, but a study in California found that nearly 60 percent of the income from redeemed bottles and cans in the Santa Barbara metropolitan area went to households that earned less than $25,000.
The study, published three years ago in the journal American Economic Review, also found that the bottom 1 percent of earners in the area – those making $10,000 or less – received about 20 percent of the overall value of all the cans and bottles redeemed.
“This is a big unintended benefit of bottle laws,” said Bevin Ashenmiller, the author of the study and an associate economics professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “If you increase the pool of bottles that can be collected, it would mean that much more money for the poor and a lot less litter. That’s a win-win.”
Opponents of bottle laws argue that the deposits serve as a regressive tax on those who don’t have the time or means to redeem their bottles, especially the poor.
Those opposing Question 2 on the ballot, which would increase the number of containers eligible for redemption by more than a billion, called expanding the state’s bottle law “harmful to low-income residents.”
“Residents on limited incomes would be forced to pay more for bottled water and juice, among other groceries,” said Nicole Giambusso, a spokeswoman for the No on Question 2 campaign. “It doesn’t make sense to ask residents who can afford it the least to pay more at the checkout counter.”
But supporters of the ballot initiative say the opponents are trying to scare voters. The proponents cite a 2011 study of bottle laws in New England by the state Department of Environmental Protection that found beverages frequently cost more in New Hampshire, which lacks a bottle law.
The supporters also note that the proposed law would increase the handling fees for grocery stores and other retailers by 55 percent — from 2.25 cents to 3.5 cents a bottle — which they say should be more than enough to cover any additional costs.
“Study after study shows that prices don’t rise as a result of the container deposit law,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, which is helping lead the Yes on Question 2 campaign.
She urged voters not to be swayed by their opponents. “For out-of-state beverage companies that have spent almost $9 million on deceitful ads to pretend they’re concerned about poor people is a bad Halloween scare,” she said. “The bottle bill benefits everyone.”
At Four Corners Recycle Corp. in Dorchester this week, Genia Moorehead, 34, was returning a bundle of soda cans from a birthday party for cash that will help her pay for diapers and milk for her two young children.
Moorehead, an unemployed mother, worried that beverage companies and supermarkets will jack up their prices if the ballot initiative passes.
“We’re struggling already,” she said. “That wouldn’t be fair.”
An Le, who has run the redemption center for 24 years, said expanding the bottle law would be a boon to his business and most of his customers. He said he would be able to hire more help and it would mean less recyclable materials going to landfills, saving the city money while keeping the streets cleaner.
“It would increase our volume by 20 percent,” he said.
As she fed bottles into a machine at Fuentes Market in Roxbury, Brenda Lucas, 56, listed what she buys with money from collecting bottles: soap, toilet paper, dishwasher liquid, prescription drugs, and transportation to medical appointments.
She has been redeeming bottles since the law was enacted and said she has seen it help friends who can’t find work, including the homeless and those with criminal records.
“I can’t understand why the law doesn’t include all bottles,” she said.
The Lopezes, who often rummage through trash for as long as 10 hours a day, say it’s frustrating that most bottles they find aren’t redeemable.
They often leave behind hundreds of sports drinks, juices, and bottles of water, which alone have increased in national sales by more than 400 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors the recycling of bottles.
“It’s such a waste,” Lopez said.
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.