Making a Difference: “Can Man” passionate about recycling and the environment

Retiree who once ran state benefits/pension system puts passion to work recycling
A Madison retiree has spent countless hours making Madison greener, having recycled more than two million cans.
Published: Mar. 29, 2021 at 1:46 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 29, 2021 at 10:29 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -When Gary Gates heads downtown on his bicycle, he brings a can-do attitude, which is appropriate, since he’s “hunting cans”. As he puts it, “I’ve always tried to make things work a little bit better. I like being outside. I like being on my own. I feel like I’m making a difference.”

Since the early 1980s, Gary has been passionate, and often obsessive, about sorting through garbage bins in search of aluminum cans, and making sure garbage is not in the recycle bins. He even finds and reuses clothing and other items tossed into dumpsters. (He told us he found the jacket and shirt he was wearing on this day in a dumpster....and once found four brand new leather jackets).

Gary Gates retrieves beverage cans from a garbage dumpster.
Gary Gates retrieves beverage cans from a garbage dumpster.(WMTV)

Ask him why he’s an ardent environmentalist, and Gary will tell you, “I can’t answer that question very well because I don’t understand why anyone isn’t an environmentalist. Because we are part of the environment, and if we don’t take care of it, we won’t have much left. I want my kids, grandkids, and great grandkids to have that too.”

Gary Gates removes garbage from a recycle bin
Gary Gates removes garbage from a recycle bin(WMTV)

Some people think Gary’s experiencing homelessness when they see him out in the streets riding his bicycle laden with bags, and going through the garbage dumpsters. He said, “This morning one guy offered me money. ‘You want a couple of dollars?’ I said, no, I don’t need it.” In fact, he’s living a comfortable life in his retirement from his old job running the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, where he made sure thousands of state employees could also enjoy a comfortable retirement.

Secy. Gary Gates at signing ceremony with Gov. Tony Earl.
Secy. Gary Gates at signing ceremony with Gov. Tony Earl.(State of Wisconsin)
Secretary Gary Gates at a Wisconsin Retirement System celebration
Secretary Gary Gates at a Wisconsin Retirement System celebration(WMTV)

He said he and his wife donate about one-third of their income to non-profits like The Nature Conservancy and Doctors Without Borders. Any money raised from collecting aluminum cans goes toward those donations.

We asked him why a retired state official isn’t on a beach in Florida, instead of rummaging around in dumpsters on cold Wisconsin days. He said, “Because I like Madison...and I like doing what I’ve always done.”

People can’t believe what “the can man” can do. “Now I’m collecting about 50,000 cans a year. It’s like fishing…except I catch a lot more.”

In fact, in 1998 he became so obsessed “can hunting”, he collected 250,000 cans in just that one year. Gary said, “It killed me. I was going out 20 to 24 hours a day.” Yes, he interrupted his sleep cycle to recycle.

With a smile, he said, “Each time I got to my goal I thought, I can do better.” He started leaving for work early to can collect, came home late so he could can collect after work. One time he even checked dumpsters riding his bicycle home from an official meeting at the Governor’s Residence in Maple Bluff. “I’m Obsessive, as I say.” Obsessive to the tune of collecting 2,000,005 cans since he started counting. Yes, he’s collected more than 2,000,000 cans.

He said he has “slowed down a bit”, but it’s still hard to pass a dumpster without checking it….and that, “As long as I can keep going on the bike, I can do it.” If anyone can…Gary can.

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