Senior Andrew Li’s Guest Essay on Canning Published in The New York Times

Senior Andrew Li’s guest essay, titled “My Grandpa Redeemed Cans for Money. He Deserved A Raise.,” was published in The New York Times (NYT) on February 18.

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By Rai Chaudhry

Senior Andrew Li’s guest essay, titled “My Grandpa Redeemed Cans for Money. He Deserved A Raise,” was published in The New York Times (NYT) on February 18. The essay was part of a series on the Opinions page focused on canners, those who collect recyclable containers and redeem them for money, in New York City. 

In the essay, Li describes his grandfather’s experience with canning as a financially-struggling immigrant who was not proficient in English, using anecdotes from his childhood experiences with his grandfather. He also uses statistics and historical facts alongside these first-hand experiences to explain the task of canning. Li’s essay ultimately advocates for a new bill in the New York State Legislature that would increase compensation for every container that canners recycle and provide canners with recognition for their efforts. He ends with a powerful statement and message to both readers and government officials alike: “The benefits of doubling the bottle deposit are clear. It’s time to give canners the respect they deserve.” 

The idea for his essay stemmed from a brainstorming session during Li’s Writing to Make Change elective, taught by English teacher Annie Thoms. “During the class, I was supposed to think about an experience that I would think highly of [and] might be enlightening to other people, and that is how the idea popped into my head. Canning is something that I have experienced, my family has experienced, but maybe other people do not really know about it, and that is what encouraged me to write about that,” Li said.

After conjuring the idea for the essay, Li made it a reality for his final project in Writing to Make Change, in which students were assigned to write an argumentative essay on a topic of their choice to motivate change in the world. “I submitted a very rudimentary draft for my final project in [Writing to Make Change], and my teacher, Ms. Thoms, read it—I shared it on sharing day—and she was like, ‘This has great potential. I’ll connect you with a NYT editor named Susannah Meadows and you should pitch this to her,’” Li said. 

During the 2022/23 school year, NYT editor Susannah Meadows spoke to Thoms’s Writing to Make Change class about what NYT was looking for while scouting high school pieces for their Op-Eds column. “What [Meadows] was talking about was sort of a combination of a really compelling personal story and an issue that is current in some way,” Thoms said. Thoms mentioned that editors wanted to see writers “take on a larger story or issue that readers haven’t thought about before.”

Following Li’s completion of the essay, Thoms was extremely impressed with his writing and urged him to pitch the essay to NYT editors, given its closeness to the literary qualities they sought from high school submissions. “This fall when [Li] first wrote this piece, he read it out on a sharing day in my class—when a piece is due, people get a chance to read out loud to each other,” Thoms said. “As soon as I heard it, I thought he could really turn that into a piece that [NYT] might consider.’”

Over the next few months, NYT editors and Li made many revisions to the essay in order to bring it to publication standards, such as checking for proper grammar conventions and appropriateness of content. The editors also suggested that Li change the focus of his article from legislation regarding the payment for can deposits to providing recognition to canners. “The main point now is that the essay elevates the status of canners and people who can for a living, whereas before, I was focused on legislation,” Li said. “After that, it was just revising some tidbits here and there, fixing some sourced arguments and evidence, and a month and a half later, it was published.”

Li does not have prior experience with writing outside of his English classes, and he believes that one does not need to be an accomplished writer to produce a high-quality literary piece. “You don’t need to be super talented at writing or super skilled. All you need is a compelling story and a good narrative,” Li said.

Li also acknowledged that the publishing of his article would not be possible without Thoms and NYT editors who helped him through the writing process. He greatly valued their feedback and highlighted the fact that writing such an article is not a one-person job, but rather a joint effort. “I owe a lot to my teacher, Ms. Thoms […], my classmates, and my family for helping me be able to follow through with the article,” Li said.

Despite having wanted to bring more attention to the legislation that increases compensation for canners, Li is content that he was able to show readers that canners are nothing less than hard workers attempting to make a living. “One of the themes that I was really trying to push was that hard work is rewarded. Canning is not an easy task whatsoever; it is actually quite physically demanding, and for such a small reward of 5¢ per container, it might seem pretty difficult, but it is rewarding,” Li said. “It allowed my grandpa to elevate his family to where it is now.”