Recycling Soda Cans into School Supplies

July 24, 2018
Can Lady Mary Stumpp stands in front of a tall pile of aluminum cans.
Mary Stumpp, The Can Lady. (Photo: Returning the Favor / Facebook)

You might see her around Indianapolis hauling a few thousand aluminum cans in the back of Bruce, her Chevy pickup. Or, you might have heard from the parent of a student about the money she’s raised for Indianapolis Public Schools. Her name is Mary Stumpp, but she might be known just as well as the Can Lady.

“You give me enough cans, I’ll give you an iPad,” Mary said.

That’s the pitch for the Can Lady Project, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Stumpp spends a few days a week traveling around the city, stopping at the usual businesses and office buildings collecting cans, wires and other metal components, plus anything else she finds along her route. She’ll then take it all to get recycled and make some money in the process. That money then goes toward grants for IPS and its teachers.

But Mary says it’s much more about the need and value of recycling than the fundraising. The money raised is just the carrot on the stick to get people recycling.

This is Mary’s tenth year doing the Can Lady Project. In that time, her efforts have resulted in somewhere between $65,000 and $70,000 raised for IPS. The project has taken plenty of commitment, though. In her first year, Mary made only $55. She says she was ecstatic the first time she made double digits in a haul to the scrapyard.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

“[I’m] not necessarily trying to raise money, I’m just trying to show kids and people that there’s an economic component to recycling,” Stumpp said. “Recycling is really just valuable trash.”

That drive to take care of the environment was instilled in Mary since she was a child in Wheeling, West Virginia. “We saw some of the horrible effects of strip mining, not only the deforestation and the leveling of the hills, but the nasty runoff in the creeks and things like that.”

Mary’s mission received widespread attention last week when she was featured on an episode of Returning the Favor, a reality series hosted by Mike Rowe that highlights people making big contributions to their communities and gives back to them in the process.

The Can Lady

Mike and the team speed into Indianapolis, Indiana to meet up with Mary Stumpp and The Can Lady Project: a recycling initiative that donates field trips and supplies to teachers in local Indianapolis schools... all funded by, you guessed it, cans! Since its inception the project has generated over $60K in donations.

Posted by Returning The Favor on Monday, July 16, 2018

Her episode was filmed under the guise of a documentary, so Mary had no idea why Rowe and his crew were really there. But she had her suspicions.

“There were enough questions about [my] truck in the interview with Mike that I knew something was going to happen,” Stumpp said.

That “something” was Bruce, a new truck equipped with a device to let Mary easily load bags of cans and recyclables into the bed. In exchange, the Returning the Favor crew crushed and recycled Stumpp’s beloved, derelict pickup, Carmella. But she says it wasn’t as bittersweet as one might think.

“It was kind of a relief,” she said. “I got stranded enough times, I blew through my AAA free towing service easily.” In Carmella’s place, Bruce has been a huge help to Mary’s work.

On top of Bruce, Mary got a lot more people’s eyes on the Can Lady Project.

“I’ve pretty much read all the comments. It’s incredibly flattering – don’t let it go to your head or believe all of it,” Stumpp joked. She’s also had plenty of calls for recycling pick-ups and messages from people who want to start similar projects to raise funds. She says that last bit is a little disconcerting.

“I’m not sure people realize the scale of the project. It’s not like you can take a few households of cans and make any substantial money on it.” Stumpp says Bruce can hold about 8,000 aluminum cans at capacity, and that pays out only around $150. Instead, she wants her time on the show to relay why recycling matters to her and to the environment.

Mary Stumpp and Mike Rowe filming 'Returning the Favor' in front of Mary's new pickup, Bruce. Stumpp and Rowe filming her episode of "Returning the Favor" in front of Bruce, Mary's new pickup. (Photo: The Can Lady / Facebook)

Stumpp wants people to know that she’s more than just the Can Lady as well. She also works for an electrical contractor, dispatching crews and doing wiring work.

But before either of those roles, Mary says her primary job is taking care of her partner, Beth, who has end-stage multiple sclerosis. Beth was diagnosed 31 years ago, about a year before she and Mary got together. And she’s been beating the odds since.

“She’s remarkable,” Mary said. “Twenty-five years ago, they told us she had three to five years left to live. In 2004, they said six months to a year. In January of 2014, they suggested if we wanted to have someone give her last rites that I should call them in…She’s hanging in there. She’s got a great attitude, she makes me laugh.

“[She’s] doing better than anyone expected…She’s the brains of the operation.”

As Mary looks ahead with the Can Lady Project, her biggest goal is to change the mindset around recycling and waste – and that’s why she often works with children.

“It’s a state of mind, and that’s why I’m trying to make a change with the kids. They’re just sponges for the information, and I think we can change their behavior more quickly,” Stumpp said.

Stumpp says with people in Indiana, recycling is overwhelmingly a matter of convenience and habit. On a normal day while she’s out and about in Indianapolis, she’ll easily pick up about 12 cans. But in a state like Colorado, she can visit for several days and pick up only 5 the entire trip.

“I will consider my job a success if I can drive around town one day and not find 12 cans on the roadside,” she said.

Stumpp says that’s possible. It just takes a group effort.

“When everybody participates, it works.”

Featured photo courtesy of Returning the Favor via Facebook.