Jeff Dinneen calculates he will redeem his two millionth nickel sometime around Labor Day. That amounts to $100,000 redeemed, which he has used to purchase food for the food pantry at the Needham Community Council.
A lifelong Needham resident, Dinneen participated in a bottle drive as a Boy Scout. He collected more bottles individually than any troop. Today, since retiring from Roche Bros. six years ago, he spends about 50 hours a week collecting recyclables.
“Cans for Calcium” is Dinneen’s brainchild and his passion. The program collects redeemable plastic, glass and cans at the Recycling and Transfer Station (RTS) in blue and green barrels in front of the dumpsters.
“I’m very fortunate that I don’t have food needs,” Dinneen said about devoting his life to this grueling task.
“He’s one of the first guys to get here in the morning and he works hard all day,” said Justin McGregor, RTS assistant superintendent.
Sandra Robinson, executive director of the Needham Community Council, said Dinneen’s efforts have allowed them to offer fresher foods for their patrons, whose numbers have been increasing. Currently, 335 Needham families make ends meet with food assistance from the council.
“We could never buy milk in the quantities that we need,” said Robinson. “Over the last 12 months we estimate that Cans for Calcium has provided over 17,000 pounds of milk and other food items to the council’s food pantry.”
“Our first goal is to get half gallons of milk, and we’ve added bananas. With the money that is left over we buy bags of groceries,” Dinneen said.
Cans for Calcium not only puts a dent in hunger in Needham, but also reduces landfill. Container Recycling Institute, a California-based nonprofit group, estimates Massachusetts residents recycle a meager 38% of eligible containers, a gradual drop from 50% in 2019 and 43% in 2020. Massachusetts has the lowest recycling rate among the 10 states that have bottle bills.
Dinneen and his team of volunteers sort the cans, plastic and glass into bags, which he drives to a redemption center in West Roxbury. He said stale beer is the dominant odor in his vehicle. “My wife refuses to get into my car,” he said. He also shops the best prices for milk, picks it up himself and delivers it to the commercial refrigerators that his family donated to the Community Council.
A new generation of Needham youth has discovered the power of charitable work through Dinneen. He has three teams of two working for him, including relatives and high school students earning community service credit.
One of his regular helpers is 14-year-old Maisie Berger. She started working with Dinneen as her Bat Mitzvah community service project in 2021 and has continued with him since.
“I love what I’m doing here and I love the people I am helping,” said Berger, a rising NHS freshman. When she sees RTS patrons throwing redeemables away she explains the project to them. “I wish more people knew about what Mr. Dinneen has been nurturing and the community work he does,” she said.
“I let Maisie win them over,” said Dinneen. “I’m afraid I would scare them.”
Berger and her fellow volunteer Lucy Walters have sorted through curdled milk and rancid watermelon peels that RTS patrons have thrown into the same bag as their redeemables. More frustrating, she said, are the nickels that are thrown away.
Standing over a commingle bin at the RTS, she pointed at all the cans that could be turned into food for hungry people. “It’s not hard work,” she said. “Just throw your redeemables in the bin.”
Dineen had been collecting cans for years for the food pantry before Cans for Calcium came together in its current form in 2020, said Robinson. “He started this as a child and now as an adult he has taken this to a whole other level,” she said. “This really shows the difference one person can make.”
Robinson said that the two millionth can will be observed with a big celebration.
Redeemables can be dropped off at the RTS or at Dinneen’s home at 1625 Great Plain Ave.
Needham resident Bob Baker is a retired educator and curriculum writer.