Monday, April 21, 2008

Redirect bottles and cans to binners
April 18, 2008

We tend to look for big solutions to big problems. We all want that “magic bullet” that’s going to fix everything in one single, brilliant stroke.
But of course, there isn’t one. Whatever the issue at hand - global famine, rising obesity rates, a relentless rise in poverty in our communities - the truth is that every big problem is in fact just a dense thicket of small ones, all needing to be solved one by one.
So no magic bullet, then. No sexy instant cures. No one-fell-swoop solutions. Just the hard work of tackling a host of small problems one at a time.
Ignore that important fact, and nothing gets resolved. Here in B.C., alarm grows on all fronts that more than 15,000 British Columbians are now living on our streets yet the years pass and nothing seems to change.
Woodwyn Farm proponent Richard LeBlanc calls it “stuckness” (more on that next week). I suspect it’s about waiting for that magic bullet, when in fact the actual magic is in seeing that the key to dealing with any Big Problem is to address the myriad small problems at its core.
What can one person do to make a difference? I’m asked that all the time. As a member of the co-ordinating committee of the Greater Victoria Commission to End Homelessness, I can tell you that what’s being talked about there is the need for a Web site where people in our region can connect with like minds and innovative projects, and learn more about what has proven effective in other cities.
The Web site Our Way Home is a good start (, but is not yet the interactive hub for ideas that people are looking for. So for today let’s consider just one simple and small thing that we could all start doing immediately: Change our recycling habits.
If you’re like me, you buy a lot of beverage containers without getting around to returning them for a refund of your deposit. Recycling them in your blue box diverts the containers from the waste stream, but that deposit you paid never does get returned. Deposits on beverage containers picked up in our blue-box program go unredeemed.
The accumulated deposits on all those unreturned cans and bottles in B.C. added up to almost $18 million in 2006. In fact, unredeemed deposits are the single biggest source of revenue for Encorp Pacific, the non-profit started by government in the mid-1990s to manage B.C.’s bottle returns. Something as minor as bagging your refundable cans and bottles separately from the rest of your recycling would put that money into the hands of what are probably thousands of street-level recyclers in B.C.
I’m sure Encorp would be unhappy to lose the revenue stream, but that’s hardly the point. You and I paid for those bottle deposits fair and square when we bought our beverages, and I certainly feel no qualms about exercising choice around who gets the refund that I’m choosing to forfeit.
In Vancouver, the highly successful business United We Can proves what can happen just by shifting our thinking on this one small front. Drive past the Downtown Eastside social enterprise on any given day and you’ll find a lineup of homeless people pushing shopping carts stacked high with empty containers into the UWC bottle depot. The program puts a few bucks into their pockets on a steady basis, and diverts a significant volume of cans and bottles that would otherwise be headed for the trash.
The 13-year-old business has grown to the point that it now employs 24 full-time workers, most of whom came from the streets. In 2006, it launched a new project that paired “binners” - people on the street who dig through garbage bins - with restaurants and other businesses that generated large volumes of returnable bottles. The binners were trained, matched with a business, and provided with one of 50 specially built collection carts known as UBUs (Urban Binning Units).
Will any of it solve homelessness? No, but it all counts. We’re not going to buy our way out of more than 25 years of flawed public policy just by handing over our bottles and cans to people on the street, but it’s one small step in the right direction. And with $18 million in unredeemed deposits up for grabs province-wide, it’s not even such a small step.
One word of caution before you begin: In our region, it’s illegal for anyone but you or the Capital Regional District to go through the contents of your blue box. To get around that, I sort my refundable containers into a separate bag and hope that will suffice in protecting the enterprising recyclers in my neighbourhood from being charged with theft.


Anonymous said...

I'm guessing that the CRD's (actually Metro Waste's) objection to siphoning off returnables to the binning crowd comes down to that agreement.

Say I have a horse and you have a large garden. You pay me ten bucks a month to take away everthing he produces in that time. Then one day I begin giving away a few shovelfuls to a neighbour. That's fine, but now the deal needs to be renegotiated.

I'm on board with your ideas about breaking bureaucracy with the aim of helping people. But I squirm when I feel that there are two standards when it comes to breaking agreements. The dispute this week between the City and the beleaguered Fernwood Community Association tugs at our collective heartstrings but a grievance by a national corporation doesn't even warrant a shrug.

I'm not sure where I stand on this issue. I want to be helpful but in my condo building we're tired of the damage done by binners trying to access our garbage/recycling room and the late-night noise and mess they cause.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Robert. Good points, and that IS the problem. But there's a twist on the horse-manure analogy in this case, as it's individuals who actually paid those deposits, none of whom actually agreed to forfeit all their nickel-and-dime deposits as a condition of the CRD/Metro contract.

I started out here trying to write a manure analogy but it got so tangled that even I couldn't understand it, but suffice to say that the main difference as I see it is that in your analogy, the person with the horse is the sole owner of the material, so to speak - but with refundable bottles, a third party actually owns some of that manure. The horse-owner isn't actually giving away a few shovelfuls - the rightful owners of the manure are simply deciding to exercise their right of ownership.

I think it'd be fair to renegotiate the deal, though. None of this should be Metro's problem.

As for problems with street-level recyclers, I know what you mean, but couldn't we solve that by solving that? If there was a way to put out bottles/cans for binners legitimately, they wouldn't be rattling around in everybody's recycling.

Thanks for your comments!