Observations in Recycling

July 9, 2010

This morning on my way to work I saw a man, who appeared homeless but I don’t want to be so quick to judge, with four huge trash bags of recycled plastic and aluminum.  Apparently one of the bags had opened for some reason, and he was working diligently to replace his prized possessions back into the carrying bag.  This is not the first time that I have seen someone collecting recyclable goods and I’ve been thinking about it for some time now.  I’m pretty confident for anyone traveling in New York City or almost any large downtown metropolitan that it wouldn’t take long to see someone doing this.

This makes me wonder.  If homeless people (presumably) are collecting recyclable goods, most likely they are profiting from this somehow.  Certainly, there’s some driving force behind this behavior, and unfortunately I doubt it’s just to make sure these things get recycled.  I need to do further research to find out the process behind turning trash into cash, but it’s a very cool concept for me.

I think it’s very productive and I wouldn’t mind even going out of my way to give my plastic and aluminum recyclables to someone doing this.

Here are a few articles I’ve found that are interesting and after doing more research, I’ll make a more detailed post…

A misguided new California law prevents people from selling recycling if they do not have a valid state ID card.

On the rare sunny San Francisco day, people don’t flock to the beach as much as you’d expect-they head to the inland parks since often the beach is still cold. Dolores Park, one of the most popular sunny day hang-outs, will be jam packed on these days, leading to overflowing trashcans and recycling bins.


Luckily, there seem to always be a loyal handful of people wandering through the park collecting beer cans and water bottles from the partiers and picnickers. What’s their motivation for their almost surreal helpfulness? Well, a trade-in value of about 5-cents for each bottle or can.

But now the state is preventing many of these people from making their meager living.

Proponents of the law say that drug addicts use the rebate credit to feed their addictions, which very well may be the case. But really, is this the best way to help those people fight their addictions? Seems like a pretty backwards, mean-spirited idea to me, not to mention that many people who are collecting cans are simply trying to feed themselves. The law does nothing but make it harder for people to actually find a way out of homelessness.

And what about the environmental impact of the law? These people walk through the streets and pick recyclable items out of the public trash cans, saving them from landfills. People doing this should be encouraged, not made to jump through hoops in order to cash out their cans.

Not only will they now need to show a valid state ID card, but to exchange aluminum cans and other metallic cans, they will have their photograph and thumb-print taken, and then money will be withheld for 3 days. This action is due to metal theft from construction sites or vehicle parts, which is a legitimate problem-but why not exempt those who are merely cashing in aluminum cans?

Some San Francisco residents complain that scavengers pick through their recycling bins when they are out for collection, but again, I don’t understand what the problem is here. San Francisco, along with many other Californian cities, pays to have their recycling sorted. The homeless men and women who collect from the bins are doing the same service and probably lessening the sorting costs for the city in the process.



Quieter carts aid homeless recycling efforts

juiceSam VanSchie
You hear them before you see them: the rattling shopping cart, the bottles clinking together. They’re the bane of some apartment dwellers who would rather recyclables be left in their bins. And they’re digging out an existence in Victoria.
“Binners” are people who scour the streets and rummage through waste in search of bottles, batteries or other items they can sell to recycling depots or use for themselves. Often the best thing they’ve got to collect their goods is a rickety shopping cart, but with better equipment they can increase their productivity and improve their public image.

That’s exactly what a Victoria-based project called Multi-Opportunity Trailer/Homelessness Emergency Response Shelter (MOTHERS) hopes to show through a pilot project that, on Nov. 18, gave four binners quiet, custom-made trailers along with bikes to attach the trailers to, as well as helmets and locks. In exchange, the binners agreed to participate in a research project, which has them video-taping their experience using the cart to show its impact on their life.

“The idea is we’ll be able to use this footage as proof that indeed these carts make a positive difference in [a binner’s] life, and hopefully will lead to more funding for more carts,” explained Jutta Gutberlet from UVic’s Communities-Based Research Laboratory, one of several partners in the project.

Tony Hoar, owner of Tony’s Trailers who built the trailers for the project, is also part of the project. He’s been giving modified carts and trailers to binners in Vancouver, Victoria and other parts of Vancouver Island for the past three years. Hoar already knows they’re a success, if not by the growing waitlist of homeless people who want one donated to them, then by the binners who save to buy one.

“This woman, she collects disability insurance, but not enough to live on; she bought one of my trailers because she knew she could make money using it,” Hoar said. “Now she’s off the street and still binning with it.”

The most basic carts Hoar makes are simply re-claimed shopping carts donated by stores when they’re no longer being used. He removes the store’s logos from the cart, puts bike wheels on it, applies decals to identify the cart as property of the homeless and then gives it away.

“They’re quieter and it removes the stigma of theft from the people that use them, because it’s clear they didn’t steal this cart,” he said.

The next step is to add a trailer arm to the cart so it attaches to a bike. He sells these trailers for about $500, and when binners use them it allows them to cover more ground.

With the $4,000 grant MOTHERS’ project received, Hoar designed four new, more durable and multi-functional trailers. Each cart, made from the same steel as bicycles, has a single-person dome tent attached for the binner to sleep in at night.

“They call it their mobile home. It can be set up and put away in under 10 minutes,” said Rose Henry, a formerly-homeless person who has been helping to video-document the project. “When you allow people to have their simple basic needs met, they give back to the community 100 per cent.”

Henry explained that the binners recover resources that would otherwise go to the landfill. That environmental benefit is what drew Hoar to the project.

“I make the cart out of recycled material, and they’re used by a zero-carbon person to collect more recyclable material, so basically they have a less-than-zero impact on the environment — unlike the big diesel trucks that the city likes to use to empty blue bins,” Hoar said. “I’d like to see all recycling done by people power. It’s really a win-win because these people get to make a living while cleaning up the city.”

With the bikes and carts, binners report being able to double the area they cover in a day, and travel to parts of the city where there is less competition for bottle collection, meaning they can make up to $100 in about six hours.

“They can buy their own food, have their own shelter — it means they are relying on city services less,” said Henry, noting that it costs tax payers $35 per night to keep a single homeless person in a shelter.

Still, there is a stigma attached to supporting binners. A listener poll by CFAX radio station in Victoria found that of nearly 650 respondents, half believed it was a “bad idea” to give homeless people specially-designed bike carts for collecting recyclables.

Gutberlet, who in 2007 published a report based on her interviews with over 150 binners, said that people who do not support the project often don’t understand that binning is actually a job for some people.

“My research showed that binners are contributing to the community … yet, these people are marginalized, stigmatized and harassed,” Gutberlet said. “Many have a disability or addiction, but they don’t want to be a burden on society.”

Gutberlet said that offering binners a flexible way to generate an income is a source of empowerment for them, and for the 60 per cent of binners she interviewed who were homeless, it offered a real way to get off the street.

“It’s not the solution for all homeless people, but for some it really helps,” she said.

The four binners who received modified carts from the MOTHERS project are all homeless and were selected based on a needs assessment. Gutberlet hopes to see the project expand as more people get behind it.

“Four trailers definitely isn’t enough,” Gutberlet said. “We need more support to get more money and materials for carts, and more people to build them. I’d like to see every homeless person who wants one be able to have their own.”