Homeless in Vancouver: Attrition and a kind of end to binning

Yesterday I was up around West 14th Avenue and Cambie Street and something told me that the little house at 656 West 14th Avenue won’t be the source of any more returnable beer cans—ever.

Only a few weeks ago I was rooting through their container blue box.

Now the fence is covered in “Danger” tape, all the windows are hermetically sealed with orange plastic, and the doors are marked with signs warning of lead and asbestos contamination.

I’ll miss that little house. For one thing, I always admired the way it bravely held its own against two blocks-worth of condos, and for another it means that the whole area is now more or less a dead zone so far as binning in concerned.

Back when bottles were a poor substitute for money

Most of the condos in and around the two-block stretch of West 14th Avenue between Heather and Cambie Street keep their recycling bins in their underground parking areas, only bringing them out once a week for pick-up.

For years, this meant a weekly bonanza of returnable beverage containers for binners familiar with the area and the collection schedule.

When the huge, 91-unit Pacifica condo in the 500-block rolled out its recycling blue bins for collection every Thursday, it brought out at least six container blue bins loaded with returnable containers. And mind you, that was just a block or so away from several other large condos to the south and north that rolled out two or three container blue bins each.

For many years, all these buildings put out their blue bins early—hours before the collection time—the evening before in some cases.

Good times for binners to be sure, but everything began to change two years ago.

By 2012, Pacifica had begun selling their prodigious output of returnables to a bottle pick-up service. The other condos in the area either went the same route or began waiting until the collection trucks arrived before bringing their blue bins out.

One by one the best sources of returnable containers around the 500- and 600-blocks of West 14th Avenue disappeared until only the little blue box of the little house at 656 West 14th Avenue remained. And now, even that is gone.

And as goes the area around 14th and Cambie, so—in time—will go the rest of the city.

Bottles are too valuable to be left to binners now

Over the last few years, two things have clearly happened to binning.

Building owners in condos like Pacifica grew tired of listening to the weekly noise of binners clearing returnable containers out of blue bins. They also became aware that the binners were earning real money.

And bit by bit, many building owners and the building managers they employed began to covet the value of the returnable containers for themselves.

The collection of returnable beverage containers has by now become a lucrative business, both in its own right and as a sideline for building management companies.

I can’t say who Pacifica is selling its returnable beverage containers to; it could be a dedicated bottle pickup company, it could be one of the building management companies they employ, or they could be selling directly to an Encorp bottle depot.

Shortly after Pacifica began diverting its returnable beverage containers for direct sale, one of their custodians told me, apologetically, that he thought the building was selling its returnables to the bottle pick-up service of the United We Can Encorp bottle depot.

Maybe but I’ve seen DA-SH trucks pulling Pacifica’s Dumpsters from the underground parking for curbside pickup and this is a property management company-turned-wholesale returnable container collector that is well-known among binners.

The DA-SH website explains that the company started out purely in building maintenance and only later branched out to include services like picking up, recycling, and reimbursing buildings for returnable containers.

After DA-SH first began scooping up returnables from the buildings they managed—and when some binners realized they were losing their returnables to DA-SH—the company lost a certain number of person-hours to slashed company truck tires.

However, binners can’t win this way or any other way against the many dozens of commercial operations like DA-SH now competing for the value in returnable beverage containers.

Binners are left sitting outside to watch as the companies who offer to pay buildings a percentage for the returnables are invited inside.

There are also plenty of building custodians who just take the returnable containers before the bins are emptied on collection day, with or without the knowledge of building owners.

One person’s trash becomes society’s treasure

Before the mid-1990s introduction of curbside blue box programs in Metro Vancouver, binning was very nearly synonymous with Dumpster diving—the majority of returnable containers had to be dug out of the garbage.

Binning was considered a marginal, dirty job to be left to the desperately poor.

There were fewer binners, fewer types of returnable containers, and fewer places to return the containers and collect the deposits.

All the same, the old school binners I’ve met consistently approached binning like a job, earned good money, and were proudly self-sufficient.

These Dumpster-diving binners of old watched the blue box/bin system grow the opportunities to collect and return beverage containers in every way. But their wonder turned to dismay as the number of binner simply grew to match the increased supply.

Maybe one in five of these guys can even stand the younger binners such as myself—they largely dismiss us as people who won’t even get our hands dirty. They’re wrong but I understand where they’re coming from.

Twenty years later, we are seeing that one result of the blue box/bin system has been to largely erase the stigma of poverty associated with collecting bottles and cans. It was this stigma which especially protected binning as an income source of last resort for the very poor.

Now that people realize that they can wash the grime off their hands, collecting returnable beverage containers has become something to build a business plan around or at least an acceptable way to informally earn a second income.

Impoverished and/or homeless binners such as myself will just have to get used to the fact that collecting returnable beverage containers is finally a socially acceptable activity.

This is essentially an unintended side effect of bringing recycling into the popular mainstream, an altogether laudable goal that is similarly only one aspect of the even larger sea change affecting everything people throw away.

I call it the “monetization of garbage” and I imagine that it will have all sorts of long-term consequences that I paradoxically can’t even begin to imagine.

Even more binners binning even more

It’s hard to believe sometimes but despite what feels like an all-time high in the number of binners against a shrinking supply of bins, I can still make more as a binner today than I could 10 years ago, largely, I guess, because I’m somewhat smarter about how, where, and when to focus my effort.

I can confidently say that no amount of increased competition from people above them on the economic ladder—particularly a growing number of elders on fixed incomes—will deter Vancouver’s neediest people from trying to use binning to support themselves, unless they are legally prevented from doing so or they are given better alternatives in the future than exist now.

So if I’m not actually predicting an end to binning, I am predicting an end, once and for all, to any sort of easy binning.

Comments (2) Add New Comment
Shon Togan
Really appreciate the insights Stanley. Things like this can only be gleaned from people who see things from a perspective most people can't - or don't want to. Our society is all about monetizing the scraps left over, or finding some way of inserting oneself between buyers and sellers, even at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
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welcome
to the ongoing depression where the rich continue to steal from the poor
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