There’s a sticky smell of old pop near the recycling depot on Industrial Avenue. Towers of crushed cans wait at the loading bay. Gulls circle above.
A metallic rattling announces Carol Strickland. She walked the five minutes here from Main Street with a shopping cart. It’s filled with cans. Two rubber tubs balance on top, holding wine bottles. Around the cart hang eight garbage bags with more cans inside, along with a large Adidas duffel bag.
“It’s better than sitting on your butt panhandling,” said Strickland.
For 52-year-old Strickland, bottles and cans are a way to make some money in addition to welfare. She’s been at it for more than six years. Her biggest haul was $280 during the 2010 Olympics, but on average, she makes about $45 a trip.
There are many scavengers in Vancouver like Strickland who scour streets for recyclables. They number in the hundreds, though no one knows exactly how many. A Vancouver Sun reporter gave them the name “binners” in the ’90s. Most are no- or low-income individuals often struggling with health issues or unsatisfactory housing.
Binning’s not an easy job. There are physical injuries from labouring on the streets and infections from dealing with waste.
For Jeff, his mantra is, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” He’s 45, on welfare, and came to Vancouver from Ontario in 2014. Jeff wears a plastic boot on his right leg for an injury, but goes binning on his bike anyway. On good days, he has a cart in tow for extra storage.
“You gotta enjoy doing it,” said Jeff. “It’s a laboursome thing, time consuming, you get dirty, you get yelled at. Sometimes the police pull you over and give you a hard time, figure you’re up to something else. It’s not the ideal job, but it keeps the city clean, and it’s a little bit of pocket money.”
Binners often have a negative stigma because of a lifestyle dealing with garbage and their socioeconomic status. Jeff has seen binners who are less responsible, making messes in residential alleys or stealing objects nearby. Scavenging is a ticketable offence in some B.C. cities, like Richmond.
But Jeff respects others’ property. Strangers have shown him kindness on his trips. Some hand him recyclables upon spotting him and have even given him cash.
ON THE JOB HAZARDS
Binning has not gone unnoticed in the city. A few projects have popped up in response to Vancouver’s interesting relationship with those who mass recycle.
The city has created transparent public containers for passersby to toss bottles and cans, saving binners the chore and danger of sifting through garbage. An initiative by the Binners’ Project — a group founded in 2014 as a united voice for binners — also has sanitation in mind, encouraging homeowners to set aside bags of recyclables on hooks the organization provides. A 2014 geography masters thesis revealed that 72 per cent of binners have had an infection from their work.
“We put ourselves in harm’s way,” said another binner named Justin. “People think we’re getting it for free, we’re just getting it out of garbage. Well, our time is worth money, just like everyone else.”
Justin’s 32 and on disability assistance for multiple sclerosis. He came to Vancouver from London, Ont. to start anew. He stopped dealing drugs but still battles addiction.
Scavenging, however, brings him joy.
“This is one job that when I leave and have to go back to school, I’ll probably cry,” he said. “There’s a treasure out there for me to find so I have to go out there and get it.”
Justin lives in transitional housing on East Hastings, but like many scavengers in the Downtown Eastside, he has a regular route that takes him elsewhere in the city before returning to the neighbourhood.
Aside from community and services, there are two main institutions for binners in the Downtown Eastside: the United We Can recycling depot, which takes 50,000 containers a day, and the street market where many sell goods they find in trash and alleys.
Both streams of income are important to Justin. “If bottling is like my weekly pay cheque, then merching is my savings account,” he said.
Having recyclables and goods is his secret to a profitable route, and a strategy to combat the ups and downs of scavenging when bad weather hits.
“Summertime, that’s when we go hard. You’re gathering up for the long, hard winter. I’ve got a whole apartment full of stuff. Umbrellas I can sell for $5 a piece if I’m broke. I’ve got 15 scarves. You gather these things up for the winter so you don’t suffer as much. It’s like chipmunks.”
But Justin won’t say where his route is. “I’ll give you my route as soon as you give me your pin number and bank card,” he said. “That’s the same thing.”
There’s an unspoken rule of territoriality for routes. Sometimes other scavengers will respect his space. And then there are times when his life’s threatened.
Once, Justin came across a large donation bin and saw a man help a skinny woman slide through the gap to get to the clothes inside. The startled man said he’d kill Justin if he ever saw him around the bin again.
But skid row writers help Justin see the streets in a romantic light. His favourite book is George Orwell’s memoir of his time as a tramp, Down and Out in Paris and London. Sometimes the Downtown Eastside is “the good, the bad and the ugly,” but he feels part of a long history of people surviving on society’s margins.
Justin knows it’s not forever. He’s committed to getting sober, to go to school, to have kids. But for now, he’s a scavenger in a neighbourhood that takes care of him.
“I’ve got a family here,” said Justin. “I absolutely love this neighbourhood. People understand me, people don’t judge me. You have to put a little bit of elbow grease to see the shine, but below the rough surface is a gem.”
- Binner: Vancouver colloquialism for individuals who make a living from collecting recyclables independently. Known as “scavengers” in other cities. Some longtime binners have friendly agreements with businesses or residences who set aside recyclables.
- Empties: Another word for recyclables.
- Middleman: Individual who purchases the hauls of binners for a fixed price when depots are closed. Many middlemen use vehicles. They have a bad reputation for exploiting those desperate for cash at night.
- Trapline: Established route used by a binner. Some binners are territorial and protective of a good trapline.
- Seniority: Veteran binners often pass down access to a lucrative dumpster or relationship (with a business or residence) when they retire.
Note: This story has been updated since first posted.