Binning for Resources: Perspectives from Vancouver’s Waste Management Trap-line

Binning: It might be an uncommon term, but it has become a common activity in the city of Vancouver. Binning, or informal recycling, is not only reducing the amount of recyclable waste heading to the dump but is also providing a vital income base for many marginalized Vancouver urbanites. Adopted for a variety of socio-economic reasons, individuals relying on income from waste recycling are making their mark on the city, a mark that is quickly proving the value sustainable innovation plays in protecting the environment and the inner-city community.

The United We Can bottle depot, a social enterprise located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is a successful example of an urban community recycling program that promotes social inclusion. Established in 1995, United We Can now serves thousands of inner-city residents, recycles millions of containers each year, and has distributed millions of dollars into the local economy through bottle deposit refunds. It’s estimated that 1,500 binners come to the United We Can bottle depot and up to 600 recyclers use its services daily. The majority of the recyclables being recovered throughout the city are found primarily in residential dumpsters and street bins or, in many other cases, on the curbs during garbage collection.

The diverse range of individuals involved in recycling reveals the significance of this activity as the final economic safety net for many. Recycling generates primary income for many homeless individuals and provides opportunities to supplement social assistance. The number of individuals involved in binning, and the volume of materials being recovered, significantly increases during the summer, at the end of the month, and on weekends: a reflection of the increased consumption of beverage containers during those times.

Productivity varies dramatically among binners, from microentrepreneurial-style businesses with employees to full-time, year-round binners. At the lower end of the productivity scale are those that are faced with multiple physical and mental barriers. Binning often provides access to financial resources for individuals with a multitude of diverse needs and capabilities.

In Vancouver, there are some areas that have limited or no access to recycling services and, as a result, a significant amount of recyclable material ends up in the waste stream. Change is looming in many of these areas, however, and it is becoming common for residents to leave bottles out for collection at regular pick up times or to hold bottles for binners to retrieve in exchange for services such as lane cleaning, sweeping, or security. These increasingly widespread partnerships between residents and recyclers are not only improving the working conditions and validation of this activity, but they are also bringing about environmental consciousness and more efficient resource recovery.

Documenting the process of resource recovery and the diversity of individuals involved is contributing to a more complete understanding of the potential policy implications that could negatively impact the binning population. As well, increased awareness from the public is encouraging more efficient resource recovery, ultimately improving the health implications posed from this activity and the perception of this population.

This research project seeks to provide a voice for informal recyclers in the hopes that this activity may be further recognized by government, industry, and society as a legitimate and valuable service to waste management. The project will contribute to the elaboration of a framework for community-based recycling organizations, both in Canada and abroad, helping to recover resources and alleviate poverty.