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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bottled Opportunities

Having allowed our collection of empty soda bottles, cans and milk cartons to build up for several months, I decided that today would be a good day to haul them to the bottle depot.

Under grey overcast skies I pulled our little crossover into the parking lot of the west end's Centennial Bottle Depot. I nabbed a Jysk shopping cart from the depot's illicit collection and used it to transport six garbage bags full of bottles from the car to the redemption windows.

While waiting in line I noticed the usual mix of middle-class folks and homeless Albertans, the first group returning bottles out of a sense of environmental duty, the second out of economic necessity - at least if my stereotype-based assumptions were true. Such assumptions are always dangerous, of course; I didn't look terribly middle-class myself in my sweat pants and t-shirt, my typical attire for messy chores like this.

When I reached one of the redemption windows, a notice from a City of Edmonton bylaw officer taped to the wall caught my eye. It ordered the removal of all shopping carts from the premises no later than January 2010. They represented "an eyesore," according to the city. While the Centennial manager had dutifully posted the order, a herd of shopping carts remained in defiance of the municipal government's demand.

While I sympathize with the city's desire to keep Edmonton clean and neat, it struck me once again that shopping carts and abandoned bottles represent perhaps the only economic opportunity available to homeless Albertans. Bottle deposit fees, shopping carts and consumer willingness to throw cans and bottles in the garbage instead of recycling them has created an entirely new economy. Homeless Albertans take advantage of consumer laziness and spend their days collecting bottles, turning them in for dimes and quarters.

None of this is news to anyone, but it still astounds me that western culture has allowed itself to evolve to the point where our least fortunate citizens are forced to dig through garbage to earn a daily pittance. I turned in six bags of bottles today, earning about $75. It took about six months of normal consumption for Sylvia and I to generate that many empties. Perhaps an industrious homeless person might be able to collect an equivalent amount from the city's garbage containers in a day. But even if such a person could earn $100 a day, they're still risking disease and injury for an amount of money that might, barely, cover food and lodging. What a remarkably cheap way for society to pay for an essential service.

And yet we begrudge these bottle collectors even the meager dignity of this industrious pursuit. Grocery stores routinely demand quarters or loonies to unchain their shopping carts, business owners chase collectors away from their trash bins and bylaw officers sanction businesses for allowing shopping carts to accumulate. Of course businesses want to protect their property, and naturally it's in everyone's best interest to have a presentable community. But I wonder what options we're leaving for the people being left behind. For years and years Alberta's Auditor General has been begging the government to invest more in mental health services, a key factor in helping get people off the street. And yet the government response has been incredibly sluggish. And while the provincial government and Alberta's municipalities deserve kudos for the progress they've made on the ten-year plan to alleviate homelessness, we're now faced with the spectre of a government led by free-market fundamentalists, the Ayn Rand-loving Wildrose party. How will Alberta's homeless fare in an environment even further right-leaning than our current PC government?

I have a feeling Ayn Rand and Danielle Smith would probably say that homeless folks collecting bottles is merely the free market performing its magic once again. But shouldn't we aim for a society in which no one needs to rifle through garbage to earn some loose change?

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