Guest blog by Anna Godefroy, Director, Binners Project
Although a relatively new initiative, the Binners’ Project is often praised for its true grassroots nature and strong engagement with the community. Yet maintaining member involvement is a sustained effort for the project staff. This is a very common challenge for many community initiatives.
At its core, the Binners’ Project aims to decrease stigma surrounding binning (also called dumpster diving). Binners and staff work collaboratively to build new income-generating opportunities. We do so by fostering face-to-face interactions between binners, residents, and the community at large, in Vancouver and Montreal.
Initially a One Earth / Cities for People initiative, the Binners’ Project secured a grant in 2015/16 from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation allowing it to test several pilot programs. In only one year, those burgeoned and we saw an influx of interest from binners and from the public.
Despite the success amongst participating binners, one of the biggest challenges we face this year is relying on their steady engagement. Consistent participation and reliability is the greatest source of anxiety for our staff, as the demand from the community and clients increases.
Our community evaluation, conducted in the Spring 2016, demonstrated that members regularly involved with the Binners’ Project felt a remarkable impact on their overall wellbeing. However, most of our members lack stability in their lives, which prevents them from fully benefiting from our programs. Barriers include, but are not limited to, housing insecurity, addictions, mental health issues, physical disabilities, abuse, gender-related tensions and/or homelessness. These of course are drawbacks to consistent engagement.
Based on our two years of experience organising regular meetings and workshops, we now believe that the emphasis must be on fostering a web of interconnected individuals. Building tight network around and amongst group members is the best strategy to overcome involvement inconsistency.
This can be constructed around two central pillars: meeting recurrence and peer networking. Although it is too early to draw any conclusions, we are seeing encouraging results already.
We find that success in engaging individuals in the middle and longer-term comes down to the recurrence of our meetings. It is a matter of finding the right balance of meeting regularly without overwhelming people (our members are burdened quite literally with the daily struggle to survive, and therefore meetings occupy time that could be spent foraging for the recyclables from which they earn their living). Our experience has shown that regular gatherings translated into increased connection to people’s surroundings, and growth in confidence in their ability to take on new challenges and fulfil commitments.
Pre-set weekly gatherings require heavy staff involvement, but bring stability and structure in lives that often have very little or none. Perhaps even more important is rediscovering the feeling of expectancy, which might be the early sign of what it means to be part of a community.
Building a peer-network system: Because dumpster-diving on the street is an extremely competitive activity, binners are most often marginalised and disconnected with their own community. Additionally, most binners do not have access to internet, mobile phones, and/or landlines.
To facilitate the process of connecting and staying connected, our group has selected two team-leader binners, whose roles are to work out ways to contact people at street level and help them organise so they can honour their commitment with the Binners’ Project. Often, finding people involves knocking on their door (provided they have one), or walking around Vancouver Downtown Eastside with the hope of crossing paths.
With this peer-network in place, we are finding that team leaders’ roles are going beyond expectations. They informally keep track of the other binners’ housing situation, addiction challenges, and mental health states.
New members look up to their team leaders and are able to approach them with specific questions and concerns. Joining a group is often challenging for new participants who are used to being, and working, on their own. Our programs aim to break isolation, while building on soft skills with the goal of reaching financial independence for binners. Peer-team leaders play an important role in supporting new members passing through the daunting early stages before they are able to reap the full benefit of joining.
Commitment issues are not rare when it comes to community initiatives. Despite proven impact in their stakeholders’ lives, some community initiatives’ existences are threatened because of a lack of commitment from participants. It must not be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm from its members, adequacy, or relevancy to the group it serves.
Our track record shows that our programs are popular and truly improve people’s lives. Only time will tell whether the solutions mentioned above will help tackle the issues in the long term – but our early outcomes are promising.
On Thursday, September 10th, the second Coffee Cup Revolution was held, with 130 binners participating. In four hours, 31,300 paper coffee cups were redeemed for 5¢ each at Victory Square.
This is the only public event in Vancouver that brings binners together and celebrates the work that binners do. The event also highlights the generation of non-recycled waste in the form of paper coffee cups in Vancouver (they are recycling since 2014 for residential waste only). Binners and volunteers gathered to demonstrate the importance of binning and the BC refund system for used containers from both environmental and social justice perspectives.
The Coffee Cup Revolution featured two roundtables bringing together community activists and experts in wide ranging discussion. More specifically, the roundtables focused on: 1) new environmentalism in the City; 2) new economies in the City.
“The Binners’ Project, generally, and the Coffee Cup Revolution, more specifically, are exciting developments in the civic landscape of Vancouver. The energy generated towards recognition of the key role binners play in a sustainable urban environment and towards empowering the Binners’ community is remarkable,” says Margot Young, Professor, ALLARD School of Law, UBC. “Leveraging the recycling of the hundreds of thousands of coffee cups that now go into our landfills weekly is a worthy goal. And, increasing the profile and economic well-being of binners is equally impressive.”
The Binners’ Project is a group of waste-pickers dedicated to improving their economic opportunities and reducing the stigma they face as informal recyclables collectors. The Binners’ Project is supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the City of Vancouver.
It is a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform, which supports on-the-ground efforts to create uncommon solutions for the common good. Tides Canada is a national Canadian charity dedicated to a healthy environment, social equity, and economic prosperity.
On Monday October 6th, from 9:30am-2:30pm in Victory Square, Vancouver binners are carrying out a street-level environmental action, reminiscent of United We Can’s efforts in the early 1990’s. That work helped shift social behavior and responsibility and resulted in the expansion of the deposit laws for beverage containers.
The ignition key for this event will be a “pop-up” depot in Victory Square that will pay binners 5¢ for each of those ubiquitous used paper cups that we see strewn across the urban landscape every day.
The spark behind this action is an exploratory venture, The Binners Project which is being supported under Cities for People, an experimental program for advancing urban innovation.
For its première event, the Binners Project has intentionally identified the “disposable” cup as the symbolic evidence of a conspicuous shift in consumer habits over the past several decades. Binners get up close and personal with our urban waste every day so they see first hand, the effects of this shift. Some older binners recall a time when people used to sit together in cafés chatting over steaming pottery cups of hot coffee. Today, in a busy wireless age, with paper cup in hand, we pursue our goals on the go; leaving a trail of cups, lids, stir sticks, and maybe even some of our values behind us in the dust.
A symbol of our times, but so much more, paper coffee cups have become a serious environmental problem. They litter the highways and byways of our cities, each one of them, an aesthetic assault to our collective unconscious. While it is difficult to estimate with absolute accuracy just how many of these cups we go through every year, the most recent statistics we could find suggest that conservatively, it’s well past the 1.5 billion mark. And that represents more than half a million trees, thousands of tons of garbage, and millions of liters of the fossil fuel needed to move this waste to our landfills and incinerators.
Event sponsors and partners: BC Housing, City of Vancouver, Vancity Community Foundation, Central City Foundation, Vancity Community Investment, Haebler Construction, UBC Learning Exchange, The Dugout Drop-in Centre Society, Recycling Alternative, United We Can, DTES Street Market, and other anonymous supporters.
What is a binner?
binner \`bin-ner\ – noun
Canadian west coast colloquialism
1. A person who collects bottles and cans and other objects of value from garbage (in bins); a dumpster diver; The binner pushed a shopping cart full of empties to the bottle depot.
Origin: Attributed to Robert Sarti (Vancouver Sun journalist) - 1990