Binners on campus

In 2003 someone from UBC’s campus security office phoned me to see if I could help them solve a problem. The unit had been receiving an increasing number of complaints from members of the campus community about the behaviour of binners. Binners or dumpster-divers are people who troll through street dumpsters and individual garbage cans to retrieve items such as cans and bottles that can be redeemed for cash. Binners also salvage cast-off items that may have some cash or trade value. Many are on welfare and use binning to supplement this income (usually under the table). Some do not even have minimal support provided by welfare. Many are homeless; some are mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Some of the binners on campus were going into student residences, libraries, and staff office areas and removing cans and bottles from desks (and sometimes stealing small items). Some were turning receptacles for recyclables upside down, removing the items they wanted and leaving a mess behind. Sometimes binners got into fights with each other over who had the right to work in particular areas of the campus. Or they got into verbal conflicts with students or staff.

Bringing in a grass-roots expert

Campus security wondered if I had any ideas about what to do. I immediately thought of Ken Lyotier, one of the founders, and at that time, the manager of United We Can, a unique and successful social enterprise in the Downtown Eastside. United We Can takes in the cans and bottles binners collect and gives binners their due in both cash and respect. The operation employs local residents in the bottle depot as well as in the spin-off enterprises it has created, including an alley cleaning service, a computer salvage and repair operation, and a plant store (both of which utilize others’ cast-offs).

Ken and some fellow binners decided to start United We Can because they were annoyed at the disrespectful way they were treated when they went into mainstream grocery stores and tried to redeem the cans and bottles they had collected. Ken gradually became highly respected in the Downtown Eastside as well as in government circles as he successfully advocated for the expansion of the province’s recycling efforts and associated policy changes. Ken is an extraordinary person. He is a former drug addict and alcoholic as well as being a former UBC student. He is one of the wisest and most humble people I have ever met.

(In recognition of his work, Ken received an honorary doctorate from UBC in 2011. His brief but eloquent speech to graduating students is well worth watching.)

I invited Ken to become part of a series of conversations about the culture of binning and its place on the UBC campus. Ken came to UBC and talked with a diverse group of staff and students about the realities of binners’ lives and how they might be integrated more successfully into the life of the campus.

Ken spoke about the important role that rag-pickers used to play in society. They were the bearer of news between different households and families and sometimes the catalyst for efforts to provide help to those who had fallen on hard times. They were part of the glue that held communities together. He spoke about the important role that binners play in today’s society, being an important link in the chain of consumption, disposal, and reclamation. Ken also described United We Can’s efforts to institute a binners’ code of conduct which would address some of the problems occurring on campus if the binners at UBC adopted it. This offered a whole new way for people from UBC to relate to the university’s goals and rhetoric about being a leader in sustainability. It seemed the solution to the current problem lay in getting binners to see themselves as part of the campus community as well as getting students, staff, and faculty to think differently about binners.

Raising awareness about binning and social inclusion

Ken connected me with the organizers of a dialogue series called “Who Cares: Creative Responses to Social Obligations.” The organizers included people from Simon Fraser University, the provincial government, and the Philia Dialogue on Citizenship. The organizers generously agreed to include a session on binning, safety, and social inclusion as part of their series of dialogues in downtown Vancouver.

Through Ken, I learned that Benoit Raoulx, a professor in social geography from the University of Caen in France, had done a video documentary on the daily experience of binners in Vancouver. We decided the film would provide a great starting point for discussion. So in February 2004, as part of the “Who Cares” dialogue series, we showed the documentary called “Traplines in Vancouver.” (The traplines metaphor evokes traditional aboriginal practices where individuals have habitual routes they follow to seek food.).

copyright Margo FryerThe film follows several binners as they make their rounds of different Vancouver neighbourhoods. It shows how binners organize themselves informally to work certain territories and how they form friendly relationships with some residents who make a point of leaving items out for the binners to collect. The film gives binners a chance to voice observations about the society we live in and the wastefulness they see. The film demonstrates that binning is an activity that is both dangerous and dignified.

After the film, the audience got to ask questions of Benoit Raoulx (the filmmaker), Ken Lyotier, and one of the binners who appears in the film. Then small groups discussed their own personal responses to homelessness, binning, and other visible signs of poverty on the streets of Vancouver. The key players from the discussions at UBC were present so we formed our own discussion group, focusing on how UBC as a community could respond differently to the binners on campus.

Getting students involved

Our group decided to enlist students in an attempt to do some community-building with the binners for whom UBC was a “trapline.”  Over the next year a few key individuals or units committed to doing projects with students, including the SEEDS program in Campus Sustainability.

In the first school term of 2005-2006, 30 students from two sociology classes worked to understand the realities of binners’ lives by trying to get to know the binners on campus. One student group produced a map of the “traplines” on campus showing the locations of all the dumpsters and recycling containers in a particular section of the campus. A second group reached out to other students. They showed the Traplines video to several sociology classes and networked with student leaders in residences and clubs to identify ways to educate students about sustainability issues and to get them to recycle more conscientiously. A third group connected with staff in the same selected area of campus. They concluded, “The one overwhelming truth of the whole assignment was that no one thought the same thing about binning. Concerns, worries, understandings, and beliefs varied widely.”

The next term, about ten students committed to continue the project. Their analysis of what to do next led them to abandon the attempt to build a sense of community among binners because the binners on campus were more diverse and disconnected than we had assumed. It was not as stable and coherent a population as we had expected based on binner culture elsewhere in the city. The group decided instead to focus on educating staff, students, and faculty about recycling. They showed Traplines to different groups, developed educational materials, and promoted responsible recycling practices.

Did we make a difference?

Did this project address the problems associated with binning on campus? It certainly did inspire a lot of people to ask some new questions about what sustainability means and who is on the vanguard of the movement. I did not hear anything more from campus security about problems with binners. But they may have concluded that it was not feasible to try to develop either simple or comprehensive solutions to the problem. They may have decided just to address each instance of conflict as it arose.

The binning project was a great example of the kind of complex problem the Learning Exchange found itself trying to address. To respond, we generated ideas, enlisted the interest and support of others, and worked diligently to apply the tools and techniques that were available. Most people involved in these efforts expressed appreciation for our work and said they learned a lot. But at the Learning Exchange, we were often left wondering, “Did that really make a difference?”

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Trial and error at the storefront.