Toronto’s bottle collectors

2017-07-16

in Canada, Economics, Toronto

Walking around Toronto, every day I see people searching through domestic recycling bins and municipal recycling containers looking for alcohol containers which they can return for the deposit at the Beer Store. It generally strikes me as a massive waste of human labour.

The deposit system (which also exists for non-alcoholic drink containers, but which I think pays less for them) exists to discourage people from throwing away recyclable glass and aluminium containers. I do not, however, see any benefit for them being recycled through the Beer Store rather than the municipal recycling system. When people put beer cans and bottles, wine bottles, and liquor bottles into the municipal recycling system, I presume they are recycled just as effectively, and the deposits people paid put a little extra profit in the hand of liquor sellers who then don’t need to refund it.

It seems quite wasteful that people with the energy and motivation to spend their days looking for these bottles don’t put their effort toward something that actually adds value to society. It’s a weird distortion created by the deposit system that it’s possible to earn money this way. Perhaps it’s the sort of thing a basic minimum income would discourage, or perhaps keep undertaking this pointless but personally remunerative activity regardless.

The National Post and Globe & Mail have both reported on the phenomenon: Living on empties: City’s bottle-collectors say their hard work pays off — in cash; The secret lives of Toronto’s Chinese bottle ladies

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 16, 2017 at 6:11 pm

But some did stop to talk – including, eventually, June – and, over the course of a few evenings on city sidewalks, a rough picture of their lives emerged. Despite their old clothes and their willingness to trudge the streets for a few dollars, most are not homeless or desperately poor. Many have families. Quite a few have a government pension or other income. Many live with a son or daughter and spend the daytime caring for grandchildren. They insist they never take money from anyone. The last thing they want is charity or pity.

They go out collecting, they say, to bring in a little spending money and to keep active in their later years. That’s not unusual in China, where garbage picking has been refined into an art. Even in prosperous Hong Kong, wizened, bent women can be seen pushing carts piled high with scrap cardboard down busy city streets. Many bottle ladies, it turns out, come from neighbouring parts of southern China, especially Taishan, in the Pearl River Delta.

alena July 19, 2017 at 12:52 am

Wayson Choy wrote a short story about a Chinese grandmother living in Vancouver who went around with her grandson collecting broken glass and other things out of garbage to make wind chimes out of them. She was an embarrassment to her children for doing so, but her grandson was her admiring accomplice.

Oleh August 1, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Increasingly I have appreciated the value of the dedicated binner, especially those that operate with human transportation. It is a hard job. The material finds its way to the recycling depot. The binner benefits with the incremental income. There is the pride of helping to provide for oneself.

I see it as a win-win.

Milan August 2, 2017 at 2:01 pm

I disagree. These bottles are already in the recycling. Surely it would be better for these people to undertake work that has real value for somebody, rather than doing something useless which is remunerative as an unintentional consequence of the bottle recycling incentive.

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