Written by Melody Brooks, Further Magazine. Further Magazine. 03/15/2016
You have likely seen them in the places where you live, work and shop, and heard the clanging of their shopping carts as they pass by. Their toil draws reactions that range from kindness and compassion to judgment and scorn. It is estimated that every day more than 1,000 bottle pickers venture into neighbourhoods across Calgary to carry out their work.
Have you ever considered them as entrepreneurs? Creative, highly networked people with a strong work ethic who make their own schedule and give back to the community by building cleaner, safer streets and green spaces?
Toward dignity and legitimacy
For Kate Letizia and her volunteer team at Calgary Can, the vision to reframe how Calgarians view bottle pickers began with a desire to bring dignity and legitimacy to the economic and environmental contributions made by the local bottle picking community. Kate had previously taken part in similar transformative work with a group of informal recyclers in Peru and became inspired to bring greater recognition to the livelihood of Calgary’s bottle pickers.
“It’s about the community accepting unconventional forms of employment and different ways of bringing meaning to your life,” explains Kate. “Why do we look down on bottle picking as a way to make a living but if you’re dressing up and going to an office, then we’re okay with labelling that as work … even if it does really harmful things to the environment or to people’s health?”
Working with, not for
“We work with the bottle pickers and they inform the actions that we take. That is fundamental to how we work,” insists Kate. The approach is far from easy. Progress is slow and tiring, with success often not nearly as apparent as the setbacks. As Kate points out, “We come from very different places and are continually trying to learn how to speak each other’s language. It’s taken a long time to build trust.”
Despite the many challenges faced and the perseverance needed to work with a marginalized population in a truly collaborative manner, Kate wouldn’t go about it any other way. At the centre of Calgary Can’s approach is the Bottle Picker Advisory Committee. Consisting of members from the bottle picking community and Calgary Can volunteers, the committee gives bottle pickers a space to do some creative problem-solving and make decisions about how Calgary Can will move forward. Regular pop-up engagement events hosted by the Uptown Bottle Depot also provide opportunities for others in the bottle picking community to make their voice heard.
Randy, a long-time committee member and occasional bottle picker, sees the potential for Calgary Can to make a difference in the community-at-large and in the lives of bottle pickers. “I appreciate what Calgary Can is trying to do … I think we’re on to something here and I am thrilled to be part of it from the start.”
Ask any bottle picker what they enjoy most about their job and many will say it’s the sense of freedom that comes from being able to choose when and where they work. Others will speak of the sense of purpose and self-worth that comes from knowing they are contributing to the community and doing work that is good for the environment. And for some, the activity provides a sense of connection and belonging within a group that often experiences social exclusion.
Bottle pickers see themselves as making an honest living and they take pride in their work. To accommodate the myriad of items they pull out of the waste stream to recycle and reuse, their carts routinely undergo creative modifications. “They are making it work in their own way. No one has ever asked what led them to where they are and what ideas they have about how to feel better, how to make the city greener or how to make more money,” says Kate.
Until now, that is. As co-developers of the solutions that Calgary Can looks to pilot, the bottle pickers provided the ideas that Kate and her team hope to develop as community-driven enterprises. These include PICK’d — an initiative that invites residents and businesses to sign up for a refundable pick-up service — and HOOK’d — an easy way for residents to show support to informal recyclers and make collecting refundables from alleys across the city a cleaner, easier and more considerate endeavour for bottle pickers.
Calgary Can also has a longer-term goal to develop a mobile bottle depot that would be designed, owned and operated by Calgary’s bottle pickers. While there is still some regulatory uncertainty around the project, Kate remains hopeful that one day a mobile depot will be roaming the streets of Calgary, meeting the bottle pickers where they’re at and providing them a safe, welcoming environment. “They [bottle pickers] know best what is going to work because they live the problems and they’re going to live the solutions.”