A new waste picker association took root in the United States of America in 2019, and this year will be its first time celebrating International Waste Picker Day on March 1st. Portland, Oregon’s Ground Score Association is a fast-growing group of can and bottle collectors and dumpster divers who organize to access other low-barrier waste management opportunities like event waste management, and litter cleanup. Ground Score has non-profit status thanks to the fiscal sponsorship of a respected local non-profit called Trash for Peace. Ground Score has funding from private donations, profits from jobs performed, as well as the city’s Metro regional government.
The group has already garnered local media attention and interest from local government on the role that waste pickers might play in establishing a more equitable and inclusive waste management system in the region. Ground Score’s advocacy against the expansion of locked public trash cans, for example, succeeded in convincing the City of Portland to change their course and agree to leave new public trash cans unlocked. “Containerization” of waste, or the locking of public waste containers to restrict access, is a growing issue in North America, and its impacts on waste pickers remains largely unstudied around the world.
This year Ground Score is applying for funds to improve their research and storytelling capacity to highlight the need for research on the impacts of waste picking in Portland, and to help destigmatize their work. Waste picking is largely looked down upon in Portland, with pickers regularly complaining about harassment from security guards, poor treatment at bottle return depots, and several accounts of physical attack and even murder of local pickers in the past year. Waste pickers in Portland most commonly describe themselves as “canners,” because they collect cans and bottles in exchange for a 10 cent deposit under the state Bottle Bill. In US states with Bottle Bills, cans and bottles are some of the only waste materials that can still be publicly accessed and exchanged for income. Waste picking from public or curbside bins is prohibited by State law in Oregon, though this law is rarely enforced.
Ground Score is one of two waste picker organizations in the US, and one of 5 in North America. North American waste picker organizations are awaiting news on funding that would enable them to hold their first ever regional meeting this year.
Ground Score will be commemorating March 1st a few days early, with a multi-stakeholder meeting to explore a possible contract with local government to provide waste collection services for homeless camps. Portland has faced a dramatic rise in homelessness in recent years, making waste picking an important source of safety-net income for people who are trying to stay housed.