Over the past year, Ground Score Association (Portland, Oregon, USA) has received multiple new contracts and grants to address two major waste issues affecting waste pickers during the COVID-19 pandemic: the closure of places where people can deposit cans and bottles for money, and the lack of adequate waste collection services for the city’s growing unsheltered population.
The People’s Depot is Ground Score’s pop-up bottle collection depot that is run by and for canners (informal waste pickers of cans and bottles that are deposited for money through the State’s Bottle Bill EPR system). At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon state stopped enforcing its Bottle Bill, reducing the number of places where people could deposit beverage containers for money. The City of Portland responded by funding Ground Score to open its People’s Depot to help ensure sustained income for canners. The depot is now funded by an annual grant from beverage producers. The People’s Depot operates 6 days a week, providing income for hundreds of canners and regular can-counting jobs for ten workers. It brings in about 500,000 beverage containers each month, more than 50% of which canners retrieved from the ground or from trash cans (meaning that they otherwise would not have been recycled).
In 2021, Ground Score launched its GLITTER (Ground Score Leading Inclusively Together Through Environmental Recovery) program, which provides tentside waste collection services for the unhoused community. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in homelessness as well as illegal dumping of household waste by housed residents. The resulting buildup of litter and informal dumpsites across the city has deepened stigma against the unsheltered, and exacerbated public health and environmental pollution challenges. The GLITTER program hires around 80 waste pickers, many of whom are also unhoused, to provide regular waste collection at informal settlements across the city. Last month, the team collected more than 30 tons of waste, which would have otherwise been burned or littered. “Ground Score has given me the opportunity to work again and be a functioning member of society for the first time since I broke my back in 1999. It gives me something to look forward to and get out of bed for in the morning, especially knowing that the services we provide are so appreciated,” says Ground Score member, Mo Heisner. When asked about the impact of Ground Score on their lives, many workers speak to the confidence and community that collective work brings.
Increasingly, local government recognizes both the sanitary and community-building benefits of waste workers’ organizations like Ground Score to fill gaps in essential waste management services, as well as to engage communities that are facing growing stigma and trauma as the country’s housing crisis deepens.