Calgary Can: Recognizing People for their Environmental & Economic Contributions

How do we recognize people for making sustainable choices? This is becoming a defining question of the 21st century. People want to reduce their ecological footprint. Businesses are embracing a triple-bottom-line approach to lessen their impact on the environment. Our leaders in government want to facilitate citizens and industry towards decisions that protect our critical ecosystems.

However, sustainable choices aren’t all about the environment.  Creating a more equitable society has many economic, social, and environmental benefits. In Calgary, there is a unique group of people who stand at the crossroads of many of these issues: bottle pickers. And to match the uniqueness of the bottle picking population is an organization devoted to recognizing their contribution: Calgary Can.

In a city with over 3,500 homeless people, bottle pickers are abundant. They are also largely misunderstood. Many of them are not, in fact, homeless. Operating informally, bottle pickers create many benefits that extend far beyond the value of 10 cents per can.

Bottle pickers divert a large amount of salvageable material from the waste stream. This saves room in our landfills and reduces the amount of virgin materials we consume. Right now, Calgary does not provide recycling pick-up for businesses and multi-family dwellings like condos.  As such, many buildings have no formal recycling strategies.  Bottle pickers help fill this gap. Stand outside the Uptown Bottle Depot on 10th Ave SW on a Sunday morning and you can see exactly how many recyclables bottle pickers are saving from the waste stream.

As an occupation, bottle picking can be an excellent employment opportunity for people who need flexible working arrangements. Or for those who want to supplement other income sources. For people who are fiercely independent, bottle picking may be one of the few options they have for earning a living.

Bottle pickers also face significant challenges as part of their day-to-day routine. City bylaws make scavenging from many places illegal. They have to deal with negative interactions from other Calgarians. There is a shortage of bottle depots within the city, and they are only open for limited hours. Gathering recyclables can be dangerous –sharp and hazardous objects are abundant in our garbage bins.

Calgary Can formed in 2012 with the goal of improving the conditions in which bottle pickers operate. They also want bottle pickers to be properly compensated for their environmental and economic contributions.

It’s been a whirlwind year for Calgary Can. A working group of 14 volunteers completed a feasibility study in collaboration with the consulting firm Creating Value Inc. and with funding from Alberta Ecotrust. They have completed countless hours of research, connected with hundreds of local people and organizations, consulted regularly with the bottle picking community and are currently testing ideas on how to best support them. They have studied Calgary anti-scavenging by-laws and looked into options surrounding depot ownership. In November, they successfully held their first fundraiser, and now are ready to host a pop-up depot.

What is a pop-up depot? It is a place where bottle pickers can return their recyclables for goods that are worth more than what they would receive from a traditional depot. Rather than get $20 in cash for a cart full of wares, a bottle picker may receive food, gift cards, and goods that help them with their job: gloves, jackets, boots, etc. Hosted outside of ordinary business hours, a pop-up depot meets the needs of bottle pickers who work at night. This can be a huge help for bottle pickers who live on the streets. Being able to return their recyclables in the evening means they don’t have to worry about their goods throughout the entire night.

A pop-up depot can also help create understanding of bottle pickers in the neighbourhoods they operate in. Changing the perception of bottle pickers in Calgary remains a foundational goal for Calgary Can.

“I’m proud of how many people we’ve been able to inform about the value of bottle pickers and the struggle they face,” says Kate Letizia, founder of Calgary Can. “We’ve enlightened a lot of people and changed a lot of minds already, and we’re just getting started!”

Learn more about Calgary Can, including how you can help, at their website

Did You Know?

An average day of bottle picking begins between 4:30 and 7:00 am, can involve up to 45 kilometres of foot travel and earn an informal recycler between $25 and $40, which translates, at seven hours of binning, to between $3.57 to $5.71 per hour.

The high cost of rent in Calgary means that many supplement their other formal employment, support payments, or other program incomes with informal recycling in order to meet their housing costs.

This story is the third in our 12 Grants of Christmas series. In the days leading up to Christmas we will be featuring some of the best projects and stories from our grantees in the last year. Please return to our blog in the coming days and weeks to learn more about the incredible environmental work being done across Alberta. Other stories:

1. Making a Statement in Fort Chip

2. Living With Coyotes

3. Calgary Can: Recognizing People for their Environmental & Economic Contributions

4. Answering Hard Questions in Our Grasslands

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