Into the Genie's Bottle


Guest Post by Roberta Kehler

We’ve all seen them; though we’ve probably tried not to. The bottle pickers; scouring through the rubbish bins all over the city looking for aluminium/plastic/glass nuggets in their back-alley gold rush. On a logical level, we know that they’re all people who have their own stories, be they tragic or triumphant, but how many times do we find ourselves giving them a wide berth because…well…I mean…I have nothing against anyone PERSONALLY…it’s just…

Oh for Pete’s sake! Why the Hell don’t they just clean themselves up and get a JOB? Get off the bleedin’ booze or drugs, stop living on the street and get their lives together already! There’s places and programs for them! What do we pay taxes for?

Ladies and Gentlemen – time to get SCHOOLED!!

As part of Jane’s Walks 2017, Calgary Can did their best to school about 50 interested Calgarians in the ways and means of these urban scavengers. Before we go any further, allow me to stress that the term “scavenger” is used here in a positive way. Scavengers are absolutely vital to any ecosystem and that includes the concrete jungles that we naked apes call home. Now that we have established that…

Who in the Zarking Fardwarks is Calgary Can? Well according to their website they’re…

…a group of Calgarians who are dedicated to reducing waste and improving recycling opportunities in Calgary by collaborating with the bottle picking community. Our vision is that bottle pickers are valued and compensated for their environmental and economic contributions; and our mission is to create a community-driven enterprise that involves and employs bottle pickers on their own terms.”

The walk itself was an opportunity for the organization to share their vision but they inadvertently gave the participants something else; an adventure!! The walk was amazingly well attended (to the surprise and marginal panic of the volunteers and tour guides) despite competing with a whopping fourteen other scheduled walks. C’mon…we know this world exists; we were not muggles being led on a tour of Diagon Alley. This was a chance to explore a strange and scary world that we’d be too chicken to explore ourselves. Who can pass up a chance to walk on the wild side!?

Randy Pages "schooling" Calgary Can's Jane's Walk participants on what it's like to be a bottle picker.

Randy Pages "schooling" Calgary Can's Jane's Walk participants on what it's like to be a bottle picker.

The world we learned about was indeed kind of scary and more than a bit enlightening. For example, would it surprise you to know that there are most likely over 1000 bottle pickers active in Calgary and that many of them only bottle-pick part time to supplement other income? Those that do bottle-pick full time can walk up to 45 km per day and will wear out a sturdy pair of runners every month. Folks this is a very physically demanding job that simply cannot be done if you are three sheets to the wind. Kind of kills that pre-conceived notion that all pickers are addicts doesn’t it? Do some bottle-pickers drink and/or do drugs? Of course! They’re kind of like people that way.

The amount of discrimination these people put up with is horrific. For example, whether an individual is permitted onto a bus or train with a large load is largely left up to the drivers’ discretion; which is right off the stable floor. That is why a bottle picker with a loaded granny cart can be refused entry while at the next stop, someone pushing a stroller that is larger than my first car (and probably cost more too) is permitted. As far as the challenge of finding toilet facilities goes…it is an arguable point that a business owner can decide who uses his/her facilities; but what about public facilities? Should the pickers be barred from the toilets in city hall? The public library? Would it shock you to learn that one picker was issued a citation for public urination…for urinating in a public toilet at the public library? Never mind always having to be prepared for a verbal or physical attack.

Bottle-picking certainly won’t make you rich but you can earn a livable wage…barely. The pickers who facilitated the walk guessed that they made between $5 - $15/hour depending on season, weather, day of the week and a host of other factors. Hardly a king’s ransom but that does roughly translate to the same amount one would earn working a full-time, minimum wage job; before taxes of course.

Education and homeless stats are hard to come by re: the Calgary pickers because data has just started being collected. However, Vancouver has their own version of Calgary Can called The Binner’s Project that compiled a report in 2015 (note: Calgary Can and The Binner’s Project often partner on common problems and share solutions!). The following stats reflect data collected in Vancouver, but it’s not a stretch to assume that Calgary’s stats wouldn’t be far different.

  • 67% of pickers in Vancouver were found to have a high school education
  • 21% in Vancouver had a college or university education
  • 15% of bottle pickers in Vancouver reported being homeless
  • 58% of bottle pickers in Vancouver reported that picking is their primary source of income
Nigel Kirk sharing some of his insights about the "relocation of population through urban design"

Nigel Kirk sharing some of his insights about the "relocation of population through urban design"

If you are someone who was nodding emphatically to the fourth sentence in the first paragraph, you know, the one with all the attitude. Well here’s hoping that your finger just went DOWN.

The final burning question is of course…WHY? Why would anyone choose to be a bottle-picker? Ya got me. How long is a piece of string? I have no idea why someone would choose to work in a downtown office cubicle, but that’s me.

No…the final burning WHY question is why do we condemn people who manage to make a living scavenging through the detritus that the rest of us toss away? They harm no one, help the environment and keep the urban jungle clean. Calgary’s bottle-pickers police themselves and are just as community-minded as anyone else. If one starts making trouble you can bet your last farthing that his mates will give him Hell for it; they make their livings by flying under the radar.

Try this… the next time you’re getting ready to cross the street to avoid a bottle picker, don’t. If you’re feeling really daring, try saying hello or giving them some refundables. You may surprise yourself. I know those of us on that walk sure did.


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Roberta is a Calgary-based heritage interpreter, tour guide and writer of historical satire. If you would like to read some of her observations of this silly, naked ape called “humanity” please visit her blog


Zero Waste?


Zero-waste. We hear this a lot, but what does it mean? Is it as simple as it sounds? Is it really possible for humans to produce zero waste?

Zero-waste is a goal or philosophy that strives to mimic the way that resources are used in nature. It is about redesigning processes so that nothing is sent to a landfill or incinerated. An essential and often overlooked aspect of zero-waste is the importance of community connection. A zero-waste facility, for example, may have a difficult time achieving their goal if there is no end market for their recyclables; or if the excess waste or pollution at the source does not design processes initially to be zero-waste.

In 2015, The City of Edmonton’s mayor spoke about a pilot project in the city using wood fibres in a zero-waste or ‘closed loop’ method:

“The production plant uses wood fibers over and over, so you can stop cutting down trees. You use your paper, put it in the recycling bin and close the loop. It goes back to the plant, it gets processed, value gets added through chemistry. It’s building this economic cluster and looking at municipal waste as a resource, rather than just digging holes in the ground to bury it."

Calgary also has zero-waste ambitions. One milestone achievement is the Green Cart Food and Yard Waste Program that will be launched mid-2017. The green cart will be for compostable materials such as, fruits and vegetables, cooking oil, breads, eggs, leaves, grass, dairy products, nuts, meat, paper towels, and paper plates, just to name a few... One interesting, and perhaps less known material that can also be put to compost, according to the City, is pet waste. The City of Calgary informs us that it must be placed in a certified compostable bag, but that there are no health or safety issues with putting pet waste in the green cart. During the composting process the material will reach and maintain temperatures of at least 55 degrees Celsius - get ready Calgary, it’s going to be a hot one!

(Image from  Calgary Herald )

(Image from Calgary Herald)

Currently, without this composting program, the organic materials we waste are sitting in our city landfills. Over time, they are broken down and produce methane gas; a greenhouse gas, as it traps heat in the atmosphere. Methane gas (CH4) has a global warming potential 21 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2); meaning that it much more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Therefore, a composting and yard waste program is one more step that Calgary can take to ensure that our air is cleaner and our landfills are used more appropriately.

Calgarians are known for their hard work, intelligence, and resilience; being smarter with our waste is one way we are showing Canada that we care about the health of our environment and ourselves.

Are you ready to help Calgary move towards zero waste?



Binners lining up to exchange coffee cups for refund at the Coffee Cup Revolution in Vancouver last October. 

Binners lining up to exchange coffee cups for refund at the Coffee Cup Revolution in Vancouver last October. 

The Binners’ Project is a non-profit organization in Vancouver that has been active since 2014 which aims to work with the bottle picking community through a number of programs such as community building, public awareness, and several pilot projects, such as the Binners’ Hook.

Yearly, the Binners’ Project holds a coffee cup revolution event to raise awareness on waste reduction. The last event, held on October 24, 2016, invited ‘binners’ (i.e. informal recyclers/bottle pickers) to collect and redeem paper coffee cups for 5-cents. The result was pretty astounding, word had been spread about this event and 49,000 cups were collected in as little as 4 hours! According to the Binners’ Project, holding this yearly event helps put a spotlight on waste management and recycling as half a million trees each year are used to create paper cups in Canada.

Simon Fraser University estimated that 1.6 Billion single use coffee cups, equating to 350,000 trees and 400 million gallons of water end up in Canadian landfills each year. The Binners’ Project believes that IF coffee cups were refundable the streets would be cleaner, less waste would end up in our landfills, and this would further economic opportunities available in the community.

Kate (pictured here) and Jessi attended the Coffee Cup Revolution in Vancouver last October and participated in the world cafe.

Kate (pictured here) and Jessi attended the Coffee Cup Revolution in Vancouver last October and participated in the world cafe.


  • According to Green Calgary, Calgarians use an estimated 62 million single use paper cups each year!
  • In 2014, Alberta generated almost double the amount of waste of British Colombia.
  • As of 2016, the City of Calgary recycles paper coffee cups and paper sleeves.
  • In Calgary, plastic drink lids must be thrown into the garbage as they are too small to be captured by the city’s recycling process system. Plastic takes on average 450 years to degrade (get smaller and smaller over time), some types as long as 1000 years; plastic is not biodegradable.
  • What happens to the coffee cups in Calgary after they are recycled? New technologies have allowed paper pulp processors to be able to separate the polycoat lining from the paper fibres within coffee cups. The cups and other polycoated papers are first shredded and enter a 'hydropulper', which agitates the material in a water bath to separate and then filter the layers. This allows the paper fibres to be used to make new paper products such as cereal boxes, egg cartons and more.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could avoid this?

Wouldn't it be nice if we could avoid this?