A Different Kind of Entrepreneur

Picture a typical entrepreneur…

Big ideas.

Hard working.

Knows everyone.

Maker of their own success.

You can imagine the quick click of their shoes on the pavement of the Stephen Avenue Mall as they happily rush from one meeting to another…

This is the story of just such a person. A self-started entrepreneur with a great work ethic, a huge network and tonnes of positive energy. He is creative and generous; a go-to guy that people respect. The difference between him and the entrepreneur you pictured above? Replace the sound of the quick click of leather soled shoes on Stephen Avenue with the rolling and clanging sound of a shopping cart over an uneven alleyway.

Why the shopping cart? Because this is a different kind of entrepreneur. The kind that gets to makes his own schedule and work outside with friends everyday. The kind that’s heavily invested in his community, volunteering hours every week to build cleaner, safer streets and parks downtown. The kind that’s also an activist, dedicated to the environment and to fighting big issues like homelessness and poverty.

This kind of entrepreneur works in the informal recycling business – as a bottle picker.

And he’s not alone. It is predicted that there are well over 1000 people who currently bottle pick in Calgary. Many do it for the flexibility it allows, or for the fresh air and exercise. The majority, however, have no other option for making money – whether due to a mental or physical disability, lack of a fixed address or possibly because they don’t speak English.

Regardless of why they do it, they make Calgary a cleaner and greener place. More than 129,200 tonnes of recyclable materials were diverted from Alberta landfills through beverage container recycling in 2014. Bottle pickers played a significant part in this impressive number – often recovering bottles and cans that were carelessly thrown into the waste stream instead of a recycling bin.

And while bottle picking certainly provides our entrepreneur with the ability to pursue his personal goals while also generating some income – he faces significant challenges: unsteady and low pay (many bottle pickers average less than $5 an hour), harsh and unpredictable weather, unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, huge competition and territorial conflicts, and the most difficult challenge: social exclusion. People are afraid of him and don’t want him near their homes or businesses.

Calgary Can was launched in 2012 to address these concerns and to recognize bottle pickers as a community and environmental asset. We actively engage with the bottle picking population to co-develop solutions to their daily challenges, while also helping other Calgarians understand their value and potential. Some of our activities include a Bottle Picker Advisory Committee, monthly pop up’s at the Uptown Bottle Depot where we offer bottle pickers safety gear and other comfort items in exchange for expert advice on program development, public advocacy related to the legitimization of informal work, and research and development toward a more permanent community offering – such as a mobile depot or a bottle-picker led cooperative.

Calgary Can wants to re-frame how most Calgarians view bottle pickers. 
We see them as hard working entrepreneurs, solving a social and environmental problem with big impacts by diverting thousands of tonnes of recyclables from the local waste system. How do you see them?