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