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Invisible Environmentalists

Making a living, ten cents at a time

- Words by Tim Collins

Parker Naus smiles and gives a little wave as an elderly man rides into the compound of the Alpine Return-it Centre in Langford.

A makeshift trailer is attached to the man’s bike and the whole rig is overflowing with plastic bags of bottles and cans, precariously balanced at impossible angles – nearly defying gravity to stay in place.

A full-size Canadian flag is mounted at the back of the trailer.

“They roll in here loaded down with bags every day, sometimes more than once a day. They work hard … really hard,” Naus says.

“Most of these guys walk or ride for 12 to 14 hours a day.”

Naus works at the Return-It Centre, where he’s gotten to know the neighborhood binners – those who root through recycling bins, dumpsters and anywhere else they can to recover discarded bottles and cans that provide their livelihood.

According to Parker, that can look like anywhere from $30 to more than $200 in a day. Many binners saw boosts to their profits when the value of a can and bottle increased from 5 cents to 10 in 2020.

It doesn’t come with its risks, though: cuts that can become infections, having to climb into precarious spaces - such as industrial-sized dumpsters — and confrontation from community members.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of them and, on the most part, they’re friendly, hard-working people who help clean up the community and don’t cause us any trouble.”

That includes a man known in the community as Chub.

“My name is actually Csaba, but people have trouble with that. It’s Hungarian. So, they call me Chub. I don’t mind.”

Csaba hasn’t always been a binner, working in copper mines, construction, tree-planting and demolition, to name a few.

“The first thing you should know is I’m an alcoholic,” he says with a laugh. “I smoke pot sometimes … who doesn’t … and I’ve done other drugs. I even pick my own special mushrooms.”

After more than 30 years living on the streets, Csaba was able to secure rental housing two years ago. Through this time, he took his worth ethic once used in full-time labour and focused on hunting for bottles and cans around the community.

“We’re free, but we’re also invisible. People see us but, at the same time, they don’t,” he says.

In Csaba’s eyes, he’s doing more for the environment than those who can afford electric cars to minimize their fossil fuels.

While there are no statistics on the exact number of cans or bottles collected by the binning community in Langford or nationally, the environmental benefit of recycling has been long-prescribed.

In 2021, Recycle BC said 55 per cent of plastics were captured and diverted away from landfills, giving opportunity for those materials to be turned into something new.

For Csaba, his love of an unencumbered lifestyle is reflected in his approach to binning.

“I call my rig ‘Freedom’ and, so long as I have it, I can wake up in the morning with just what I’m wearing and, by the end of the day, I’ve earned what I need.”

Csaba has little patience for people who beg or steal to survive and is often met with judgement of being painted with the same brush.

“I work hard for a living.’”

‘We’re good even if we are invisible’

Kabele, 45, has been binning for a year-and-a-half since becoming homeless and has been met with mixed responses by those in Langford.

“It’s hard work but the hardest part is being judged,” Kabele says. “I’m not a criminal, but for some people, they see someone like me and they’re against you right away.”

In one instance, Kabele could see bottles left amongst garbage someone left at a local park. While he was cleaning up and sorting through the mess, the person called the police.

“The cops. Can you believe it?”

In stark contract, others who have noticed him visiting the same places each day will put bottles out for him to grab.

Binning has been a humbling experience for Kabele.

“I never thought I’d be doing this, but I’ve been humbled. But I’m working and I still have pride. I also know that everyone has a story and it’s not my place to judge. I wish some other people would learn that.”

Ten cents at a time, it’s common for binners to quite literally be foraging through other people’s trash to make ends meet.

Charles – nicknamed Scarecrow – bins to augment his $1,400 monthly disability income.

“I rent a room around the corner but it’s just over $500 a month so I do the bottles so I can buy food and cigarettes,” the 45-year-old says.

With a toothless grin and the letters S-C-A-R-E-C-R-O-W tattooed across his knuckles, Charles’ life philosophy is one of acceptance and zero judgement.

“I have a family with a mother, brother and sister, but they haven’t talked to me in 30 years. I did some stuff way back and they assume I’m the same person but I’m not.”

Crystal Goodwin, who lives on Charles’ routine binning route, tries to keep an eye out for him so she can give him any empty bottles and cans.

“He comes by here a lot, and I decided that it’s better to give the bottles to him rather than someone else or to just throw them away,” she says.

“He seems to be a nice guy and I think he can use them. These guys work hard and at least they’re not begging at the side of the road.”

The binning community in Langford has grown over the years – so much so that in 2020 the Diverters’ Foundation was established. The registered, non-profit society represents binners in Victoria with an aim to de-stigmatize the group and create economic opportunities for their membership.

All three men say they have faced angry confrontations by people who object to what they do, sometimes leading to police being called. They share similar experiences of being called names, assaulted and had their possessions stolen by others.

“But without us, there’d be a lot more garbage in the landfill, so maybe we’re good even if we are invisible,” Csaba says.