by John Kolkman
We've all seen it. We get so used to seeing it we often walk right by it without so much as giving it a passing glance. You know what I mean - garbage and litter on our streets, boulevards and sidewalks.
Recently, I've been doing an admittedly unscientific inventory of what Edmontonians are throwing away, sometimes in garbage cans but more often than not as litter lying on the ground or blowing in the wind. This research was made easier by the pleasant fall weather and the fact I usually walk through the downtown daily to get home.
So what are the worst offenders when it comes to garbage littering our streets and filling downtown garbage cans? Well discarded coffee cups for one. Not to name names or anything, but the worst offender seems to be a certain company named for a former hockey player, with cups from a certain ubiquitous Seattle-based coffee conglomerate not far behind. To make matters worse, the first unnamed company insists on providing the customer with two cups for all take out coffee.
Other major offenders include: empty fast food containers, cigarette packages, potato chip and candy wrappings, plastic bags of all sorts, newspapers and flyers (especially the freebie versions).
What is rarely seen are the refundable beverage containers that can be returned for a deposit. If you do happen to see one in a garbage can for instance, it's pretty much guaranteed it won't be there the next time you walk by.
It makes very little sense for containers with a pre-poured beverage to be refundable while containers that someone else fills are not. Alberta should therefore look at expanding the number of products on which deposits are charged.
Expanding the number of refundable items is an effective means of both creating employment and reducing litter. In other words, doing so would serve both an environmental and social justice purpose. At minimum, containers like coffee, soft drink and juice cups should include a deposit which can be refunded when they are taken to a bottle depot. Given what consumers are prepared to pay for their cup of premium latte or cappuccino, including a 10 cent deposit (assuming the cup is less than a litre in size) is not likely going to have a big impact. Consideration could be given to expanding deposits and refunds to even more products that end up as litter or clogging our landfills.
An informative study was recently done by the Calgary Homeless Foundation on informal recyclers and panhandlers in that city. The study found there are least 244 Calgarians for whom recycling refundable materials is a major or in some cases a sole source of income.
As the story on the Edmonton couple that makes their living from recycling shows, expanding the deposit / refund system is an excellent way to assist a significant number of Albertans with little or no income from other sources.
The Calgary study found some evidence of an inverse relationship between the number of informal recyclers and the number of panhandlers. As economic opportunities for raising income through recycling increased, panhandling decreased.
Informal recycling is hard, even back breaking work. Many of those who panhandle have a disability or other physical limitations that do not allow them to participate in recycling. In Edmonton we've done a pretty good job of making sure that any person down on their luck has access to meals and a roof over their head at night, even if it's only a mat in a downtown shelter. We haven't done as well at creating opportunities for these folks to secure an income while making a contribution to our city.
Those of us living, working or visiting downtown have all seen the signs in the shop windows of many businesses. Don't give to panhandlers, donate to inner city agencies instead. This is useful advice to a point since inner city agencies can certainly use our help and some panhandlers spend donated money on their addictions. But panhandlers like all of us also need cash to spend on necessary things.
Apart from earning a livelihood from informal recycling, there are a couple of noteworthy initiatives that allow homeless and other disadvantaged individuals to generate income. One such initiative is the Edmonton Street News. Vendors pay 50 cents a copy and then re-sell the newspapers on the street mostly, in the Downtown and Old Strathcona areas. Next time you see the Edmonton Street News being sold make sure to buy a paper which is a very good read in its own right even apart from the income it generates for the vendor.
Another income generating initiative is the Downtown Proud initiative sponsored by Boyle Street Community Services. This initiative hires five previously homeless or unemployed people to provide litter pickup and removal, lawn care, and snow clearing services throughout the downtown area. A clean city with well-maintained and litter-free sidewalks, parks and public spaces pays huge dividends in terms of Edmonton's national and global image. Consideration should be given to expanding this initiative to neighbourhoods near the city core and to the Whyte Avenue entertainment district.
As a province and city, there is lots of room to get more creative about having both a cleaner city and providing income generating opportunities for those prepared to put in the hard work of recycling, street cleaning or newspaper vending. As we see, the couple featured in "Recycling: Backlanes and Binners," demonstrate the difficulties and challenges of informal employment.
For more reading on the issue of informal employment, read:
Informal Employment: Making a Living in Calgary Final Report
Report by Cori Bender, prepared for the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
For current news concerning disposable cups read:
Kelly Crydernan and Renata DAliesio, "Deposit fee on disposable cups raises tricky issues." Edmonton Journal 18 November 2010
John Kolkman is the Research Coordinator for the Edmonton Social Planning Council.
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