Jane's Walk (Talk): Beltline Bottle Picker's Blues

I couldn’t resist when I read in Swerve Magazine that there was going to be a Jane’s Walk hosted by a bottle picker.

The announcement read:

Downtown Calgary: Through the eyes of bottle pickers. Calgary Can, an organization dedicatee to reducing waste by working with the bottle-picking community, leads a walk with pickers who will talk about the unspoken rules of picking and the stereotypes they face. 

This off-the-beaten path guy couldn't think a better way to spend a Saturday morning.

People from all walks of life showed up. There was even a mother breast feeding her infant.  

People from all walks of life showed up. There was even a mother breast feeding her infant.  

Jane’s Walk 101

The first weekend in May is “International Jane’s Walk Weekend.  “Jane” refers to Jane Jacobs, the American community activist who wrote THE book on how to create vibrant communities “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in 1961. (I own a copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition.) The book has since become the bible for urban planners and she a cult figure for community activists. In cities around the world, local volunteers take others on tours sharing their special knowledge and insights of different neighbourhoods.

In Calgary, there were 80 tours this year organized by Calgary Foundation. Link: Calgary Foundation Jane's Walks

This picker passed by us while on the walk, but few even noticed as they were looking in the other direction. It would have been interesting to talk to him, find out what he had picked that morning.  I also wondered how difficult it must be to push his cart along the downtown streets, sidewalks and back alleys. There would have been something authentic about a chance encounter and chat with a picker.  

This picker passed by us while on the walk, but few even noticed as they were looking in the other direction. It would have been interesting to talk to him, find out what he had picked that morning.  I also wondered how difficult it must be to push his cart along the downtown streets, sidewalks and back alleys. There would have been something authentic about a chance encounter and chat with a picker.  

Uptown Bottle Depot ATM?

Tour participants were told to meet at the popular and busy Uptown Bottle Depot on 10th Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets SW at 10 am on Saturday May 6. I estimate about 75 people showed up for the 2 km walking tour.  It was like meeting at a construction site with the upscale new high-rise condo under construction to the west and a new condo and Marriott across the street.

The Uptown Bottle Depot, in business since the ‘70s, is the only bottle depot in the City Centre, making it very popular not only for the downtown bottle pickers, but also for the growing number of area residents. It is not uncommon to see BMWs and shopping carts vying to get into the parking lot.

For bottle pickers, it is their ATM. An aside: One can’t help but wonder how long the new upscale neighbours will tolerate having bottle depot next door.

Kate, from Calgary Can provided us with a bit of the background about their mandate to help pickers and then handed over the mike to our host a picker.

Over the next 90 minutes, he and Kate shared with us the trials and tribulations of Calgary’s bottle pickers as we wandered from the Uptown Bottle Depot to the Mustard Seed and back.

Link: Calgary Can

In Memorial Park, we were lectured by a picker on how the City was guilty of "relocation of population by urban design i.e. getting pickers and homeless to not sleep in public spaces." 

In Memorial Park, we were lectured by a picker on how the City was guilty of "relocation of population by urban design i.e. getting pickers and homeless to not sleep in public spaces." 

Lessons Learned

Calgary’s approximate 1,000 bottle pickers have their own advocacy group called Calgary Can. Calgary Can is a group of Calgarians dedicated to reducing waste and improving recycling opportunities in Calgary by collaborating with the bottle picking community. 

Pickers don’t have their own territory. It operates on a “first come, first get” basis and most pickers respect that.

Pickers earn anywhere from $10 to $200 a day.  Most pick for about 4 to 5 hours and walk 15+ kilometres. The most lucrative time is during Stampede and summer is better than winter. Summer generates more cans; winter more bottles.  A picker’s shoes last about one month.

“Blue bins are not yours.” This comment surprised me.  From a picker’s perspective, once bottles and cans are placed in the blue bins, they are in the public domain and residents no longer own them.

Though grocery store shopping carts are illegal on city streets, 50% of pickers use them. Others just use big, heavy-duty garbage bags.

Pickers like the fact they have no boss and set their own hours.  If they get $50/day, most are happy.  (We were told that’s enough for food, smokes and even drugs if they are a user.)

The new City bylaw requiring all condo buildings to have a recycling program could benefit pickers as condos could partner with them to pick up recyclables on a daily basis.  I suggested an “adopt-a-picker” program to Kate who thought that might work. 

The worst part of the occupation is when “garbage juice” spills all over you.

The Calgary Drop In Centre recognizes bottle picking as a job and therefore provide pickers with bag lunches.

Experienced pickers help new pickers learn the informal rules and code of conduct of picking – things like respecting others, getting to know the neighbours and restaurateurs where you pick, cleaning up back alley messes they encounter if possible, picking up needles and disposing of them safely, and looking out for other pickers who might be sick or in trouble.

Park benches designed so pickers can't sleep on them. 

Park benches designed so pickers can't sleep on them. 

Health Issues

Cuts, scrapes (which easily get infected) and pulled muscles are common occupational hazards. These often become magnified because pickers don’t or can’t seek medical attention as they have to work every day to earn money for everyday expenses. Pickers survive day-to-day, not payday-to-payday.

The Sheldon Chumir Health Centre is considered a safe place to seek treatment and pickers trust the staff there.  There is even a place at the entrance to park their carts.  Problem is if a cart is full, a picker won’t leave it there as it may get stolen.  As a result, the cart parking is rarely used.

About 50% of pickers are homeless, however, the picking profession and homeless shelters are incongruent.  Why? Because the shelters don’t allow clients to leave at 4 or 5 am to head out for work. Also they have no safe place to store any bottles and cans they might have with them at evening check-in time. This leads to pickers often staying up all night to guard their stash or sleep outdoors, both of which carry health and safety risks.

Lack of access to adequate public washrooms means personal hygiene is very compromised.

We did walk down one alley, just west of the Mustard Seed but it had no dumpster or bins.  It was as clean as a whistle. 

We did walk down one alley, just west of the Mustard Seed but it had no dumpster or bins.  It was as clean as a whistle. 

Beltline Bottle Picker Blues

There is a “love-hate” relationship between pickers and public. Some Calgarians will leave a bag of bottles and cans next to bins so pickers don’t have to root through the bins; others will chase them away.

One of the strangest things I heard a picker say, when we were in Memorial Park, was this is “relocation of population by urban design.” Wow…was this guy an urban planner! He pointed out how some benches in the park have armrests in the middle of them so nobody can sleep on them. He then shared with us all of the other public “anti-sleeping” urban designs throughout the City Centre.  He was not clearly happy about the City taking away places to sleep in public.

One of the saddest things I heard was when a picker was asked about the ratio of male to female pickers. He said, “there are very few female pickers; it is too degrading for them. They’d rather do favours for money.”  It is pretty hard to shock me given my history with street poverty (I was instrumental in setting up the Calgary Homeless Foundation and a founding Director; I researched and organized the “Make Real Change With Your Spare Change” panhandling program and have done the ride along with the EXIT Van visiting prostitutes on the street to check on their health and safety.) But this shock and sadden me.

Cart parking spots for pickers at the front entrance of the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre are never used.

Cart parking spots for pickers at the front entrance of the Sheldon Chumir Health Centre are never used.

Just My Opinion

I was expecting to explore the back alleys and see first hand what pickers encountered and maybe check out a dumpster or two.  It would have been interesting to see how many bottles and cans we could collect in 90 minutes and see what looks we might get from strangers.  I was expecting a more hands-on appreciation of the sights and smells of the yucky life/job of being a picker.  

It seemed to me Calgary Can was very careful to manage the messaging.  At the tour’s end, Calgary Can volunteers handed out a postcard with these compelling facts:

  • 26,000 bottle and cans are sent to the landfill every two hours in Calgary (shame on us)
  • It is estimated over 1,000 bottle pickers venture out into neighbourhoods throughout Calgary every day to help divert bottles and cans from landfills.
  • Bottle pickers face social exclusion, unsteady and low pay and unsafe work conditions on a daily basis to make a living.
  • Bottle pickers are entrepreneurs, environmental stewards, waste diverters and community members. 

To me This Jane’s Walk was more like a Jane’s Talk in that it could easily have been a PowerPoint lecture. The locations we visited didn't provide us with any special insights into bottle picker's world. While I respect the work being done by Calgary Can, it all seemed a bit too sanitized and rehearsed for me.