Recycling happens at home, in neatly designated bins labeled paper, plastic, and metal. It happens in workplaces where sleek blue bins stand beside garbage cans and are gradually filled with used envelopes and bags of shredded paper.

Revisiting recycling requirements

And finally, some city waste management services have finally caught up, too, offering recycling bins alongside city garbage bins in many busy urban centers. Nonetheless, with all of this effort to provide recycling receptacles — things inevitably get missed. Soda cans in the trash, beer bottles left behind bars, empty milk cartons discarded by school kids at lunch time — all of these things somehow miss the recycling stream and end up in the trash.

So, now what?


The Binners Project recycling teamWell, now we meet recycling heroes of an unlikely sort. The kind you might have preconceived notions about, or even cross the street to avoid. There are many unfavorable names for those who pick recyclables out of garbage cans and alleyways, some of them downright offensive. But in Vancouver and Montreal, they’re known as binners and one organization is working to have them recognized as a vital part of the informal recycling network.

The Binners’ Project began in 2014 with a grant from a non-profit organization called One Earth, and launched in two of Canada’s largest cities, Vancouver and Montreal. The project was designed to destigmatize the valuable work done by some of the city’s most marginalized populations.

On it website, the project describes itself as,

… a group of waste-pickers aided by support staff dedicated to improving their economic opportunities, and reducing the stigma they face as informal recyclable collectors. Binners are among one of the most marginalized groups in urban areas. Their livelihoods stem from refunds received from used containers collected from bins. Binners positively contribute to our environment by diverting a considerable amount of waste from landfills.

Increased visibility; a voice

These organizations sought to provide binners with legitimacy by outfitting them with shirts and name badges identifying them and their participation in the project, as well as easily-identifiable green carts. Replacing the typical shopping cart used when picking is a way to separate them from the negative bias of public perception without sweeping their existence under the carpet or removing them from the public eye altogether. Rather, The Binners’ Project tries to make binners more visible, not less, and in doing so, highlight the role they play in waste reduction and recycling.

As evidenced by these initiatives seeking to increase the visibility of binners, The Binners’ Project works to raise awareness and also encourage program support from the public. If you live in a city served by a Binners’ Project, you can buy a Binners hook to install in your back lane. Doing so allows you to hang bags full of recyclables for binners to pick up and process, which supports the program and increases awareness about its participants and the work they do.

In fact, this may be the most important facet of the project, recognizing the people behind the shopping carts and the bags filled with bottles. Giving a voice to the human beings, their stories and their lives.

Michael Leland – I Belong Here from Luminus Films on Vimeo.

Being binners

The Binners Project recyclingIn 2014, a study of the BC chapters of the project was conducted by Joanne Lin, a Master’s of Public Health student from the University of Guelph, and it gives us unique insight into the demographics of the project’s participants.

  • This occupation is heavily weighted toward men, with just 20% of binners being female, and the remaining 80% male.

A few other key statistics provide insight into the lives of binners, and may shatter stereotypes, too.

  • Although one might assume that anyone pushing a shopping cart and rummaging in the trash is homeless, only around 36% of binners are.
  • Furthermore, and perhaps surprisingly, given the prejudices against this segment of the population, fully 67% of BC binners have high school education and a further 21% have post-secondary education.

This is vital, both the project itself and being able to break down the demographics like this, because as recycling and environmentally-friendly lifestyles have become more trendy, many have come to believe that in order to be eco-friendly you must have also have lots of money. Money to buy organic food, money to buy natural products which can be two to three times as expensive as the conventional variety, and money to afford the crop of upscale niche market items that followed the increased environmental awareness. Corporations have been quick to catch on that green sells – and the correlation between green and expensive has become irrevocably entrenched in the minds of many.

What you do

The Binners Project recycling The truth is that being environmentally conscious doesn’t have to cost much and living a truly environmentally-friendly life isn’t about what you buy, it’s about what you do. Reducing consumption, making your own cleaning and personal care products with inexpensive, natural ingredients, shopping secondhand, choosing shared property instead of owning everything yourself, and yes, recycling, means that anyone can be green.

It’s incredibly important to ensure that an Eco-friendly lifestyle doesn’t become exclusionary or gentrified, and organizations like The Binners’ Project serve to highlight those trying to create an impact regardless of trendiness or limited socio-economic status.

The Binners’ Project has taken a stigmatized and much-maligned occupation and highlighted the positive effect its participants have on the recycling rates of cities, informal waste management streams, and the benefits of recognizing worth in people – even those who exist in unusual ways or on the fringes of conventional society.

Within this an informal network which has placed experienced binners in leadership roles, like-minded individuals have been connected and empowered to communicate, protect and organize themselves, and given a sense of well-earned pride in their work.

Images courtesy of The Binners Project

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.