Vancouver Province column: Resourceful dumpster divers are important part of our city’s fabric

October 29, 2008

Richard Florida, the high-profile University of Toronto professor, recently spoke to a receptive crowd at a Vancouver Board of Trade cities conference.

Florida, author of the best-selling book The Rise of Creative Class, postulates that cities with more diversity and culture also enjoy more economic growth. Not surprisingly, Vancouver rates high in Florida’s research, given its cosmopolitan make-up and the growth of industries like software and film.

But it’s not enough for a place to cater exclusively to hip professionals, according to Florida. Cities like

Vancouver must also tap into the creativity of their trades and service workers — from plumbers to cab drivers to coffee shop baristas.

Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, took

Florida’s point one step further — saying that Vancouver should also tap into the creativity of a quite different class of workers: binners.

While Price drew a few blank stares, the former Vancouver city councillor is clearly onto something.

Trolling for treasures in blue boxes and garbage bins doesn’t have the same cachet as say, video game design or sustainable architecture. Some critics consider binners to be an urban nuisance, while others associate them with crime

But according to the 2007 study Binning in Vancouver by University of Victoria graduate student Crystal Tremblay, these folks deserve a second opinion.

Her research notes that “informal resource recovery” — what the rest of us refer to as dumpster diving and can collecting — improves the urban environment by way of litter reduction and reducing landfill space. It also creates employment.

Local filmmaker Murray Siple chronicled the lives of several North Vancouver

binners in his movie Carts of Darkness, which premiered earlier this year.

Siple’s revealing, beautifully filmed documentary follows the likeable binners as they bomb down North Van’s mountain roads in grocery carts, camp out in the woods, and scour the streets for beer bottles and pop cans.

A takeaway from the movie is that these folks are more resourceful and innovative than most folks think — in their work and in their day-to-day survival.

So Richard Florida can take heart.

Metro Vancouver’s diverse legion of dumpster divers and bottle collectors proves you don’t have to be high society to be highly creative.

Whether you agree with the binning lifestyle or not, you have to give these folks credit for being, in their own way, economic generators and environmental stewards.

And unlike the well-heeled poster children of the so-called “creative class” they’re not asking society for extra-foam lattes, yoga classes or organic groceries. Nor are they asking for government handouts.

For the most part, all they ask for is to be left alone to their work.

Given their resilience, you can bet they’ll survive the current economic downturn better than the rest of us.

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3 comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Great commentary.

    In the mid-90’s I lived in Bangladesh (it’s changed a little since then – development wise) and Dhaka, Bangladesh carried the prize for one of the top recycling cities in the world. Did they have a city pick-up service? Nope. More than 50% of the population lives on the streets or slums. Everything was recycled 5 times. Almost all city dumpsters (that being open topped cement “bins” every few blocks) were gathering places for scavengers.

    It was either them, or the roaming cows that made sure food and ‘garbage’ was reused…

  2. Great post. That’s a good take on creativity outside of the creative class. Sometimes it seems as though there’s such an over emphasis on young hip techno-savvy people that we forget that they only make up a small fraction of the landscape.

    How do I find that film Carts of Darkness?

  3. Thanks to both of you for the excellent feedback.

    As for Carts of Darkness, it is a National Film Board feature currently “on tour”, so the best way to find out where it’s playing is to visit filmmaker Murray Siple’s website: http://www.murraysiple.com

    In BC, the film will be shown at the Whistler Mountain Film Festival on December 4. It will also be shown on TV Ontario Dec. 3 and 10.

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