According to statistics released by the City of Vancouver this summer, a staggering 2.6 million coffee cups are sent to the landfill every week. That amounts to over 135 million cups per year, which, when combined with takeaway containers and plastic bags, costs citizens approximately $2.5 million annually to remove. It’s a difficult figure to comprehend—especially in a city with such ambitious “Greenest City” goals as Vancouver—but the numbers come as little surprise to the local binner community.
Davin Boutang is an outreach coordinator at the Binners’ Project, a local nonprofit that works to engage and support waste pickers and break down the stigma surrounding them. He tells the Straight by phone that “when you walk around, you see a whole bunch of coffee cups laying in the garbage can. You rarely see more than a half a dozen pop cans, water bottles, or beer cans.”
Boutang, who worked as a full-time binner for many years, says binning—in which people remove recyclable items from public, commercial, and residential garbage cans to exchange them at bottle depots for money—is becoming increasingly competitive. Given this, he would love to see a civic coffee-cup-recycling program implemented as part of the City of Vancouver’s Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy, which was proposed in February and is now in the consultation stage.
“It’s a form of revenue for most people,” Boutang says of binning. He explains that adding a five-cent recycling deposit to throwaway cups—like those applied to aluminum cans and plastic bottles—would also encourage citizens to dispose of them properly. (Because paper cups are lined with plastic or wax, they are only accepted in residential recycling streams and select Recycle B.C. facilities. Lids are also recyclable, though they must be separated from the cup beforehand. This inevitably means that, at the moment, many of them end up in the trash in the public sphere.)
Anna Godefroy, director of the Binners’ Project, agrees. “If the province or city put a refund on coffee cups, that would mean more of them are being recycled and it would also mean that binners could make extra money by helping to recycle them,” she explains in a separate phone interview.
It’s a model that the Binners’ Project has tested firsthand through its annual Coffee Cup Revolution event. Since 2014, the eco-friendly function has attracted hundreds of Vancouver’s binners to Victory Square, where they’ve exchanged mountains of paper cups for cash in a pop-up depot on-site. Last year, 175 binners traded in 49,060 containers recovered from the streets in only four hours.
Binners are offered five cents for every cup they collect and bring in. These throwaways are then transported to designated Recycle B.C. depots by the Binners’ Project team. The money is raised through the Coffee Cup Revolution’s sponsors, which includes organizations such as B.C. Housing, Vancity, and the Central City Foundation.
The event also includes round-table discussions, where Vancouverites are invited to join city planners, community members, and others in conversations that address topics such as social hiring and single-use-item reduction. Admission is free, and attendees are welcome to bring their own disposable cups—whether from home, work, or elsewhere.
“The binners always say that when they go through bins…often they’re completely full because of used coffee cups,” says Godefroy. “So for them, it’s an issue because they have no value. It prevents them from accessing valuable material such as cans, aluminum, glass, or plastic that can be recycled.”
In addition to providing binners an additional source of income—and presenting the City of Vancouver with a viable approach to minimizing single-use items—the Coffee Cup Revolution offers residents a chance to interact with waste pickers from around town. Although binners are frequently stereotyped as noisy, messy, and intrusive, many of them are respectful and play a large part in diverting much of the city’s recyclables from landfills, asserts Godefroy.
Not all of them fit the picture of someone struggling with mental-health issues, addiction, or physical disabilities that many people have painted in their heads, either. “Some people have part-time jobs, some people have kids at home…and just need a few dollars extra at the end of the month,” says Godefroy. “And then there are the hard-core, full-time binners that get up every morning and walk tons of kilometres a day.”
By joining the Binners’ Project, some of those who were previously struggling even begin to build important skills, such as using a computer or setting up an e-mail account. “They’re these small little things that most people take for granted and most people know,” says Boutang, “but I didn’t know them and most binners don’t.”
The Coffee Cup Revolution takes place on Monday (October 16) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Victory Square. See event listing for details.