The Trash Blog

United We Can

Beer is good when you're drinking it, but it gets better when you can make money off it.

I can take out the trash. Just sometimes I like to let it pile up a little…

Although Margaret says it is because I am lazy, there is another reason that I have had a slowly building pile of beer bottles and cans in our room. When you purchase alcohol in Vancouver (any drink really), you pay a deposit on the container. In the case of beer bottles the deposit is ten cents. While I am not stingy, it doesn’t make much sense to me to throw away something that is worth money. I am not in the habit of tossing nickels and dimes in the trash, so why should I throw away my empties?

Notice that I had to pay 10 cents extra for each one of these bottles of beer.

Notice that I had to pay 10 cents extra for each one of these bottles of beer.

I have returned empties to the liquor stores here before. The experience was not pleasant. I brought six washed bottles to the cash register and asked if they took bottles. The woman behind the counter looked at me, smirked and said, “Well, it depends on how clean they are,” and seemed generally begrudging. She eventually accepted my six bottles and took sixty cents off my purchase. The experience hardly encouraged me to repeat it.

This time I decided to take a more formidable quantity of bottles to one of the bottle depots in town. In particular, there is a place called United We Can that various people have told me about. I marshaled 18 beer bottles, 8 cans, and one bottle of Jim Beam and put them in a big black bag (probably overkill) and set out to cash in on my riches.

United We Can is located on a somewhat notorious block of Hastings Street.

United We Can is located on a somewhat notorious block of Hastings Street.

When I walked in the door, it wasn’t clear what I was supposed to do in order to turn my bottles into dollars. There were quite a few people sorting cans, bottles, and cartons into little tubs. The scene looked oddly like the security screenings at airports. There were long aluminum tables with trays on them into which people sorted their empties. The smell was similar to the smell of garbage, sweet, yeasty, but not as strong (again, I question the accuracy of my nose).

I guess it's too much to expect the TSA to give me some money for putting my shoes, belt and metal in a tray...

I guess it’s too much to expect the TSA to give me some money for putting my shoes, belt and metal in a tray…

I followed everyone else’s lead and put my aluminum cans into one tray and my glass bottles into another. Fully sorted, I picked up my trays and walked over to a low counter where a man counted what I had and wrote it down on a slip of paper. He put a number on the paper and gave me a small chit with the same number. It was clear that I was to take the chit to the cashier who would look at the receipt the taciturn man had written and pay me accordingly. The cashier typed the amounts into an ancient computer system which displayed my winnings to me in MS-DOS’s finest green on black. She opened the till and handed me $2.80.

The binners I have spoken with tell me that their average return at a bottle depot is between $10 and $50. Occasionally binners will bring in more; one man said he cashed out $115 once, but that was because he and a friend were up all night on meth. A lot of people just bring in a small bag of cans, enough to make some change for dinner or something small.

When I asked if I could take some pictures of the piles of containers they had, I was introduced to a man named Gerry who is the General Manager. Gerry was very nice and took some time to show me around the place.

These piles of cans and bottles were brought in to United We Can in less than half a day.

These piles of cans and bottles were brought in to United We Can in less than half a day.

Gerry explained that once the empties are dropped off, the containers are all sorted according to the standards set out by an organization called Encorp and the Brewers Distribution. Encorp is the stewardship company responsible for almost all beverage containers in the deposit system in BC, except for alcohol containers which are picked up by the Brewers Distributors.

Pop cans, water bottles, milk cartons,

These pop cans and the plastic bottles are bagged and picked up by an organization called Encorp. United We Can pays binners and Encorp pays United We Can for the bottles and cans they collect. Gerry told me they have enough capacity on Hastings Street to only need a pickup every other day. Aluminum cans are melted down and back on the shelf in 60 days.

“We sort them by form and color,” Gerry told me. “We basically get an extra penny a bottle in we have them sorted. It isn’t really worth it in operation, as far as the extra cent, but what it does is it provides an extra one or two people that I can hire. Which is good.” Gerry saw providing jobs as much a part of the mission of United We Can as accepting empties and paying out the bottle refunds. “More than ninety percent of the people who are employed here are from this area…we have an understanding for people’s challenges: physical, mental, addiction challenges and we just work with that.”

Ah! So many empty beer bottles...brings tears to my eyes.

These beer bottles are picked up by an industry organization called Brewers Distributors. The Brewers Distributors collect the bottles, wash and sterilize them, and then return them to breweries for a refill. Bottles can be back on the shelf in 8 to 10 weeks.

In addition to functioning as a bottle depot for binners, United We Can has a commercial side: Gerry told me that United We Can has contracts with many restaurants and businesses to pick up their cans. In return for collection service, the businesses usually give United We Can fifty percent of the deposit value of the cans. United We Can sends out a truck to do the pickup at many of commercial locations.

United We Can Tote lid

United We Can Tote lid

“Some of the smaller restaurants around, they call us up and they want us to come pick up the containers. Sometimes they just want to give us the containers, they just want to us to deal with it. So what we do is we have a binner go out with this cart, pick up the containers, bring them back to us, do the sort, and then we’ll give that binner fifty percent of the deposit value, so it’s worth his while and we capture some more volume.”

This fancy cart was designed by someone with lots of education. I'm not sure what binners think of it.

This fancy cart was designed by someone with lots of education. I’m not sure what binners think of it.

Gerry told me that United We Can born out of a group called Save Our Living Environment (SOLE) which was an organization of binners. SOLE received a grant and staged a bottle drive in Victory Park. “It just went phenomenally well. Binners just showed up from all over the place. They had stacks and stacks of the stuff.” A binner named Ken Lyotier, and a member of SOLE, helped to open the United We Can bottle depot at 39 E Hastings. Currently, United We Can handles 60,000 bottles daily and has annual revenues of more than $3 million.

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This entry was written by Philip and published on February 27, 2013 at 6:24 am. It’s filed under Glass, Metal, Non-profits, Packaging, Recycling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “United We Can

  1. Chris Stewart on said:

    Another interesting post! However, what are the economics here?

    What happens if it takes $5 in round trip bus/rail/car fare to cash in $3 worth of cans/bottles? What if spending $5 to cash in $3 worth of bottles only saves $4 worth of material via recycling?

    Are there better systems? In Phoenix and Oklahoma City recyclables are picked up once per week at each house.

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