Aggressive recycling beats aggressive panhandling

By Gene Miller, July/August 2015

Contemporary circumstances, including shrinking governments, demand that we, the human family, be socially innovative.

So, we buy one of those old tubs that Ian Maxwell’s people are always working on at his Point Hope shipyard—you know, something that floats only because the paint skin on the hull is still intact—and then we promote a “Sea Cruise—Free Hot Dogs, Booze, Drugs and $100 Spare Change” and get all the homeless street people, and the panhandlers, and the aggressive craze-o’s, and the 7-11 sidewalk scruffs, and the doorway campers, and the shopping cart set on board, chug out about 50 clicks, pull the cork, and sink her!


I mean, you with me on this? I hate giving money to the Downtown lay-about scum and grubby panhandlers. Ever notice? They just waste it on survival.

Ditto the bottle scavengers. Rummaging through filthy trash dumpsters, making a racket, invading my privacy, just for 5¢ and 10¢ bottle and can refunds. Let’s go to the source of all these goddamn problems, which is, instead of choosing—that’s right, choosing—to be mentally ill, addicted, alcoholic, life-skill-less, uneducated, abused, poor and barely socialized, they could have chosen to become reconstructive surgeons, or global branding consultants, or high-end realtors, or investment fund managers like the rest of us.

Oh, wait a minute. I feel a reset coming on.

Whirrrrr, click.

In an April 26 editorial, “Conservatives Are Shrinking Government,” our local almost-daily noted: “Throughout most of the postwar period, federal revenues averaged between 16 and 18 percent of GDP. But over the past four years, they have declined to 14 percent. The Conservatives make no apology for this. Smaller government is part of their general world view.”  

True, but it’s very important not to credit such folks with a “general world view,” which makes them sound like reason-driven, finger-steepling thinkers who have considered all sides before arriving at conclusions, when, in fact, they have a Darwinian predilection which allows them to re-cast their feelings of terror and revulsion toward messy humanity into aggression cleverly masked as national policy.

After the second martini loosens their edit function, you will be toured through a horror-fueled vision of mobocracy, a fully-furnished Bosch-ian purgatory in which the evil poor reach up with clawed hands to grasp at the legs of the wealthy and drag them down, down, down into hellfire, social chaos and oblivion.

Now, reflex exaggerist that I am, I have been cautioned not to assume or claim that all conservatives are right-wing reactionaries; and I acknowledge this in approximately the same way I understand that not all gays are ready to come out.

A recent Pew Research Center poll states that more than three-quarters of USA’s conservatives (Republicans) believe the poor “have it easy” thanks to government benefits. It is an open question unanswered by the poll whether the remaining quarter more liberally believe the poor “have it hard,” or, alternatively, whether the poor are simply “some long-vanished Dickensian fiction, pass the brie, please.”

Canadian John Ralston Saul avers we have “undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion.” Chris Hedges, journalist, activist, author (War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, etc.) and Presbyterian minister, harmonizes with Saul, stating “we have allowed ourselves to embrace a [small-government] ideology which, at its core, states that all governance is about maximizing corporate profit at the expense of the citizenry. For what do we have structures of government, if not to hold up all the citizenry, and especially the most vulnerable?” (And in just this way, Christ, the First Progressive, slips importantly into the conversation.)

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, psychologist Julian Jaynes describes an earlier human state, lasting until about 3000 years ago, in which the experiences and memories of one hemisphere of the brain were transmitted to the other as auditory hallucinations—taken by humanity to be the internalized voice of the chief, or the gods. The bicameral mentality was not conscious, and lacked the ability to give an account, without resorting to supernatural explanations, of why one believed or acted as one did. 

You cannot read Jaynes’ work without realizing that a potent residue of bicameral thinking still operates today. We’re squeamish about and disgusted by the poor. Our primitive survival instincts are engaged and we manufacture mental stories, angry noise, in our heads. We think: “Devil take the hindmost.”

Succor of the less fortunate is only going to come from the mentally courageous and morally-informed—from those for whom the idea of comfort of the afflicted is not subordinated to terror, revulsion or the imperatives of an economic ideology.

If circumstances have given us a contemporary world part Steve Jobs, part no jobs, and burdened us with systems of governance increasingly shaped by the plutocrat agenda, we, the human family, are faced with a need to apply social innovation. 

Here’s one constructive alternative to the sea cruise in a leaky boat.

When we buy wine, beer, pop, a deposit on the container is built into the price we pay. Some of us bring our empties back for the refund, but most of us do not. This creates a sub-economy for scavengers. 

Thankfully, collecting empties calls for limited skills management: walking, bag-slinging or shopping cart pushing, rudimentary visual and territorial discrimination, modest energy output and stamina, some willpower.

I’ve spoken to a few of the collectors and to the folks at the bottle depot, and daily income appears to range between $1 and $100 ($365-36,500/year, theoretically), but for most the average is $20-30/day. Assuming collectors aren’t wintering in Cabo, this represents an annualized income in the range of $7000-11,000—possibly enough, when combined with various forms of state “largesse,” to make out okay.

I have never, at a liquor store or a supermarket checkout, heard anyone thunder, as a matter of principle, against the deposit/refund system; never heard anyone brand it “evil.”

So, what if we extended the deposit/refund idea to include all glass containers, all cans and tins, all plastic containers and packaging, paper (by the pound), flattened cardboard, gable-top and flat spout-top beverage containers, plastic shopping bags and anything else—hell, laundry dryer lint—that is a significant part of human consumption whose recyclability and/or diversion from the waste stream can be deemed to have some slight or even marginal environmental value?

(While we were at it, we could invest in some cart/collection technology less noisy than “borrowed” shopping carts.)

In this matter of value, I appreciate that the pocket calculator types might attempt to demonstrate that such conservation has a negative economic value (costs of recycling greater than the costs of trashing), but their findings would have to be subordinated to, or framed within, the larger social goal of trying to create work/income opportunities—social utility, that is—hopefully, for hundreds of people in Victoria who have few or no other options.

Alpine Disposal collects at my building: one wheeled bin for plastic, one for tins and bottles, one for paper. I’m paying for collection anyway, so why not reformulate things so I pay a front-end deposit, with back-end savings via free collection by scavengers? Hmmmmm. 

What if you were subject to 20 such deposit-triggering transactions a week, at an out-of-pocket cost of 10¢ each, say? Two bucks a week, $104/year. No biggie. 

What are you sputtering about? You hate the idea of a surcharge on your stuff? What do you think the tip jar is next to the cash register when you buy a latte no fat/no foam at your favourite coffee joint? Think about it: say, 500 dispensed drinks per day x 100 coffee joints in the region x 50 percent of customers tipping at a ten-cent average is $2500/day or $912,000/year. When aggregated, invisible economic flows like this are enormous.

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re drowning in shit. Recycling—not to put too much of a shine on it—merely slows the speed at which we drown. Alberta uses a recycling deposit/refund system for all plastic, glass and metal beverage containers, charging and refunding either 10¢ or 25¢ depending on container volume. I’m simply looking for a way to actualize the latent social benefit embedded in all of this material flow.

I leave the Pandora McDonald’s drive-thru Sunday morning about seven. There’s a sleeping body on the Harris Green grassy strip, under a lime-green blanket, an outthrust leg dangling riskily beyond the Pandora Avenue curb. In front of Central Baptist Church, a man is crouched, staring at an invisible spot on the sidewalk. At Blanshard, a woman walks tentatively, haltingly around the corner, her eyes like x’s, as if life had already put stones on her eyelids. At Douglas, a young woman is setting up for a day of sidewalk begging, her cardboard sign tented on the pavement.

What world is this? Hallucinatory? Violent? Weird? Zombified? Unimaginable? Or just impoverished, opportunity-starved—and, like it or not, ours? A buddy, an ex-cop, tells me that it all pours Downtown. That’s the un-stated regional deal: Everybody else breathes easy, Downtown pays the social (and, for sure, economic) cost. Putting all other agendas aside, briefly, I’m suggesting aggressive recycling beats aggressive panhandling, and will also help to balance the regional socio-economic equation.

Neither the root causes of, nor constructive responses to, these problems are exactly Delphic or recondite. 

Just use your unicameral brain.

Gene Miller is a founder of Open Space, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. He currently serves on the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.