First come, first served

Russell Wangersky
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Almost seven o’clock in the morning on a Monday, watching the snow wrap its way down the street in dried-ice dustdevils for the first time this year, I was glad to be standing inside a window looking out.

Living outdoors in Newfoundland — or even living without the means to properly get by — doesn’t look all that attractive once November rolls around.

Now, we don’t have a lot of people who make the downtown outdoors their home. But we do have plenty of people living on the fringes of what looks like a normal life.

Some of them have found their way to a new calling — at least, relatively new.

Mining cans

In recent years, since the province put a levy on beverage containers, there have been a certain number of people who work the city’s wastebins, and occasionally work door to door, collecting cans and bottles that other people are too well off to bother returning for the deposits.

You sometimes come across them with a teetering shopping cart blocking part of a lane on city streets, the cart piled high with bags of beverage containers, heading for the depots.

It’s not a lucrative business, for sure. The deposits are just too small, and the products too bulky, for each trip to be much more than a meagre payday.

Almost a business

When I lived on Warbury Street, a man would come every few weeks and ask if I had recyclables — often I did, and one of the things that fascinated me about the man doing the collecting was how prepared he was for the weather, for the circumstances, and how regularly he managed to work out a routine that meant he would be at my door when I had enough for a load, but that wouldn’t be so much that I would have gotten frustrated and hauled it away myself.

He knew my truck, so he knew if I was home or not, and he was unfailingly polite. He had gloves that he’d modified himself so that his hands stayed warm and dry, and he was so tanned by the end of a summer that his skin looked like a brown leather glove.

I’d bring the bottles downstairs, and we’d talk for a moment or two — he had strong opinions and an Eastern European accent, and he told me he had a single room rented nearby and a hotplate for cooking, but that he couldn’t really complain because his life was of his own making.

I won’t tell you what that life of his own making was, because that’s not the point.

The point is that, five years ago, long before the City of St. John’s was in the recycling business, he was in it, and was doing reasonably well.

New entrants

Now, I understand that, with the launch of the city’s own program, there is some grumbling about the fact that enterprising gatherers may be harvesting the best — and most valuable — containers from blue bags around the city, and leaving the ones with no deposits behind.

I can understand why the city wants all of my recycling — every bit of it — because making a recycling program pay for itself is not an easy prospect, and I’m certain that the advance planning took into account that most people would find the easiest way possible to dispose of their non-glass recyclable beverage containers, and that some income would be made from that.

But at the same time, there have been recycling professionals working the streets of St. John’s for more than five years now; it’s not easy work, or pleasant, and it’s not warm work, either.

So, I’m torn.

To be blunt, I don’t think the city has a right to what I put out at the curb until they actually pick it up: if they owned it the minute I put it out there, well, then they’d be responsible for it if it got spread all over the neighbourhood by dogs. And they’re clearly not responsible for it then.

I’m not sure I mind if the early bird — an early and hard-working one — truly does get the worm.

Or the Pepsi can.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be contacted by email at

Organizations: Pepsi

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Warbury Street

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Recent comments

  • Peter
    November 23, 2010 - 13:08

    You make some good points. However it really should be made clear about the salvage rights and liabilities of curbside discards. It is probably true that if the owner has to place a net over the garbage, then the city does not claim ownership - but is bagged curbside material fair game? It might be a good idea if items eligible for refund were placed in a different colour bag or tagged appropiately - but is it a good idea to encourage gleaning by amateurs or at least the inexperienced - especially if glass is involved? I often hear about these community clean-ups sending the entire family into the roadside trenches for the glory of a green medal. Dangerous business though - gloves or not. The defacto gleaners usually know what they are doing. They should receive a premium refund on littered recyclables?? I fear to suggest even more bureaucracy for the city - permits etc.- since IMHO, the apparent powers of Municipal government have gone way beyond any constitutional basis. And minding ones own business is advice that is timeless in value. We wil have to see how the whole systems unfolds? One or two other points though - ".....But we do have plenty of people living on the fringes of what looks like a normal life. .....". True, but that might include many with whom (digital) cash flow is not a problem - or apparently so! I could give no advice to any citizen other than to look out for No.1 - both donor AND donee! One final one. I remember your columns early in your career, especially with business and political topics. While the columns have waxed more literary in recent years they still carry the structure of good journalism. Further, they also carry a perspective of someone whose life experiences come from somewhere other than NL. Nevertheless, there are still some traits in Ye Oldest Colony that my ancestors, some fifth generation Nl'ers despised. One was idle gawking - maybe you don't - don't start now!

  • A.P
    November 23, 2010 - 12:28

    Russell what you are doing with your recyclables is an act of kindness to those of us who are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. I have been doing the same myself. I have been giving mine to the same person and the Thank you and smiles I get when I do so are worth everything to me. I will relate a little story to you, the person who I am speaking off was absent from my area for a while, but I saved my recyclables anyway and one day I saw him passing by the door of my gym with his cart load. He told me he had changed bedsitting rooms to another area. I advised him that I had a few bags waiting for him, he asked me to bring it to the depot and put his name on the bags and not to worry he would be sure to get his money, as the people at the depot knew him well. I brought the bags to the depot, the depot is next door to my Gym, and I waited in line to have it cashed in, I received the money and I held in my car until I saw him again. I will never forget the Thank Yous and tapping on my car and when I drove off, him turning around and bowing to me for the gesture I had bestowed upon him. Russell, it was worth all the gifts that I have ever received in my whole life. I still make sure he gets the benefits of my recyclables. And now my daughter has made him the beneficiary of her recyclables, as well. By the way if I were putting those items at the curb, I wouldn't mind if the people who collect recyclables for a bit of pocket money came and opened my bags as long as they didn't make a mess.