Confessions of a Bag Lady 2: Three More Things I Learned Collecting Beer Cans for Money

The first two things and the introductory statement are here.


3.     You Develop a Weird Relationship with Homeless People

Humans, especially Western humans, produce enough refuse that there really is more than enough to go around.  There are still places where it’s harder or much, much easier to collect lots of it at once, though, and those spots get “claimed” very quickly.  A kind of turf system is at work in the scavenging game, and people like me were competing with every other kind of vagrant for the same prime trash-collecting spots.  There’s no “turf war,” or even negotiating over territory.  If you get good enough at collecting in one area, it stops being lucrative for the other people who were doing it, and they leave on their own for less contentious places.  On the handful of occasions that I met someone else who visited my building for refuse that the tenants helpfully left bagged by the outside door, it was always tense.  Were we sizing each other up to see who would keep this area as theirs?  I tried to give them some of what I found whenever this happened, because I knew most of them would be much worse off than I was.  They’d never outdo my collection efforts, though—I could afford to come to that room daily with a shopping cart, and they showed up occasionally with a bicycle, or just bags.

There was one vagrant, though, who decided to make a scene.  This fellow barged into my recycling room while I was raiding it and demanded to know who I was, whether I lived there, what I was doing, and all sorts of other things, throwing his scrawny weight around and bearing down on me like a street brawler.  Throughout, he insisted that he had a special arrangement with the building management and brandished his Bible and pacemaker scar as proof that divine providence had designated this place as his and no one else’s.  I left my loot with him that day because $4 of trash was not worth getting into a fistfight with a volatile stranger, not even with health insurance.  A quick consultation with building management revealed that this man had permission to visit, but not to keep other scavengers away, and certainly not to threaten tenants.  (They did explain away his bellicosity with “He’s Greek,” though.  Seriously.)  Supposedly, he was making $3000 a month going down streets on recycling day on his bicycle, a number I’m not sure I believe.  I never saw him again, but I kept a line prepared in my head for if he ever came back.

Image of Greek flag before an ornate golden cross.
Add some open-heart surgery to this picture and you can beat up whoever you want.  True fact.

Even after that, though, it’s impossible not to feel a sort of kinship with the homeless as a scavenger, because one force in particular makes your life hard as well as theirs.

4.     The Law Doesn’t Like You

Most places have laws against scavenging through trash bins, especially public bins.  The antipathy is deep and pervasive, and if you start collecting on the streets you quickly learn which places chain their bins shut to deter looky-loos and people sleeping inside, or who maintain huge concrete cesspits instead.  They’ll say it’s about keeping raccoons and opossums from making a mess, and the laws are styled as laws about public sanitation, but the homeless are the real target.  These measures funnel people who can’t hold steady jobs because of prior convictions or mental health issues from the streets to the prison system, no more, no less.  Inside my apartment complex and the university, I was invisible to the enforcers of these laws, but when I branched toward public bins and to collecting on streets if I felt like I needed a walk, I risked their attention.  I kept my visits to each bin as brief as I could, partly for that, partly because the glares from the other bus stop patrons were positively withering.

Eventually, though, I had my altercation with law enforcement.  I had a long talk with a City of Ottawa bylaw officer once when he caught me rifling through the bins at a bus stop. He made a point of asking what I was collecting and of telling me several times that he had no problem with my collecting, and when he saw my ID and learned that I’m an American on a study permit, he added that he had no authority to involve immigration.  After getting my name and address, writing down the number on my driver’s license, and looking at my school ID, he ran some sort of check that involved his radio, got an all-clear signal, and sent me on my way.  I guess I looked clean-cut enough to not actually be a homeless person, so he didn’t feel the need to charge me with anything.

There’s an extra layer of annoying rules in this specific area, though.  Quebec, the neighboring province, offers a deposit refund not just on alcohol containers, but on soda cans and bottles.  I knew from digging through the trash for the one that the other was massively more common, probably because Ontario offers no such deposit.  So we started collecting those too, and more than doubled our trash income to the aforementioned $200/month.  It also turned out that they took some beer cans for twice the rate of the Beer Store in Ontario, so we started saving the beer cans for them.  That’s when the scavenging really took over the pantry.

Officially, Ontarian visitors were not allowed to return cans for deposit, because out-of-province people didn’t pay the deposit when they bought their containers (unless they bought them in Quebec).  So we always had to worry about getting caught while using Quebec’s wonderful can-counting machines, or by the cops on the way there while our car was so loaded with cans that rear and side visibility was severely compromised.  I’m reasonably certain “possession with intent to recycle” is not on the books, but “irritated the wrong Quebec cop while Ontarian” certainly is.  We changed what store we went for our returns every few months, after getting found out as out-of-towners, but the stores didn’t talk to each other so we could just move on to another one for the next six months.  Each change meant the trip used a little more gas than before, though.  Did I mention that I don’t speak French, so Ania had to do as much of the talking as possible or they’d know immediately that we weren’t from around there?

Highway patrol officer collecting information about the driver of a car he has pulled over. The driver is a young man in a blue shirt.
“We heard you like protecting the environment and also not starving.  Those are fighting words in La Belle Province.”

All of that hassle was worth the extra $100 every month, though, and the amounts kept climbing higher and higher as we got more and more systematic.  By the end, we’d fill the trunk of the car with loose plastic soda bottles—just dump the bottles directly in the trunk and use a Crazy Carpet to wall off the opening—and crowd boxes of cans into every crevice of the back seat, all selected because those specific boxes fit in those specific parts of the car next to those specific other boxes.  When we ran out of boxes, the overflow went in bags with handles.  We’d bring everything into the grocery stores or Wal-Marts where the counting machines were by the cartful and refill six or seven times, every time wondering if this was the trip when they’d notice the Ontario license plate.

We had some shenanigans at the Beer Store, where the alcohol containers went, as well.  Officially, only Ontario-bought containers are supposed to go there, but we got away with mixing in stuff I’d brought back from the United States or Mexico now and then, and also with mixing in soda bottles from brands with generically-shaped bottles whose labels we could easily remove.  They did get the better of us on some of those, though—I caught the Beer Store clerk surreptitiously not adding some suspect bottles to our tally on at least one occasion.

That’s the kind of thing you start to notice in this profession, because…

5.     It Gets In Your Head

If you have obsessive tendencies, this job will take them and run so far with them that you will have organized the warring factions of Somalia by shoe size by the time you notice what’s happening.  Depending on how you feel about those tendencies, this is a fantastic second job to have, or a terrible one.

Once we started taking things to two different places, it took a lot of sorting to not waste time once we got there. I had to memorize which beer cans got us more in Ontario versus Quebec, so I could sort the Quebec cans in with the soda and keep the Ontario cans separate.  I had to memorize which brands of soda Quebec didn’t take, so I could leave them behind.  I had to keep a running tally of how many of various kinds of bottles we had and were likely to have, so I could fill boxes as quickly as possible and have as few extras afterward as possible and fit more stuff in the car for the next haul.  On campus, I memorized a route around the science complex that visited every trash bin that consistently had something for me in as little time as possible, and it still took upwards of 30 minutes if it was a good day.

I began to memorize strata.  Once I was visiting so regularly that I crowded out all the other scavengers, I was the only one disturbing the geologic progression of trash, so I quickly began to recognize trash I’d seen before.  That let me know that I didn’t have to dig down any farther, because I’d already mined out the lower layers.  Sometimes, I’d leave a layer of unusual items at the top of a bin I’d just checked, to mark that depth for the next few days.  One does not get two layers of 1980s audiocassettes and Japanese math homework in the same week.  Mastering that saved me a lot of time at the apartment complex and none at the university, because those bins never filled enough to matter.

While I was sorting out the valuables from other people’s refuse, I also sorted out the cardboard.  I was already in there sorting out the valuables, so why not?  It gave me an additional excuse to look in the cardboard half of the room, which occasionally hosted valuable textbooks and entire cases of empty beer bottles for reasons that will forever remain opaque.

I also started to notice patterns in what showed up when and near what other items.  Around the middle of every month, a military contractor that took the same buses I did in the morning would dump about $5 in chardonnay bottles at once (remember, $0.20 each), always the same three brands.   At the end of every month, the big drinkers would dump six or seven six-packs and twelve-packs of local favorite beers at once along with entire cases of cans.  Some of these came bagged already, as a service to scavengers like me.  Sometimes I found one or two of a kind of thing at a time and I knew that I’d find the rest of that six-pack over the next week or two.  The weirdest patterns were not alcohol-related, though.  Around the same time as the “moving sale” piles of cutlery and old photos, I’d also find a characteristic array of specific items: what looked like the entire contents of a medicine cabinet, a pile of literature and tea-related items labeled in Japanese, headphones or ear buds in various states of disrepair, and half-empty bottles of shampoo.  I found this specific combination of things on more occasions than I can count, but I only kept the shampoo once.  Perhaps this was other international students getting rid of things that they couldn’t take back with them.

The bags I kept our loot in were another fun wrinkle.  I reused the bags continuously, tossing them only when they became too worn to hold together, because this job needed bags with special properties.  Sometimes handles helped, sometimes they didn’t; thick plastic bags like the packing material Ikea furniture uses and the inner linings of boxes of QualiCat-brand cat litter were especially useful.  Also, we could not afford to buy new bags, and fully half of mine were bags I had found in the recycling room.  As it happens, the last time I bought new trash bags was in 2009, so we’ve done well without them.

The real mark of having had to scavenge for over a year, though, is that you never stop looking in trash.  I looked before, for miscellaneous things like most of the umbrellas I’ve used in Ottawa, but our period of privation turned that into a fixation.  Ania has an income now, so we can afford to keep our pantry accessible and not devote hours every weekend to sorting and transporting entire carfuls of refuse for $50-$70 at a time.  But I still have to stop myself from looking in every trash bin I walk past and from picking up the boxes and boxes of beer and soda containers people leave on the curb, because it gets in your head.

It gets in your head and never lets you forget that you spent 14 months up to your elbows in torn-up empty binders and sharp-edged chili cans, searching for the sticky, drippy, possibly bloodthirsty remains of other people’s excesses so that they could be painstakingly catalogued and turned into fistfuls of grocery money.

I hope I never forget, because when I need perspective, this is one of the places where I’m going to find it.  Right next to the empty buckets of pool chlorine and feta cheese.
The first two things and the introductory statement are here.
Confessions of a Bag Lady 2: Three More Things I Learned Collecting Beer Cans for Money