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Curbside communities

By Rebecca Cohoe

Shortly after Michelle Porter moved into a new house in downtown St. John's, she received a visit from a local door-to-door bottle recycler. He had always picked up recyclables for the previous tenant, and had stopped in to see if she had anything to send along. She gave him her bottles, and decided she wanted to know more about the full-time recyclers who, along with their shopping carts, are a common sight in Newfoundland and Labrador's capital city.

"I was impressed that they could push such heavy loads in all kinds of weather — wind, rain, snow," she recalled. "I began to wonder about them and their lives: who were they, why did they do this work?"

It was that sense of curiosity that led Ms. Porter, currently a PhD student in the Department of Geography, but a master's student in folklore at the time, to formulate a research project investigating the recycler's motivation for choosing the profession. In 2011, Ms. Porter was awarded funding through the Harris Centre – Multi-Materials Stewardship Board (MMSB) Waste Management Applied Research Fund, an annual fund that provides support for projects related to solid waste management in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Her research consisted of interviews with both recyclers and other stakeholders within the local recycling community including representatives from bottle depots and the MMSB. She also found significant research related to local bottle recyclers in other jurisdictions, including California and British Columbia.

Interestingly, Ms. Porter's results show that one of the strongest values that the recyclers placed upon their line of work is the positive social interaction it provides. While many of the recyclers have lived through difficult circumstances, Ms. Porter says that recycling work got them out into the community on their own terms and gave them a purpose to each day, without requiring that they conform to a work world that did not fit their psychological needs.

While some of the research Ms. Porter did suggested that in other cities the relationship between recyclers and the people in their communities tends to have noticeable sore points, she noticed that in St. John's "the professional recycler is an insider who is part of the community."

"An interesting example is the issue of the grocery cart," said Ms. Porter. "In Vancouver and Victoria, the noise and sight of the cart were unwelcome and drew complaints from members of the general public and communities in which they collected."

In contrast, she noticed that in St. John's the cart was interpreted as a symbol of hard work (because pushing the cart is difficult) and its noise simply alerted people that it was time to get their recyclables out.

"I believe that is a result of the mixed communities in which they are integrated into here in St. John's. They aren't outsiders."

Ms. Porter's study also reinforced her belief that the recycling profession can have a positive effect on a potentially marginalized group and can help encourage increased recycling rates as compared to purely environmental motivations.

Ms. Porter's report is available at the Harris Centre's website ( The Harris Centre – MMSB Waste Management Applied Research Fund is now closed until next year; however, the 2012 Applied Research Fund opens for applications on Jan. 18.