Lessons from Carts of Darkness

Carts of Darkness, a documentary by Murray Siple filmed in North Vancouver, follows the lives of several men who live off of money they collect from returning bottles and cans. The journey of these bottlers is followed throughout familiar North Shore locations: Mountain Highway, the Holiday Inn near Capilano University, even the Lynnwood Pub.

The tinny rattle of a fully loaded shopping cart is a familiar sound to anyone, especially during the school year, when classes force us to be up at the same time as the bottlers. As one character, Big Al, describes in the movie: “Up at 6:30 in the morning but I’m already done at 11 o’clock.” If only students could be so lucky.

Bottle deposits are not dictated federally. In Canada, BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan all have deposit recovery programs, which involve charging a deposit fee on all containers as an incentive for returning bottles. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick also have such programs.

A review by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council in 2004 showed that all provinces with such programs demonstrate the highest rate of return for plastic bottle recovery. BC is second highest on the list: out of 26,646 tonnes of plastic beverage containers produced, 13,036 tonnes, or 49 per cent, was recovered.

Not only do these incentives mean that bottle recovery is greatly increased, the system also gives people a valuable means of supporting themselves. At a recent trip to the bottle depot, I met a ticketed carpenter forced to collect bottles because “of the damned HST,” as he put it. Despite his unemployment, on a good day, he could make 85 dollars. To put it in perspective, that’s 30 more dollars than I make on an average day at my job, and keep in mind the standard four and a half hour workday of a bottle collector. If Al’s daily work schedule is an accurate example, on a good day a bottler makes $18.50 per hour.

Still, people who collect bottles end up surviving off either the indolence or the generosity of people who are willing to give up their bottle deposits. In some cases, the life of a bottler is actually a very free one, much freer than many who consider themselves to be without limitations.

In Carts of Darkness, one character is a perfect example of this freedom. He lives in a parked trailer and collects about $20 a day in bottles.

“We should not be prisoners of the economic system that we live in,” he says, “We should be free people.” In his spare time, he develops friendships, plays music, gardens and writes. “Every time you put effort into work ... you better have a good plan with what you’re going to do with that money, because you’re using up your life.”  

In place of a rigid work schedule, he gets a chance to spend his time as he wants to. This is a freedom that many people believe they have, but none truly do. Only sacrificing very small amounts of time to support himself, he can do what he pleases with the rest – things he likes – something that most entry level jobs could never provide.  

This freedom, however, comes with the obvious stereotypes of being a bottle collector. But in exchange for the freedom it provides, this is more than a fair trade.

//Mac Fairbairn
Opinions Editor

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