Should city encourage salvagers to find cash in trash, silver in blue bins?

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Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen

Sidney Younis says he started salvaging items from the garbage when he was eight or nine, a poor kid rescuing hockey sticks and old bicycles from the trash-bins of Alta Vista.

One day, he found a transistor radio a neighbour had tossed out. He and a buddy put new batteries in and, away it went, playing tunes in their “clubhouse.” The neighbour, described as an old grump, walked by with his dog and saw the boys playing their new find in his mom’s garage.

“He asked to see it and said, ‘This is mine. I threw it away, but this is mine.’ He came back with a hammer and smashed it right in front of me. I was 11 years old.”

Garbage, he discovered, could be complicated, even political.

Younis, an early-40s entrepreneur with a mind for mechanics, called the other day to upbraid me for a column about the waves of salvagers and junk collectors who raid blue bins and trash heaps on garbage day.

And he offered a better way. What about a pilot project in which a neighbourhood puts out its still-useful trash on a day before garbage day and a selected number of salvagers would comb the community to retrieve things either fixable or redeemable as scrap or paid recyclables?

This way, he says, the project reduces the waste going to landfill — saving labour, fuel, trucking costs — but creates a steady economic flow for pickers. As an admitted Dumpster diver, he has seen it all at the curb: washing machines, microwaves, old barbecues, used air conditioning units, junked metal, half-broken bicycles, exercise machines, all manner of athletic equipment. The list is pretty much endless, but it all has some value.

He once lived in an apartment near Woodroffe Avenue and Baseline Road. In one year, he said, he salvaged enough stuff from the trash to twice pay his monthly rent. He found working washing machines, air conditioners that just needed cleaning up, old wheelchairs — all kinds of odds and ends he retooled and sold online.

Younis hasn’t formalized his idea but would like to see a kind of cost-benefit analysis. The city could ask the salvagers to keep records on what they remove, how much it weighs, the eventual scrap value or the amount it fetched by reselling or recycling — and how that income supported an individual or family.

Those figures could then be compared with the amount of money saved from reduced landfill tonnage.

“I simply want to illustrate that there are small, discreet economic advantages to small-scale garbage picking.”

As a longtime environmentalist, he has philosophical reasons for not living his life as an avid “consumerist” in which amassing things is an end in itself.

“In my opinion, there is no distinction between what is garbage on a street corner and what is on a boutique shelf downtown somewhere, like at Nordstrom’s, because anything you buy, you will throw away,” he says, “eventually.”

He suggests the City of Ottawa is partway there anyway, with its annual “giveaway” day, where residents are encouraged to leave unwanted items by the curb. Nor, he added, should we forget the “humanity” — the individual circumstances, maybe desperate ones, that lead a picker to spend hours filling bags with bottles or cans, making a living a dime at a time.

We ran the idea by David Chernushenko, the city councillor and chair of the environment committee. He said the proposal was worth exploring, but he had several initial concerns.

Aluminum cans, for starters, are a high-value item in the blue box and encouraging the private removal of such items would only push up the cost of the program, as glass and paper tend to be money-losers.

“It is precisely because of their value that we now see amateur and ‘professional’ blue-box raiders,” said his email reply.

Also, how would one regulate safety and fairness, he asked? Would there be noise at 3 a.m., or a race to claim the “good stuff”?

“I think the missing piece in the current system is that odd, bulky and hazardous items are not making it to proper recycling and hazardous waste depots as efficiently as they might,” he wrote. “The city can only currently fund a set number of hazardous waste drop-off days, and people encounter obstacles (you need a vehicle; the waits can be lengthy). I would love to see that aspect improved.”

Wealth from waste, Younis terms it. Let us hear at least the whole tune, before rushing to smash the idea.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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