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Erica Butler kicks the city’s cans to the curb

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The most recent issue of Naturally Green, the glossy and colourful newsletter produced by HRM’s communications department to promote the city’s collective environmental efforts, includes a story entitled, “Scavenging, A Blight on the Community.” The hyperbolic headline has provoked reactions from some SuperCitizens.

“It blew my mind how insensitive and inflammatory it was,” says Dennis Hale.

“It was hard not to laugh,” says Adam Kelly. “It was almost unbelievable that it was put the way it was.”

Kelly and Hale are two of the founding members of the Halifax Scavenger Society, a recently formed group that organizes scavenging expeditions in the SuperCity. The two are thoughtful, community-minded and environmentally conscientious. One of their first actions as a society was to build bike trailers so fellow scavengers could cart home large items otherwise destined for the landfill. “We didn’t want to use vehicles or anything like that,” says Kelly. “We are trying to be as sustainable as possible.”

But there’s more than just a bad choice of words to the Naturally Green article. The short piece states that if you’re not an HRM contractor, then helping yourself to discarded items on a curbside is illegal and could cost you up to $5,000 in fines. That is to say, what the Halifax Scavenger Society does is illegal. “HRM is supposed to be at the forefront of being environmentally sustainable,” says Kelly. “We repurpose organic waste. We recycle bottles and cans. But the moment something is thrown out and someone wants to pick it up and use it, that is criminalized now. It seems like we should almost be promoting that.”

Jim Bauld, manager of solid waste for HRM, admits scavenging encourages reuse, which can save HRM money in waste processing fees and pricey landfill space. “When you’re serving 125,000 households a week,” says Bauld, “you have to have a system and some control around that system. If anything on the curb can be taken by anybody you essentially don’t have a system that is organized such that you have a guaranteed delivery of service.”

Although their scavenging activities are technically illegal, neither Kelly nor Hale have yet been confronted by the police while scavenging. The real targets of both the Naturally Green article and the bylaw are not hobby scavengers, but those supplementing their incomes by collecting cash-redeemable bottles and cans from curbsides, some of whom have been fined for scavenging. Bottle collectors do more than mess with “the system,” they actually take revenue away from the municipality. Jim Bauld has estimated in the past that scavenging of redeemables results in about $300,000 annual lost revenue for HRM. But this is just a guess. “We really have no concrete idea,” says Bauld. The estimate is based on assumptions of how many scavengers are out there, how much they each collect, and how often they do so. None of this information is known with any degree of accuracy.

“The city seems to feel that the poor people who have no other option but to scavenge or collect bottles are not contributing to society and actually taking away from it by taking away the bottle money from the contractor that does the waste management,” says Hale.

“That’s what they’re targeting, but the law actually encompasses much more. It really puts scavengers outside the community, almost as if they’re outside the community affecting it, and not really part of it. Like they’re some sort of parasite that’s leeching off the community. That’s an attack on the poor in the strongest kind of way.”

Blight or right? Email: ericab@thecoast.ca.

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