To the editor:
In the fall 2005 issue of Naturally Green, HRM's free quarterly environmental newsletter, an article was published to reinforce the anti-scavenging legislation Bill S-600 Section 16. Entitled "Scavenging, A Blight on the Community," the short article states scavenging is illegal, quotes a $5,000 fine and provides enforcement information.
The article condemns scavenging while failing to address any of its surrounding issues.
The subtitle "A Blight on the Community" implies scavenging causes ailment, affliction or decay on the community. It represents scavengers as outside of the community, and victimizes those who rely on scavenging for income.
Scavenging is a necessary function in our wasteful society. People who reuse or recycle discarded items are reducing waste. This decreases pollutants, garbage processing and the need to expend resources for the production of new goods. Scavengers are integral to the current structure of society, much like the raven is essential to the natural ecosystem (where it is protected by law).
In addition, many people rely on scavenging for survival. Because of Nova Scotia's very low social assistance rates ($425 per month for a single person) and one of the country's lowest minimum wages, people must rely on the informal economy in order to make ends meet. Criminalizing scavenging further pushes people into poverty and creates more problems such as increased demand on healthcare, shelter and criminal justice systems.
It's ironic HRM's anti-scavenging legislation contradicts its well-publicized mandate for environmental sustainability. HRM promotes recycling used items and repurposing organic matter, but fails to effectively promote redistributing reusable items and criminalizes those who do.
Many people have legitimate concerns about scavenging. Unfortunately, the article fails to address these concerns or indicate the need for anti-scavenging legislation. Some of these issues may include unwanted encounters with scavengers, mess created by individual scavengers, trespassing upon property, violating privacy and lost municipal revenue from collecting bottles and cans.
The concern of unwanted encounters with scavengers is ill-founded. As with HRM's Safe-Street Act, which fines or imprisons people for panhandling or squeegeeing, the anti-scavenging legislation, and particularly the Naturally Green article, promotes xenophobia, reinforces existing social prejudices and stigmatizes the poor.
The concern about individual scavengers creating a mess is legitimate. However, a much more effective measure than the anti-scavenging legislation would be to legislate people must not make a mess while scavenging.
The concerns for property infringement and privacy violation are also valid. However, laws already exist for such issues and should not be conflated with scavenging. If scavengers trespass upon property or violate privacy, they should be prosecuted for those acts and not for scavenging.
The concern for lost municipal revenue is a miniscule issue. This revenue is not lost. It's redistributed to residents in need. As the HRM and the province cut funding to the social safety net, the poor have to find alternative ways to make up the difference. It seems cruel to fine people up to $5,000 for scavenging five-cent cans and bottles.
The HRM should implement a regular night where residents can dispose of reusable items for free public redistribution. A specific colour such as yellow could be used to identify items to be scavenged. The HRM has held a yearly event where people can drop off and pick up such items in a central location, but many people are unable to participate as they don't have the proper means of transportation. In order to do this effectively, the HRM should regularly collect reusable items and place them in an accessible area such as a storefront for free public redistribution.
Unfortunately, municipal policy is slow to change, and those most affected by Bill S-600 Section 16 do not have a well-funded lobby group to advocate on their behalf.
However, change can happen from the bottom up as well as from the top down. While it is important to call our municipal councillors and let them know what we think, we must do more in order for things to change. Widespread support for the practice of scavenging exists within the HRM, as evidenced by the practice of placing reusable items on the curb before garbage day. As a community, we must take it upon ourselves to organize a system of autonomous actions in support of scavenging that works for all members of society.
There are many ways to implement such a change. For example, people should begin placing small items to be scavenged in buckets or boxes and mark large items to be scavenged with a piece of tape or ribbon. If people can not wait until garbage day, items to be scavenged can be placed outside with a sign that says 'Free For All Yard Sale.' Also, people who support the practice of scavenging should post signs in their front window advocating scavenging. As well, scavengers need to more actively promote and follow a "code of ethics" that respects others' property and privacy.
Once scavenging becomes a visibly accepted practice within the community, the HRM will have little choice but to change the legislation.
By The Halifax Scavenger Society