The Blue Box Pickers

It’s curious, what I come across sometimes on my daily walks. You’ve seen some of my finds in other stories I’ve written;  often something of a surprise, something funny, emotional or just interesting that I come across on my ventures around the neighbourhood. What you see in this photo, however, is not an unusual occurrence, but something that now happens with regularity every couple of weeks, when the folks in my neighbourhood put their blue boxes out on the curb full of cans, plastics paper and cardboard for the recycling trucks to pick up and process. Under all of those bags in that picture is a shopping cart lifted from the local grocery store and re-purposed as a recycling cart.  Some people throw everything in their blue boxes, including cans and bottles that could be brought to a depot for a refund.

And that’s what brings them out…the blue box pickers.

I hadn’t heard the term “pickers” until I started to hang out with my brother who specializes in Chinese antiques and who has spent most of his life buying and selling or restoring them. He could often be found in Value Village or other thrift stores, looking through the used items on the hunt for what he called “treasure”. All you needed, he would often say, was one exceptionally good find and you’d be set for life. In those stores were others like him, looking for plates or ornaments, paintings or jewellery that people had donated or gotten rid of without knowing their value. Many people make a living just knowing what to look for in these places.

But the pickers I’m talking about here are not into antiques. Their “treasure” is that lot of pop or beer cans and bottles that people throw into their blue boxes for recycling. Some of our neighbours put their blue boxes out at night for pick up the next morning, and that’s when many of the pickers start their rounds. Others go through the blue boxes the next morning before the recycling trucks come around.

They do very well, some of them. In the picture above, you can see how many cans and bottles one person can find. Every two weeks he pushes that shopping cart around the neighbourhood, filling it with his treasure and attaching huge bags to the sides and back.  I’ve seen others with little trailers attached to their bikes. One guy actually had two small trailers attached to his bike like a train and he was having a heck of a time keeping it from toppling over when he had to go off a curb. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of cans and bottles making a run for it….that would have been a disaster for the cars whizzing past him!

At first when I began noticing these blue box pickers, I made an assumption that they were poor people trying to make a buck. But I have since realized that some of them are not poor at all. In fact, there was one time when I actually saw a man in a car, a van no less, driving around the neighbourhood collecting cans. These aren’t necessarily street people.

The thing is that I don’t know how to feel about it.  I’m kind of turned off at watching them go through my blue boxes, and others on the block.  Why is that?  We always turn our pop cans, certain plastic bottles and wine bottles in to a recycling depot to get our refund, so the pickers wouldn’t ever find anything in our blue boxes. But some of them go through the boxes anyway. Sometimes they leave a mess, most of the time they don’t.

Is there something wrong with me and my discomfort? Am I just a snob? Other than potentially being a driving hazard or taking up too much room on a side walk, the blue box pickers are really doing no harm. They’re just taking something that somebody else doesn’t want. I certainly don’t begrudge the pickers who obviously don’t have much of an income and could use the money. It’s the other ones who bother me most.

This past week I saw a lady in a relatively newer-make car, bombing from block to block, jumping in and out and picking through blue boxes. She did not look like she needed the money. Her trunk, when I saw it open as I walked by, was absolutely full as was the back seat of her car.  Other than the fact that she had a cigarette constantly dangling from her mouth (maybe she needed the $ for cigarettes?), there was nothing about her that was unseemly or desperate.  Another woman who I often see has a really high-end bike and a good helmet.  She isn’t poor either.

I just wonder what drives somebody like that. Should I consider becoming a blue box picker to supplement my income?

I couldn’t do it. I’d be embarrassed. Going through other people’s stuff would just make me uncomfortable, even if they don’t want it. I have to admit, I don’t like garage sales either, but that’s for another story.

In the end, I think what it comes down to is that I’d rather see somebody who needs the money getting those cans and bottles.  It’s more work than sitting on a street corner with a hat held out, but maybe that’s a good thing.  You need a bike or a cart and a little ingenuity.  If you work at it long and hard enough, you could probably do okay.

Ultimately, I’d like it if people didn’t have to pick cans and bottles or hold out a hat at all, but that isn’t going to happen any time soon.  So leave those bottles and cans for those who need ’em.

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