Homeless in Vancouver: Return-It Express drop-off program to expand

Encorp Pacific is declaring its Return-It Express pilot program at the Kensington Square Return-It depot in Burnaby a success.

The drop-off recycling program has been deemed successful enough in fact that it will be extended to include two more depots in July: Queensborough in New Westminster and Vancouver West on 75th Avenue.

So says the latest June issue of Encorp’s Forum online newsletter.

Encorp is saying that feedback from some 20 percent of the 400 registered Return-It Express users has been very positive.

Small depots, big payoffs

As I first posted in December 2013, the Return-It Express concept allows customers to create a Return-It Express account online and then simply drop off their bagged returnable containers at a Return-It Express depot. The value of their returnables is credited to their online account. No muss, no fuss.

The original Kensington Square Express pilot program is nothing more than a kiosk drop-off point. The original Express model saw bagged returnables being counted and processed at a central location.

This had the potential to free up more floor space in existing Return-It bottle depots so operators could earn the additional revenues associated with becoming drop-off points for other Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, such as household paints, lightbulbs, and appliances.

More importantly, Return-It depots could be much easier to locate in neighbourhoods.

Take away the necessity to have floor space for sorting and storing returnables and Return-It Express depots shrink to nothing more than one person behind a counter, a holding place, and a scheduled pickup of the bagged recyclables.

A Return-It Express without in-depot sorting could be a thin storefront or a kiosk in a supermarket—all supermarkets—the chain food stores are founding stakeholders in the Encorp EPR program.

That would put a Return-It depot back in Kitsilano.

That, however, is not how the Express program is expanding. The two new Express locations, expressly at the request of depot operators, will incorporate in-depot sorting.

I had thought the new United We Can Return-It depot on 455 Industrial Avenue, with its massive floor space, might fit in to the original Express Return-It model as a central counting location, and it might yet.

It’s conceivable that in the future there could be three kinds of Return-It depots with two levels of service: full service or “Express” and self-serve. The self-serve depots could additionally offer the Express service and perform the sorting in-depot. Encorp could also have a central sorting facility to serve a network of neighbourhood Express kiosks.

Express or full deposit: pick one?

Who pays for the additional sorting costs associated with Return-It Express service? Currently the self-serve model sees customers sorting their returnable containers in-depot. Under any Express model Encorp will be paying people to do the sorting. This suggests that Express service pays customers less than full deposit.

Encorp’s online information about Return-It Express doesn’t go into that kind of detail and so far no one from Encorp has replied to my emails.

The posted information for the Kensington Square Return-It depot lists it as offering full deposit but this depot offers both self-serve and Express service. It’s not clear if the rate applies to both levels of service.

Currently most Return-It depot operators pursue contracts with large housing complexes, restaurants and other businesses that produce high volumes of returnable containers. The depots pick up the returnables, sort them in-depot, and pay the customer as little as 50 percent of the full deposit value.

This covers their sorting costs and then some. These contracts are an important source of revenue in addition to walk-in customers because they’re high volume and predictable.

Making depots more popular with people who count

There is less and less stigma associated with bringing back returnable containers for their deposit value. Homeowners are increasingly cashing in their own bottles rather than leaving them out for binners.

Not only that, some homeowners are increasingly going out in their cars and trucks to get the returnables that other homeowners still leave out before binners can get them. (The price of gas just can’t be high enough as far as I’m concerned.)

Wider poverty may play a role but Encorp’s years of advertising campaigns have surely helped make a difference in popular attitudes.

The Return-It bottle depots themselves may represent a final stumbling block to getting “ordinary” people to bring in their own returnable containers. Bottle depots can be noisy, smelly, and inconveniently out of the way.

First of all, Encorp has pointedly stopped referring to them as “bottle depots”. They are just “Return-It depots” now.

And in the last few years Encorp has really encouraged and assisted depot operators to upgrade their “in-depot experience”, whether that meant painting, lighting, signage, or electronic counting systems. The goal has been to create a consistently clean, bright, professional atmosphere that is welcoming. More like a drycleaner and less like a scrap yard.

To advertise the fact of these improvements Encorp has introduced a five- and three-star rating system. According to Encorp, “5 Star” depots “meet a rigorous checklist of facility enhancements, efficient operating procedures and outstanding customer service”. Depots that don’t are classified as “3 Star” depots.

Homeless people are not expressly forbidden, but...

The Express model represents a further step toward mainstreaming returnable containers—what I refer to as “taking binning back from the binners”.

In addition to the huge benefit of possibly allowing microdepots to be situated within more parts of Vancouver that don’t begin with the word “East”, the Express model does away with three major inconveniences associated with bottle depots:

  • Having to spend time in a depot.
  • Having to sort your returnable containers.
  • Having to rub shoulders with binners and homeless people.

The Express Return-It model shuts the door on most binners and homeless people simply by requiring customers to set up online accounts.

You need email. You need a bank account. You need a phone number. You need access to a computer. Therefore most binners and homeless people need not apply.

A number of binners on welfare and disability do have bank accounts with Pigeon Park Savings located in the Downtown Eastside. This allows them to receive their monthly government cheque by direct deposit and they can access their account through any of the Vancity credit union’s 300 ATMs in Vancouver, the Fraser valley, and on Vancouver Island.

However, many binners and most homeless people, myself included, do not have ID. And many who have ID today may not have it by later in the week.

Take me for example—please

I couldn’t use the Express system myself. I have neither a bank account nor personal ID. And I’m currently not using a phone but this last detail is easy to remedy.

In 2011 circumstances around my bank account made me choose—and I finally chose—to give up my Scotiabank account of nearly 30 years as a very expensive luxury. I won’t be getting another bank account before I figure out how to replace my ID, if ever.

By 2011 I hadn’t had ID for seven years. Within a day of becoming homeless in 2004, I had one of my backpacks stolen while I slept. Among everything else I lost a safety deposit box key, my birth certificate and my British Columbia Identification card. A welfare worker I spoke to about it within days of the loss bluntly told me that getting my ID back was my problem.

Fair enough, I thought, after I spoke to the welfare worker. I’d get it back when I could. I had so many more pressing problems to contend with then: my bank account was overdrawn, I’d already had most of my stuff stolen, I had no money, and not a real clue how to survive on the street.

That day I immediately set about binning to feed my bank account and myself. I set aside the difficult problem of my ID until I could see my way to solving it. That’s where things still stand for me.

By the way, without that stupid little safety box key I was faced with paying hundreds of dollars to drill the lock or just paying the yearly rent. It was false economy but I chose to pay the rent. Both costs just went up year after year.

So what's so difficult about getting ID?

In my case, I haven’t a living relative that I know of and I have no memory of my mother—don’t even know her proper full name.

One of my guiding precepts concerning bureaucrats is that if you can’t completely fill out their form the way they want you to, you are wasting their time and yours.

I actually received my first-ever birth certificate when I moved to British Columbia in 1980, Human Resources (as welfare was then called) bent over backwards to help me get ID, and I will always be grateful for the effort they made. I’ve no idea how they did it but workers told me it wasn’t easy.

That ID was vital in allowing me to jump right into the workforce and begin supporting myself. Something I did as best I could for the next 24 years.

Under Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government I think welfare workers became gatekeepers rather than facilitators. So by 2004 when I needed the government’s help, this time the attitude was “Katy bar the door!

I’m told that much has changed for the better but I’ll need that in writing before I waste my time in a government office. I know of other homeless people—who get welfare and disability—who still cannot seem to replace their lost identification.

I shake my head at that.

I believe it should be—should have always been—a priority that all people have access to sufficient ID to fully participate in B.C. society.

Photo identification has become one of the most common means tests in our province, if not all of Canada.This is one of the ways, deliberately or otherwise, that homeless people are shut out of being able to participate fully as citizens.

Without ID it’s hard to return merchandise to a store, harder to get a job, and harder still to vote.

I am reminded of how, to reduce the traffic in stolen copper and brass, it was made necessary to have ID to cash in scrap metal, with the consequence that criminals were not really barred from returning metal but most street people were.

And now, to further encourage recycling, Encorp would like to introduce Return-It Express, a system that, by requiring bank accounts and ID and phone numbers, would—deliberately or otherwise—make it that much more difficult for many very poor people to return cans and bottles.

I can’t adequately express how that makes me feel.

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