British Columbia·In Depth

Illegal dumping in Vancouver grows by 40%

Mattresses. Old couches. Broken sex toys. Shattered lamps. Piles of drywall. This is typically what Stanley Woodvine finds in Vancouver’s back alleys in the six to seven hours he spends looking for bottles and cans each day.

City attributes the increase to less car ownership and changing demographics

Municipalities in Metro Vancouver are struggling with illegal dumping. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Mattresses. Old couches. Broken sex toys. Shattered lamps. Piles of drywall.

This is typically what Stanley Woodvine finds in Vancouver's back alleys in the six to seven hours he spends looking for bottles and cans each day.

"All the things that you couldn't carry somewhere, that's heavy, that's unwieldy, that's big. And basically all the things you don't want anymore," he says.

"I stopped and I thought, wow, why is there so much garbage in the alley? Has it really been like this the whole time, or has it just been like a lobster boiling in water and not really noticing?"

Some of Woodvine's discoveries are more useful than others — he uses a laptop he once found in a dumpster to write about his back-alley adventures on his blog.

Stanley Woodvine says he finds all sorts of garbage dumped in Vancouver's back alleys. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

The City of Vancouver has been grappling with illegal dumping for the past decade, and the problem is getting worse. In the past seven years, the amount of junk picked up by city crews has increased by more than 40 per cent.

Abandoned garbage accounts for about 13 per cent of the city's street cleaning budget, and cleanup costs for illegal dumping are expected to rise to $1.22 million in 2016.

"It's quite challenging for us," says Albert Shamess, the city's director of waste management and resource recovery.

Municipalities in Metro Vancouver are struggling with illegal dumping. (CBC)

Shamess doesn't think the culprits are inherently malicious — he says much of the garbage is at least placed next to waste bins. Instead, he blames changing demographics.

"A lot fewer people have cars now, and it's harder if you don't have a car to get materials from your place of residence to a disposal site," he says.

Most commonly dumped items in Vancouver

Furniture and mattresses are two of the most common items dumped in Vancouver. (CBC)

A closer look at the kind of waste that gets picked up is telling.

On the lower end of the scale are appliances and electronics. Many companies will pick up old appliances in exchange for new ones. And the city now offers e-waste drop-off days at community centres throughout Vancouver.

But no such programs exist for furniture. Ikea recently announced it's considering a "take back" program in Canada, but it's likely still years away.

And although on the one hand some mattress manufacturers do offer a take back program, on the other, the city charges $15 to drop off mattresses at the transfer station.

One type of illegal dumping Shamess says is increasing the most is construction waste, like piles of drywall, found under bridges and other remote areas.​

Mattresses are one of the most common items dumped in Vancouver's laneways. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Possible solutions

Shamess says the city is considering many possible solutions, including putting the onus on retailers and manufacturers to establish more take back and stewardship programs.

"It's the way we have to go in the future," he said. "More responsibility for the people who produce these things in the actual recovery and recycling of them."

The most imminent solution presented to council is a ticketing system for offenders to replace the lengthy and costly system of taking them to court.

The city also wants to increase the fine for illegal dumping to a maximum of $10,000, up from $2,000.

The City of Vancouver is looking at changing its dumping fines to a ticketing system. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Other municipalities in Metro Vancouver like Burnaby, Richmond and Coquitlam offer a large item pick-up service. 

To help reduce waste in Port Coquitlam, the city hosts an annual city-wide garage sale — but it doesn't pick up leftover items. 

Vancouver did consider piloting a big item pick-up day in 2013 to deal with the increase in illegal dumping. But Coun. Andrea Reimer says the issue has become too pervasive to be dealt with in one day.

Dipak Dattani, Burnaby's assistant director of engineering services, says Burnaby's pick-up service is the most comprehensive in Metro Vancouver. The number of requests has increased seven-fold in the past three years.

He argues it's cheaper for city crews to pick up waste curbside than from the bottom of a ravine.

Despite the availability of the service, however, Dattani says Burnaby residents still dump large items illegally. For now, the city is focusing its efforts on awareness and enforcement.

Shamess points out a key difference between Vancouver and Burnaby is that the former's multi-family residences are serviced by private waste companies, not the city. So a pick-up service would have to be negotiated separately.

Shamess says one of the tactics Vancouver is trying to take is to encourage residents to dispose of unwanted items on sites like Craigslist, or by donating them to charities.

Bottle picker Stanley Woodvine says waste left in back alleys is sometimes picked up by people who then sell it in secondary markets. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Booming secondary market

The junk that piles up in city laneways is just a fraction of all the stuff people get rid of each year. In fact, the secondary market for unwanted goods is booming. There are both private and non-profit companies that pick up unwanted items.

One of those non-profits is Big Brothers. It collects lightly-used clothes and small household items, which it picks up for free directly from homes. On average, it has more than 500 pick up requests per week in Metro Vancouver. The non-profit sells the items to Value Village by the pound —  a partnership that brings in more than half of Big Brothers' annual revenues.

This discarded water heater doesn't work, but it's free! (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Private companies collect just about anything, for a price. Revenues for 1-800-GOT-JUNK, founded in Vancouver, have grown 100-fold in 13 years to $106.4 million annually. It now has 170 locations in three countries.

And then there is the informal secondary market —  those who roam the laneways of the city looking for items marked as "free" or dumpster-diving for items that could be resold through Kijiji, at street markets or in pawn shops.

"There's been a real rise of free marketeers who are always in the lanes now. They're always looking," said Woodvine, who sees the trucks as he trudges through back alleys looking for bottles.

"That's good because they're taking a lot of the furniture and stuff that's used ... but they'll take other things too."

Some people roam the city's laneways looking for items to sell on the secondary market. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)


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