Science·What on Earth?

By scooping up refundable bottles and cans, 'binners' are helping the environment

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the role 'binners' play in diverting plastic from landfills and how offshore wind power could soon save energy consumers money.

Also: The dropping cost of offshore wind power

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • By scooping up refundable bottles and cans, 'binners' are helping the environment
  • The sinking cost of offshore wind power
  • Sharks are disappearing from the world's coral reefs

By scooping up refundable bottles and cans, 'binners' are helping the environment

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

If you live in an urban centre, you've likely seen individuals who go around collecting bottles and cans from people's garbage and recycling bins. 

These folks — sometimes called "binners," "waste collectors" or "diverters" — typically collect refundable items in order to earn money. But as it turns out, they're also fulfilling a vital role for the environment.

"The act of recovering these recyclables contributes to the circular economy and diverts a considerable amount of waste from landfills," said Jutta Gutberlet, a professor at the University of Victoria's department of geography. 

It's estimated that, globally, about eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter our oceans every year. It's the result of people discarding plastic items, as well as recycling programs that are either inadequate or non-existent.

That's why diverters have become important: By picking up and returning these items to convenience stores or places you buy alcohol, they ensure that a certain percentage of discarded cans and bottles doesn't end up in landfills or incinerators. Gutberlet said that in Canada, for example, "they capture bottles and cans and redirect them directly to the beverage industry, thus not wasting these resources."

Gutberlet estimates there are likely 11 million diverters around the world, though it's difficult to get an actual number, since most aren't part of a formal workforce. 

Because they work outside of formal regulatory regimes, some of them are exploited and work in unhealthy conditions. (Gutberlet said this happens in parts of India, for example.)

Gutberlet, who works with diverters, co-authored a study published in Science earlier this month that suggests they should be included in a formal workforce in an effort to significantly reduce plastic waste. 

In Canada, there are various organizations looking to assist these informal waste collectors. For example, there's the Binners' Project in Vancouver, the Diverters Project in Victoria and the Les Valoristes co-operative in Montreal.

Gutberlet said these organizations contribute "in many different ways, not just by diverting bottles and cans." In its 2019 report, the Binners' Project said it engages with 168 diverters. 

"So there is also a social component of … providing an income and more dignity as well," said Gubertlet.

While these organizations operate in different ways, they have the same ultimate goal: to support those collecting, to assist them with other economic opportunities and to reduce the stigma.

With the Binners' Project, people are connected with residents, local businesses and even event organizers to help organize a means of collecting recyclable materials, which consist primarily of glass and aluminum containers.

Guberlet said that as with many sectors, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected waste collectors. Some diverters don't have access to soap or running water while collecting, which puts them at increased risk. 

But they can't stop working, or they will lose a source of income. In Canada, collection dropped as restaurants and other sources of recyclables were closed, although activity is picking up again.

So the next time you see a binner, diverter or "valoriste," remember: They're not just trying to make ends meet — they're helping clean up the planet.

Nicole Mortillaro

Reader feedback

In response to Stu Mills's story last week on a Quebec couple fighting for the right to grow wild plants on their property, reader Carol Lysak had this to say:

"If the couple fighting the LaPeche bylaw set up a GoFundMe page to help with legal fees, I'll be their first contributor."

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The Big Picture: The sinking cost of offshore wind power

Many renewable energy projects we see today have been subsidized by governments — a fact that has led critics to warn of the cost to consumers of moving off fossil fuels. But the price of producing wind power has dropped so precipitously that ratepayers could soon enjoy savings. A study published in Nature Energy this week looked at five European countries with offshore wind farms (U.K., Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany) and concluded that as the cost of generating electricity this way continues to drop, subsidies will become a thing of the past. "Offshore wind power will soon be so cheap to produce that it will undercut fossil-fuelled power stations and may be the cheapest form of energy for the U.K.," said lead researcher Malte Jansen, from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London. "Energy subsidies used to push up energy bills, but within a few years cheap renewable energy will see them brought down for the first time. This is an astonishing development."

(Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Sharks 'functionally extinct' in 20% of world's coral reefs, study says

(Andy Mann/Global FinPrint)

A new global study has determined that sharks are "functionally extinct" in nearly 20 per cent of the world's coral reefs, raising concerns about what it might mean for those ecosystems.

"We expect, as a condition without humans, that there should be sharks on every reef in the world," said Aaron MacNeil,  a biology professor at Dalhousie University and the lead author of the study, which was published last week in the journal Nature. 

"To find 20 per cent of the reefs that we surveyed didn't have sharks is very concerning."

MacNeil said the study was inspired by initial research done at Dalhousie about 20 years ago. That work showed a decline in open-ocean shark populations. He said since then, not much research has been done in other regions — until now.

This study, which is the first of its kind, was launched in 2015 by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and a team of researchers brought together under an initiative called Global FinPrint. The team studied 371 reefs in 58 countries. 

The study monitored coral reefs — in the western Atlantic, the western Indian Ocean, the Indo-Pacific and the Pacific — to determine how reef sharks impacted the delicate ecosystems and to inform future conservation efforts.

Researchers used baited remote underwater video cameras to record sharks and other sea life, and captured more than 15,000 hours of video over four years.

The research revealed that there are essentially no sharks in reefs off the Dominican Republic, the French West Indies and Windward Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean and in Kenya, Vietnam and Qatar.

MacNeil said the loss of reef sharks has been caused by high population densities near coastal areas, lack of shark fishing regulations and overfishing and the destructive practices that come with it.

But MacNeil said the research also identified nearly 20 countries where reef shark populations are doing well, including in Australia, the Bahamas, French Polynesia, the Maldives and the U.S.

"Our results show that reef sharks can, under the right conditions, live alongside people and thrive just fine," said Demian Chapman,  a biology professor at Florida International University and another lead researcher on the study.

He said the study revealed a few ways that countries can protect reef shark populations, including:

  • Establishing shark sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing and trade is banned.

  • Mandating catch limits on shark fishing so ecosystems can replenish.

  • Closing large, designated areas of water where all fishing is banned to promote ecosystem growth.

  • Prohibiting or redesigning shark fishing gillnets and longlines, which can inadvertently capture other marine life.

Chapman said during the research, people around the world were enthusiastic about making a difference for reef sharks. "We're really, really hopeful. We're going to continue our work with governments to put these policies in place to restore and better protect reef sharks all over the world."

Mike Heithaus, another lead researcher on the study, said saving reef sharks is necessary to maintain important ecosystems.

"If you look around the world, whether it's on land, in lakes and rivers or in the oceans, when you lose big predators, bad things tend to happen to the ecosystem in general," said Heithaus, dean of the college of arts, sciences and education at Florida International University.

"If we were to lose sharks from these systems, you could destabilize the whole ecosystem and have negative impacts that are not just to nature but also to fishermen and people who rely on these coastal ecosystems."

Cassidy Chisholm

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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