Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

Meet Ken Lyotier — An unforgettable encounter for IDEAS host Paul Kennedy

When Paul Kennedy first met Ken Lyotier he simply called himself a ”dumpster diver.” Lyotier organized street people, who were collecting refuse on the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, to obtain bottle deposits. Those people eventually owned, and operated a storefront recycling business called "United We Can." They ultimately changed environmental legislation in B.C. and in other jurisdictions throughout North America.

Kennedy and Lyotier revisit Vancouver's Downtown Eastside together

In 2005, Paul Kennedy made a documentary about Ken Lyotier, a man living on the margins in Vancouver who has spent 30 years helping his community. Paul meets up with Ken again to tour the Downtown Eastside together. (Anne Penman/CBC)

** This episode was originally published on June 25, 2019.

By Paul Kennedy

Ken Lyotier is an expert on recycling, a recipient of awards and an honorary doctorate, for helping establish a groundbreaking social enterprise project for people living on the margins in Vancouver.

But when we first met, Ken simply called himself a "dumpster diver."

He spent his days crawling into garbage dumpsters in back alleys throughout Vancouver, looking for cans or bottles that could be returned to beer outlets or corner stores for cash deposit refunds. 

Because Ken lived on the street. He used that money — which was never much, but sometimes almost enough — to buy food and other essentials. To survive. Along the way, he developed hard-won insider knowledge about how to recycle the stuff that other people thoughtlessly toss away.

55,000 coffee cups returned for refund RAW

9 years ago
Duration 2:45
Ken Lyotier discusses the one-day 'Coffee Cup Revolution' and how litter reflects levels of social and environmental awareness

I first encountered Ken, not on the street, but in an internet chatroom, where we initially had a political disagreement. We gradually switched to e-mail conversation. Then eventually we arranged to meet in person, at a bicycle shop on Hastings Street, in Vancouver's struggling Downtown Eastside. 

In fact, that's exactly where Ken is standing in the photograph on this page. We rented bikes there, and then rode all the way around the Stanley Park seawall, talking about recycling, and discovering that we agreed on much more than we first thought.

Ken was not your typical expert. So I was more excited than usual when a show we made together — The IDEAS of Ken Lyotier — first aired on January 31, 2005. No reaction was forthcoming, and I wasn't certain that anybody had actually listened. Or maybe my interviewing was at fault? In any case, I definitely never forgot Ken himself.

Listen to Paul Kennedy's documentary, The IDEAS of Ken Lyotier:

From the IDEAS archives, a conversation with Vancouver 'dumpster-diver', Ken Lyotier. His desperate personal attempts to collect deposits on discarded bottles evolved into the largest recycling operation in British Columbia.

In the years since we met, Ken has been properly recognized for his recycling expertise, and his work with United We Can. He has spent 30 years helping his Vancouver community.

So when it came time to plan my final week of IDEAS broadcasts, I knew what I'd do. I called up Ken Lyotier in Vancouver and asked him to walk me around the Downtown Eastside of 2019.

Our journey proved to be an eye-opening, if not mind-blowing experience for me, and I hope that translates to you.