"This is my office," Henry Tikl said, pointing to a row of green bins behind a downtown hostel. "And this is my house," he added, turning to a cart laden with clothes, trinkets, blankets, even food, all salvaged from garbage bins.
The good thing about being a binner, Mr. Tikl said as he sat on a concrete stoop waiting for building staff to take out the afternoon trash, is that you set your own hours. The bad thing is that the pay is low. And the work is dirty.
The city is mulling a plan to put uniforms and badges on "good" binners to placate some city residents who say they're frightened of the scavengers.
Mr. Tikl, who at 50 is still spry enough to mount a metal dumpster in two steps, is leery.
"Me in a uniform?" he wondered. "What are they going to do next? Tax me?"
In Vancouver, binning is a life with its own rhythms and rules. Binners claim they can tell by the shape of a garbage bag if it's filled with valuable cans or bottles. They know where the best bins are, and they stake out the lucrative alleys or "traplines." In binner etiquette, if a scavenger is already inside one dumpster, it's rude to jump in along with him.
The work's best perk, former binner Ken Lyotier said, is that it's always surprising. He found a strip of 6/49 lottery tickets in one trash heap. In another, he found a nugget of gold, which he sold for $60.
In the city's downtown West End, one of North America's most densely populated swaths of urban land, binners' are as much a part of the landscape as the ocean and the mountains. At night, their shopping carts jangle on the pavement. During the day, they lie in wait in the alleys, on the lookout for apartment dwellers descending with garbage bags.
One of the reasons why scavenging is so popular in Vancouver is that British Columbia offers refunds on deposits for all drink containers, in fact, except milk. And in the heart of the city's Downtown Eastside, there's a huge depot where recyclers can return as many containers as they wish. Up to 700 people a day file into the noisy outlet with bags of recyclables. The depot, a registered charity, ships out about 60,000 containers each day. It was started by Mr. Lyotier, who was fed up with the runaround from retailers who refused to pay.
A skilled scavenger can redeem as much as $40 a day in glass and metal containers culled from trash bins. But Mr. Tikl's pace is more relaxed pace: about $10, enough for a day's supply of beer.
He works a stretch of alleys near the picturesque English Bay and prefers to call himself a professional recycler. Everything he's wearing, all the food in his "fridge," and his assortment of dishes and utensils, come from garbage bins. He's never gone hungry, he said, adding that people would be surprised at the "high-end" food that lands in the trash: "I eat damn good."
Asked what's on the menu today, Mr. Tikl opened a plastic container filled with precooked pink shrimp, salvaged from the trash that morning when they were still frozen.
Not everyone is enamoured of binner culture. Apartment dwellers have been known to approach a dumpster with their bags only to see a binner pop his head out. Others say binners leave a trail of debris after they sort through the trash.
With complaints mounting, city officials considered padlocking dumpsters. Faced with the threat of a lockout, Mr. Lyotier convened a meeting at his recycling depot, inviting Vancouver's top binners to hash it out with city staff.
The idea for uniforms and badges actually came from the binners, who feared for their livelihoods if dumpsters were padlocked.
Mr. Lyotier said the uniforms could be informal, even just a T-shirt and cap. But the plan has fallen flat with some scavengers, who say it runs counter to a street person's disdain for rules and regimen.
Mr. Tikl said the residents who live in his trapline already know him and trust him. "I'm neat and tidy." He's worried that city hall's real agenda is to crack down on street people before the 2010 Winter Olympics.
City officials deny this, saying they are simply responding to residents' complaints. Kevin Van Vliet, an engineer in the city's solid waste management division, said there is respect for the binners' role, noting they divert thousands of bottles and cans from landfills each week.
But some residents have genuine fears, he said.
"[Uniforms]might be a way to identify them and say to people: 'I'm a responsible binner. I'm not a mugger.' "
Mr. Van Vliet conceded, however, it could be tricky regulating the eccentric group. "If you give out a vest, can you take it back if the guy turns out to be a mugger?"
As for Mr. Tikl, he said he'll wear a badge and uniform if forced to.
"I guess I will," he said. "Because this is my living."