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The 'gold mine' deep in the dumpster Add to ...

Doug Ryan considers himself a "professional recycler."

Almost every night, he is seen pushing his three shopping carts, held together with duct tape, bungee cords and belts, down the alleys of Vancouver's West End.

Throughout the night he'll dig through dumpsters, taking special care to find bottles and cans he can cash in for some welcome money.

An aggressive recycling program in British Columbia has turned dumpster diving into a lucrative business for the street-savvy entrepreneur.

At 159 depots across the province, nearly 600 million non-alcoholic containers were collected and turned in last year, an increase of 100-million over the previous year, according to Malcolm Harvey, a spokesman for Encorp Pacific (Canada), which runs the deposit and collection system for the province.

Pop cans, beer and wine bottles and even Tetra Pak containers can garner five to 20 cents apiece at recycling depots.

Mr. Ryan, 43, earns nearly $200 a week this way.

Making that kind of money takes some skill, as he is happy to demonstrate.

After parking his carts at a dumpster he has carefully selected, Mr. Ryan takes a peek inside.

Because he is short, he has to stand on tiptoe.

He grabs an end of the large metal bin, and up goes his right sneaker onto a side foothold. Up goes his left foot onto the dumpster's edge. He scans it, looking for an appropriate place to land.

He then jumps into the trash, which smells of cat litter, dirty diapers and rotting food.

In a matter of seconds, Mr. Ryan pokes his head out. He shows off the recyclable bottles and cans he's found, not to mention a few other treasures. He tosses them just outside. Using his hands, he pushes himself up and out.

Dumpster diving is a way of life for this man and for thousands of others living on the streets. Every item rescued means one fewer for the landfill, they say.

Mr. Ryan has two main lanes he roams on his eight-hour shift. He ignores the constant stares.

He knows his territory, pointing to the homes of drug dealers and people who give him a hot meal once in a while.

He also knows which dumpsters are safe.

"Even if it's just a nickel, every block gets me something," he said.

Mr. Ryan, who lives in a tent close to Stanley Park, says he makes enough to pay for a few meals, groceries and cigarettes.

He finds the better pieces of his wardrobe in the dumpsters.

Mr. Ryan is unshaven and has dirty, chipped fingernails.

He's not ashamed of going through other people's garbage.

"I'm not sitting on the street corner asking you to spare some money. I'm working for it," he said. "It's not always easy work."

Mr. Ryan has been sorting through trash for eight years now. His past, which he doesn't much want to talk about, involves time in prison. He is divorced and has lost custody of his children.

These days, he makes a living pushing a shopping cart around and jumping into garbage bins.

"I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life," he said. "My heart is in it. It's sort of like an addiction now. You never know what you're going to find."

His digs through trash have found him a television set, a VCR and a cappuccino machine. He augments his income by selling most of these items.

His friend Denis, who sometimes accompanies him, has found watches, money and even jewellery.

"Someone else's trash is my treasure," Denis, a former drug addict, said.

"It's my gold mine."

But competition is getting stiff with the recent expansion of the bottle-and-can refund program.

Police say they have had a few reports of prowling around homes and noise complaints. But most dumpster divers keep to themselves, they say.

Ken Lyotier, who used to ply the alleys, says most accounts of prowling binners are exaggerated.

He said trash pickers are trying to make a living, and most times residents help by giving them their bottles and cans.

Mr. Lyotier runs United We Can, a recycling operation in the city's Downtown Eastside. The organization took in 13 million containers last year and paid out $1-million in refunds. About 500 people drop off cans and bottles at the depot every day.

When he was going through dumpsters, Mr. Lyotier remembers divers being shy about digging through trash.

That's not the case any more, he said.

"They're doing real work and a real service to the community," he said.

"There's no shame in it."

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