Dirty Useless Bums, or Eco Heroes?

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Homeless: The Unlikely Eco Hero? (Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Photo Illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity

Let’s cut to the chase and be brutally honest about what our stereotypical “bum” is: a dirty, drunken, frightening, socially inept creature of the urban environment, someone who has ‘fallen off the cart’ so to speak, and makes a living, well, by living off of the hard work of other people who have chosen to be productive members of society.

With that out of the way, let’s have a look at the street-dweller from a slightly different point of view.

Most street-dwellers don’t just stand on corners begging for money, and they don’t just walk around with all of their belongings in that stolen shopping cart. Many are active recyclers, walking about with shopping carts full of cans and glass bottles, all of which are turned in for cash at local recycling stations.

Not only do these homeless recyclers take responsibility for all of us ‘average’ persons who hastily throw away our bottles, cans, or papers from time to time — or all the time — they also happen to have an inherently low impact lifestyle to begin with. No huge house to air-condition or heat, no bathtub or shower to run, no fancy gas or electric range, no washing machine, no closet full of clothes and shoes, no fossil-fuel burning SUV. If they’re lucky, they have a small propane stove, a few changes of clothes, some blankets, a bicycle, and a shopping cart.

The lifestyle of the average homeless person — dirty and unsavory as it may seem — is a rather eco-conscious one.

Some might rightly argue, that recycling itself is a sham, that 50 years ago, we didn’t recycle anything and the planet was better off for it. I will offer no arguments against that claim. In 1950 or thereabouts, 100% of soda bottles in the U.S. were reusable — remember: reduce, reuse, recycle, where recycling comes as a last resort — and we sent the bottles to be cleaned and refilled instead of using more energy crushing or melting them to produce a “recycled” product. Indeed, re-using glass bottles is much more eco-friendly than crushing and recycling them. But that is a story for another day, and today we are in the unfortunate circumstance of living in a system that sends tons upon tons of waste to the landfill.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States sends somewhere in the neighborhood of 82 million tons of recyclable materials to the landfill each year. By weight, that’s like taking every single car sold in the world this year, and throwing it into a giant garbage heap. One wonders how much more recycling would be sent to the garbage dump if it weren’t for the street collectors we see on the streets during the day, or rummaging through the local dumpster at night.

What would happen if we stopped looking at the homeless problem as a “problem,” but instead as a “solution.” To clarify, I’m not advocating that banks continue to push people out of their homes and into the homeless lifestyle, nor am I saying that it’s a positive thing to have people who are forced to sleep on the streets. Rather, I’m advocating that we look at the homeless population — many of whom willingly choose to live this kind of lifestyle — in a different way, that we help them do the work of recycling instead of making it more difficult or illegal for them, as is the case in multiple municipalities.

But if that all seems like too much work, the least we might do is respect them a bit more.

Much of the homeless population are the unlikely eco-heros of the urban sphere. The ecosystem impact of the local garbage rummager is not only far less than the average person, but is further offset by their cleaning up of our mess so to speak. These people — largely unwittingly and largely unrecognized — do our cities a service every day, and our standard repayment is often to look down on them, or perhaps to take pity and toss them a few coins.

So the next time  you walk out of a fancy restaurant towards your car and  you see a some unkempt person in ratty clothes collecting recyclables from the trash, perhaps you should fight that urge to turn your nose up in repulsion, and thank them instead.

After all, isn’t it the homeless person who should presumably be repulsed by the prodigal masses?

References and Further Research:

EPA United States Recycling Facts – EPA.gov (PDF)
World Car Production Count – Worldometers
Homeless Recyclers Screwed – PlanetSave.com
Pennywise, Dollar Foolish – YouTube