Bottles for change

A glimpse into bottle collecting and the poverty that persists in areas near the Student Ghetto

Kingston’s one per cent vacancy rate is among the lowest in the province.
Kingston’s one per cent vacancy rate is among the lowest in the province.
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For every six-pack of beer, 60 cents goes back into the pocket of the bottle collector.

It’s a small profit that can require hours of picking before accumulating a few dollars, but for some, it’s a way to make ends meet.

Areas surrounding the downtown core are popular for bottle collection, said one man Thursday afternoon as he stood on a porch on University Avenue. “I’ve already collected about three or four dollars worth,” said the man, who asked not to be named. In his hand were two grocery bags full of beer bottles.

After he’s collected about $15-20 worth of bottles, he’ll bring them to the Beer Store on Princess St..

It’s a small amount for hours spent digging through recycling bins and patrolling streets, but for him, it’s an easy job.

“I just had some time to spare today so I thought I’d come out and kill an hour,” he said.

The Beer Store first started exchanging cash for beer bottles and cans in 1927. It wasn’t until four years ago, though, that it began accepting wine and spirit containers for deposit return. Each one litre can or small bottle can be exchanged for ten cents, while bottles over 630 ml or cans over one litre can be exchanged for 20 cents each.

Kingston’s Beer Stores were unavailable for comment, but in a 12-month span, 2.06 billion cans and bottles were collected provincially, which represents 91 per cent of alcohol beverage containers sold in Ontario that year.

Throughout his time collecting bottles, the downtown collector said he’s encountered little negativity from the students whose bins he roots through.

“Actually, some of them even say ‘hey I have some in my house, wait a minute,’” he said.

Ivan Stoiljkovic, a member of the Kingston Coalition Against Poverty, lives a few blocks north of Princess St., over the notorious dividing line between Kingston’s differing socioeconomic classes. Over the years, his area has become increasingly gentrified with Queen’s students and professors moving further north — something that has driven the cost of housing up, he said. “You see who’s moving in, you see the cars, and you also see the people collecting bottles,” he said. “The students at this point are a super privileged bunch at Queen’s.”

Around 40 per cent of those living north of Princess St. are classified as low-income. Stoiljkovic has lived in the same place for four years and said that bottle collectors are a common sight around his Chatham St. neighbourhood.

The homeless and the low-income, who he said make up the majority of bottle collectors, bring in bottles for cash because they simply need the money. The high student population surrounding Queen’s, St. Lawrence College and the Royal Military College means the city’s vacany rate of one per cent, is one of the lowest in the province. The houses that Kingston does have are often priced higher because of the competitive market. In 2010, the average rent for a three-bedroom apartment in the city was $1,217.

With 15.4 per cent of its residents living below the low income line, Kingston’s poverty rate is slightly higher than the provincial average and higher than the 13 other counties in Eastern Ontario. Stoiljkovic, who’s an immigrant from Yugoslavia, said he wasn’t born into wealth and has experienced the struggle of poverty in Kingston.

For the past eight years, he‘s been a member of the Kingston Coalition Against Poverty — a loosely-based organization that holds rallies, offers social assistance and holds meetings about poverty eradication.

Stoiljkovic, MA ’01 was also at Queen’s for five years but stopped just short of completing his PhD as it was too expensive to complete his degree.

Now, he considers himself to be a product of both worlds — Queen’s and the rest of Kingston. Most students are oblivious to the fact that there is poverty in Kingston, he thinks.

“I find that most Queen’s students never cross the line that is Princess St.,” he said. “I find that most students are completely unaware of the existence of poverty in Kingston.” Bottle collectors roaming through the university area offer a glimpse into the poverty that is prevalent in Kingston, according to Students Against Poverty, a club under the AMS’s Social Issues Commission.

According to a 2011 report by the Kingston Community Roundtable on Poverty Reduction, there are almost 35,000 working Kingstonians who have yearly earnings below the annualized equivalent of minimum wage.

“Poverty is unfortunately not something that people talk about on campus,” said Cara McQuaid, the group’s co-chair. “Queen’s is a bubble.”

But McQuaid herself has noticed bottle collectors throughout the student area.

When she first moved into her house last year, McQuaid had a ton of bottles that she needed to get rid of. She didn’t have a car, and planned to recycle them.

Outside the house, a woman came by looking for bottles to collect.

“We brought out so many for her. And she was so happy. And my housemates and I were so happy to get them off our hands,” she said.

“These people are so close to us, you could even say our extended neighbours, and they’re coming back to take the bottles we no longer want.” Yet, unfortunately stigma towards poverty still exists among students, she said.

“You hear a lot of people throwing around the word ‘townie’ in a very negative way, basically implying that students and locals shouldn’t be mixing.” But Ronda Candy, the managing director at Martha’s Table, an organization that offers free meals to community members who may not be able to afford to feed themselves, said the organization’s student volunteers approach poverty in a sensible way. “I know in previous generations there weren’t problems getting a job. If you were motivated, you could get a job. But things are changing,” she said. “Their attitudes may be ‘gee I wonder what happened in this person’s life,’ instead of [thinking] they must be lazy.”

One male guest uses bottle collecting as a way to give back.

Over the past three years, he’s donated approximately $450 to the organization from money he has received from bottle collecting. Candy suspects the man, who often comes in for a meal, donates because he knows the benefit of the service. Most guests, she said, want to give back in some way.

“This man needs the money as much as anybody in Kingston needs money.”

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