How a Vernon man survives by picking bottles

Fred Braun, 57, sorts bottles Wednesday afternoon, April 11, 2018 in Vernon.

VERNON - The best thing Fred ever found in a dumpster was a live chicken.

The 57-year-old binner and bottle picker from Vernon says he was digging for empties when he came across a bag containing one dead chicken, and one live one.

“I thought, oh my god, how could someone do this?” Fred Braun says, speaking while organizing empties onto trays at Interior Freight and Bottle Depot in Vernon. He doesn’t mind doing an interview, as long as he can keep sorting. He describes himself as a “go, go, go” type of person who likes to stay busy.

He scooped up the hen and brought it back to his apartment (unlike some of Vernon’s pickers, Fred is not homeless.)

“I put the chicken in the bathtub. She had her head down, eyes closed and was not looking so well. I was hoping she’d get better,” Fred says.

He took a nap and when he returned, the chicken had perked up.

“She laid an egg in the tub,” Fred says.

As with many of the things he finds, Fred posted the chicken online and found her a home.

“It’s almost a crime what people throw out,” he says.

Fred Braun doesn't want to pick bottles forever, but says right now, it helps him cover food costs and keeps him busy.
Fred Braun doesn't want to pick bottles forever, but says right now, it helps him cover food costs and keeps him busy.

Currently unemployed and living on income assistance, Fred finds perfectly good clothes and food — some of it still in unopened packages — in dumpsters around the city. His income assistance cheque — which is little more than $500 —barely covers his rent, so he supplements it with things he finds, and with bottle returns. He’s been picking for a year or two on his “recycle bike” — a bin on wheels. Other pickers tend to use shopping carts, which usually get discarded around town after they’re done with them.

Bottle picking is serious business. Fred sometimes sets out at 4 a.m. rain or shine and covers anywhere from 30 to 50 kms on his recycle bike. He spends four to eight hours a day picking — as much as a full or part-time job, but without the wage to match it. He competes with numerous people every day for empties and says some can get hostile and even try to steal his bottles.

“There are so many people after them, more than you think. Every day I’m competing with people for my meal,” Fred says. “There’s always someone watching you, trying to get ahead of you.”

Fred is one of about 15 regular pickers who visit Interior Freight on a near-daily basis, environmental technician Patrick Vance says. Staff know most of them by name.

“Some are very industrious,” Vance says. “Others seem just permanently beaten down. Some of of them I just feel like they’re misplaced in their existence, just too gentle to be running with those types of guys.”

About a month ago, there was one picker who left his bottles partway through sorting them, Vance says. When he came back, someone else had rolled the bottles in with their own, assuming they’d been abandoned.

“Twenty minutes later, this guy comes in screaming ‘where the eff are my bottles?’ There’s a line up of five people. There’s a child. Everybody is wondering why this person is yelling profanities. You have to remember that for this guy, this is the end of his world. That $10 or $15 was going to unlock massive things for him.”

The depot has had to ban people for aggressive behaviour in the past couple years, and Vance says the accumulation of shopping carts is a constant issue. The storage area at the back is crammed with about 50 collected carts. Left unattended, the carts create traffic hazards and liability issues in the busy parking lot, Vance says. While a nuisance, Vance understands why people use them.

Patrick Vance with the carts that have accumulated at Interior Freight Bottle and Depot.
Patrick Vance with the carts that have accumulated at Interior Freight Bottle and Depot.

“I feel for them. If I was in that position and I’m either carrying five garbage bags on my back or pushing a cart, it’s easy math,” Vance says. 

Most businesses will come and pick up the carts, but that doesn’t solve the daily chore of having to gather them up throughout the day. Vance would like to see businesses switch to coin-operated carts, and also supports an initiative by the Social Planning Council to stockpile donated carts to give to homeless individuals. Stolen and abandoned carts were one of the issues raised at a recent town hall meeting in Vernon.

Another issue, Vance says, is that many pickers will come ten minutes before closing so they have more time to collect. Sometimes, staff will actually help them sort just to get off on time. Tensions can rise if they are asked to come back the next day.

“The biggest thing for them is if they have to leave with the bottles, they have to guard them all night,” Vance says. “Sometimes I say ‘look, I’ll store them for you until tomorrow.’”

As for Fred, he doesn't contribute to the cart issue because he uses his recycle bike. And he always keeps on schedule. Once he’s efficiently sorted all his bottles and exchanged them for a handful of cash, he’s off again on his bike. He needs to get to the People Place by a certain time to pick up free kibbles for his 120 lb dog Pumpkin.

Fred heads covers around 40 km a day on his recycle bike, picking empties from dumpsters, back alleys and beaches.
Fred heads covers around 40 km a day on his recycle bike, picking empties from dumpsters, back alleys and beaches.

He doesn’t want to pick bottles forever, but for now, it’s helping him get by. Fred has called Vernon home for close to 20 years and says some locals have started leaving bottles out for him.

“I had kind of a break down a few years ago and I’m just trying to get my shit together,” he says. “Picking helps me. It helps me do something. I have a bit of depression so if I get out and at least do something, it helps a lot. And, I’m in really good shape.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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