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Vancouver begins campaign to remove clothing bins from private property

Diabetes Canada retrofitting 4,500 bins to prevent injury or death
donation bins
The City of Vancouver will begin asking owners of clothing donation bins to remove them from private property. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The City of Vancouver will begin asking owners of clothing donation bins to remove them from private property after city council unanimously approved a motion Tuesday aimed at preventing further deaths like the one that occurred last summer in a bin outside West Point Grey community centre.

Since the death in July of a 39-year-old woman who became trapped in the bin, the city has removed about 90 per cent of more than 100 bins previously located on city property, according to an email from the city’s communications department.

Council’s move Tuesday means the focus will now shift to owners of bins who have agreements with private property owners. But city manager Sadhu Johnston said the city doesn’t have a count yet of the number of bins on private property.

“We’ve been focusing on the area where we have the jurisdiction and that’s really been our primary effort,” said Johnston after Tuesday’s meeting. “Today, council’s direction is really clear—we need to extend that to the private sector. So we’ll start with notification, asking them to voluntarily remove them while we work on what legal tools we might have to force them to be removed.”

Some of the bins that remain on city property including those at firehalls, which Johnston said were left because they are monitored by firefighters. Those bins, however, will likely be removed or sealed as the city follows council’s order to remove or lock the steel box-shaped structures.

Other municipalities in Metro Vancouver have taken recent action on the bins, either having them removed or locked until further notice. Inclusion BC recently removed 146 bins in B.C., including Metro Vancouver, after the death of a 34-year-old man Dec. 30 in West Vancouver. Big Brothers has also stopped receiving donations to its bins.

Over the years, people have died in bins in Pitt Meadows, Surrey and in other Canadian cities, including most recently in Toronto, where a 35-year-old woman died earlier this month.

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung initiated council’s move to have city workers remove the bins, although her motion does not call for an all-out ban. She wants them removed until “they can be replaced, retrofitted or made safe, with consideration given to bin designs that also avoid strewing of refuse.”

“I spoke with the executive director of Big Brothers and they [collect] about 40 per cent of the 20,000 tonnes of clothing that’s collected in the city of Vancouver and their preference is actually home pick-up,” Kirby-Yung told the Courier.

Kirby-Yung told the Courier she recognized the root cause of the deaths was linked to poverty and that people are seeking clothing or shelter when getting trapped in the bins. But she said it was important the city take further action on removing or sealing bins until a better and safer alternative is found.

“The whole root of the issue is poverty, and that’s really ultimately what has to be dealt with, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t deal with the symptom of the bins,” she said. “It would be irresponsible not to do that.”

Coun. Jean Swanson successfully amended Kirby-Yung’s motion to have the mayor write the Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, Shane Simpson, to urge him to “increase welfare rates to the poverty line so people aren’t so poor that they have to risk their lives to get clothes out of donation bins and ask him to consider ways to increase access for people living in poverty to clothing, housing, programs and services.”

Kirby-Yung’s motion requests staff seek designs from industry, the non-profit sector or schools such as the UBC Okanagan School of Engineering, which has designed bins that prevent people from climbing in them and getting trapped.

She said she recognized charities and nonprofits benefit from the clothing collected from the bins. She wants to see a way of continuing such fundraising, possibly meaning central drop-off spots at the city’s zero waste centre (which still has bins) and other locations. The centre is monitored by staff and surrounded by a fence.

Diabetes Canada sent a letter to Vancouver council this week pointing out its ongoing work to retrofit 4,500 of its bins across the country, including 385 in B.C. The organization’s website indicates there are two bins located in Vancouver, with many more in Metro Vancouver.

Scott Ebenhardt, national director of business development for Diabetes Canada, was at Vancouver city hall Tuesday but didn’t get an opportunity to speak to council. He told reporters prior to Kirby-Yung introducing her motion that 25 per cent of the organization’s revenue comes from donation bins.

“With that money, we send kids to camp and do diabetes research,” Ebenhardt said.

In the last 22 years that Diabetes Canada has had bins, he said, two people have died in them—one in Calgary in 2017 and another in Ontario in 2018. The majority of the organizations’ bins are what Ebenhardt described as a “mail chute” design.

“We’ve removed two arms that connect the front flap with the interior flap that created the pinch point where people were getting stuck,” he said. “We will have removed all of those arms by the end of this week.”

Research Co. polling company released a survey this week indicating 70 per cent of British Columbians and 76 per cent of Lower Mainland residents want bins banned in their municipalities. Additionally, more than 70 per cent of respondents said they would be willing to drop off clothes at a facility instead of in a bin.