UBC students turn cups into art while Binners’ Project turns cups into change in the Downtown Eastside

Photos by James Gray

UBC students turned discarded coffee cups into a representation of Vancouver’s skyline to draw attention to the recent Binners’ Project record-breaking recycling event in the Downtown Eastside.

Constructed by Tess Adebar,  Brontë Mutukistna, Zahra Hirji, and James Gray from the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and informed by members of the Binners’ Project, the art was part of the 10th annual Coffee Cup Revolution at Victory Square on October 12.

The Binners' Project stages the Coffee Cup Revolution to show how a coffee cup recycling system could work. For one day, they set up and run a coffee cup depot where anyone can bring discarded cups in return for 10 cents per cup.

Last year they collected 75,243 cups. This year they collected 145,446 cups. At 10 cents a cup, that’s $14,544.60 for the 200+ participants in just three hours.

“It was wild. Just wild,” said Sean Miles, director of the Binners’ Project. “The very last person through had about 10,000 cups themselves. We needed six people to count them all. At one point the lineup was all the way from Hastings to Pender. We had to do three extra bank runs to keep up with the demand.”

The money for the cups comes largely from Binners’ fundraising projects, one of which is approaching on November 23. “It means we have to push harder on our fundraising efforts this year. So please come out if you can,” said Sean.

According to the Binners’ Project, every week, 2.6 million coffee cups are thrown away in Vancouver. These cups make up about a quarter of the litter in the city.​ In Vancouver, coffee cups can only be recycled in residential blue bins. Yet 78 per cent of refundable cans and bottles are being recycled. The Coffee Cup Revolution is a way to show that the same is possible for coffee cups.

“Binners,” also known as “waste-pickers” or “dumpster divers,” are people who supplement their income through redeeming bottles and cans. Binner’s Project is a group of waste-pickers dedicated to improving their livelihoods and destigmatizing the work they do.

Ken Lyotier, Anna Godefroy, and Gabby Korcheva co-founded the project 10 years ago, hosting early meetings at the UBC Learning Exchange. Although the Coffee Cup Revolution happens just one day a year, the Binners’ Project creates income opportunities for people in the Downtown Eastside. For example, their waste-sorting program provides commercial and residential buildings with high-quality environmental stewardship of their waste and recycling.

The student art project emerged out of conversations that were part of a new sustainability effort between UBC and Downtown Eastside community organizations called CLEAR, which participated in the event in another way, as well.

CLEAR (Climate Equity Activation and Resilience) is a project that intends to help the University learn how to make research related to climate change more accessible and how to define collaborative research projects with communities, while adding to the capacity of local organizations to advocate for climate justice policy and action. The project, supported by the McConnell Foundation, is one way UBC is making good on its commitments to climate justice stemming from the Climate Emergency Declaration and  Climate Emergency Task Force (CETF) report

As part of the CLEAR project, peer advocates from EMBERS Eastside Works joined the Coffee Cup Revolution to talk to people cashing in cups to learn about their climate priorities. The peers spoke to 80+ people waiting in line. The peer advocates asked participants to rate the climate emergency's importance in their work for the Coffee Cup Revolution using a scale of 1 (not important) to 5 (very important). The vast majority identified it as a very important and meaningful part of their work for this event.

Information like this informs the direction the CLEAR project will take, to help ensure it is aligned with and supports Downtown Eastside goals and priorities. The CLEAR project includes the UBC Sustainability Hub, the UBC Learning Exchange, and four community organizations—EMBERS Eastside Works, Working Gear, Union Gospel Mission, and Recycling Alternative.

The four UBC students said that they enjoyed coming together for the event, to witness the Downtown Eastside community in action, and help bring awareness to their waste reduction efforts.

“We really enjoyed creating an art installation from thousands of cups and supporting the meaningful work of Binners’ [Project],” said Zahra Hirji. “It was impressive to see the commitment of the binners, and fun to chat as they waited to drop off their cups. We made friends.”

Please get in touch if you want to learn more about the CLEAR project by contacting Linda.Nowlan@ubc.ca at the UBC Sustainability Hub or Kathleen.Leahy@ubc.ca at the UBC Learning Exchange.