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Trashing a bad litter — both bins and politicians

December 15, 2014

A new breed of city litter bin on the northeast corner of Willow and West Broadway.

The era of the anti-binner litter bin may be coming to a quiet end.

For some nine years locking grey metal litter bins have dominated the streets of Vancouver. but one of them has lately disappeared from a corner on West Broadway Avenue — replaced not by another of the same ilk but by a completely different, open-top canister bin.

I’m told this new style of open top litter bin is already common in some parts of Vancouver, including the downtown core.


The new-style litter bin does away with locks and basically winds the clock back to the simple, accessible style of litter bin that Vancouverites took for granted for at least 36 years.

The new bin isn’t  a one-off or a place-holder either; the black plastic lid is embossed on the top with large capital letters: “Vancouver: Keep it spectacular”, which incidentally makes it look a bit like an open roll of Lifesavers candy.

The new bin replaces an old bin suffering a broken lock (a common problem), suggesting that the city may be replacing the existing locking litter bins through a process of attrition.

The locking bins that I hope are has-bins


Vancouver’s most common street litter bin is a dull grey cabinet made of two hinged halves of perforated sheet metal that close and lock to form a tapered decagon.

The branded top of one of the locking bins. I'm told people pry the plates off to sell as scrap.

I’m told that people pry the plates off the tops of the locking bins to sell as scrap.

The flat angled top is embellished with plates featuring a repeating pattern of raised lettering declaring: “Vancouver: Keep it spectacular”.

When locked, the cabinet accepts garbage through a single, waist-high, oval opening in the side facing away from the street.

Vancouver’s classic street litter bin


Street corner litter bin at Robson and Thurlow in 1969 — Vancouver Archives: CVA 780-402.

A decade ago, Vancouver had a very different street litter bin.

I only really noticed them when I became homeless in in the fall of 2004 but by that time the bins had actually been in use for at least 36 years.


My basic recreation of Vancouver’s long-time street litter bin.

The old bins were a cauldron-style affair on the same sort of posts as parking meters. The top of the cauldron was wide open on all sides but shielded from rain by a raised dome lid.

The bins were designed for convenience. A person could easily put garbage into them and city workers (and binners) could just as easily take the garbage out.

It was a matter of a few seconds to pull the one hinged pole stay out of the way and extract the loose litter basket. The basket was even positioned at a height so that city workers didn’t have to lift it up, just out.

The bins were almost elegant in their simplicity with only one small moving part. And, I’m guessing they were cheap to manufacture and repair — just sheet metal and tubing.


The brand new Los Angeles street litter bin in 1957. — David Mellor

Going through the digital photo collection of the Vancouver Archives turns up dozens of Vancouver street scenes where the old litter bin makes an appearance. The oldest I’ve found so far dates back to 1969 but I can’t say that it wasn’t in use before that.

Twelve years earlier, in 1957, the U.S. city of Los Angeles introduced a new litter bin that was strikingly similar to Vancouver’s “litter basket on a stick”; except L.A.’s version didn’t have the rain hat.

Vancouver’s good old bins were still in use when I became homeless in the fall of 2004. I particularly remember them from the three streets enclosing most of the West End: Robson, Davie and Denman.

If the old bins had an obvious disadvantage it was that they were a little small for the weekend traffic downtown — they often couldn’t take a Friday or Saturday night’s-worth of garbage without overflowing.

The city quietly locks out the binners


I have to rely on my memory of when the city changed the street litter bins because I can find neither media coverage nor city documentation concerning the current bins much before 2011.

As I recall, the new bins came into use in 2005, during the COPE administration of Mayor Larry Campbell. This was not even a year after I became homeless and I felt the change keenly.

The intent of the new bins was clear from the beginning and I recall thinking at the time of their introduction how the bins showed just what kind of “friend” to the homeless Larry Campbell really was.

Where the old bins were designed to allow easy access, the new locking bins actually sacrificed convenience in order to completely shut out binners.

Oddly, even though they had a much larger capacity than the old bins, the new bins filled up and overflowed at least as often. That was because binners removed so much volume from the old litter bins; the new locking bins had to have that much more capacity just to stay even.

The first batch of locking litter bins could be opened with a standard Allen key. Subsequent generations use a modified Allen key with a short centre hole.

I still couldn’t even guess how much these over-built litter bins cost but it didn’t take long for their flaws to become obvious.

If you look closely along the hinge you can see the broken bit of cable.

Across the hinge you can see the broken cable meant to restrict the arc of the door.

The thick perforated sheet metal was easy to tag and dirty up but difficult to paint (those darn holes!).

The tapered shape may have looked stylish to someone but it put the door hinge on such an angle that gravity pulled the heavy door wide open when it wasn’t latched shut.

To combat this, the design includes a fiddly bit of thin aircraft cable to keep the door from opening too far but such thin cable rusts through quickly in the rain (those darn holes!) and I haven’t ever noticed a rush to fix the broken cables.

The door latches also proved prone to getting knocked out of line and bent.

As a result, Vancouver has lots of street litter bins that can longer latch shut and the doors just hang wide open.

When such damaged bins are set too close to the curb the open door actually hangs out into traffic and, a bus driver tells me, he has hit them from time to time.

Four years ago, the city finally retrofitted the locking bins with little racks to give people a place to put a few returnable beverage containers.

And this summer, along West Broadway, the locking grey bins were paired with unlocked blue bins just for returnable containers.

All to address the decision to lock the litter bins in the first place.


Last Monday, at about 10:30 p.m., I snapped a photo of a grey and blue bin set at the northeast corner of West Broadway Avenue and Alder Street.

The locked grey metal garbage bin was stuffed full and regurgitating trash from its small opening. It’s tacked-on recyclables holder was instead full of paper cup trash.

Beside the grey bin was a Return-It blue bin, purpose-built just for returnable beverage containers and meant to be accessed by binners — it was only half full of garbage.

Other styles of street litter bins are used to give a dash of individual character to different neighbourhood shopping streets: South Granville Street has glossy black litter bins with half-barrel tops that are wide open and South Cambie Street has a few monstrous solar-powered compacting litter bins that aren’t.

But the 10-sided locking grey variety have been, by far, the most common litter bins in Vancouver for nine years.

What — I have to ask (only a bit rhetorically) — was suddenly so wrong with the litter bins that had served Vancouver so well for decades that it justified such a radical and (I’m sure) expensive change?

This is an especially good question now, less than a decade later, as the city changes course again, effectively switching back to a simple and accessible style of street litter bin it earlier abandoned.

If there was public scrutiny of the original derision to change the street litter bins some nine years ago, I can’t find it and likewise, I haven’t noticed any news stories examining the move to a new bin style now.

We used to call it “Penny-wise and pound-foolish”

I’m obviously saying the original change to the locking litter bins was a bad idea that made no sense in the long term. I think the decision was designed to meet a short term issue: the public perception of the rise of  homelessness and it’s visible component: binning. Compared to careful, deliberate planning it comes off looking like a knee jerk reaction, not to mention public relations.

But that’s pragmatism in a nut shell as far as I’m concerned.

Pragmatism is lately fashionable in politics. It promises the politics of solutions rather than ideology but it can just as easily degenerate into the politics of instant gratification.

Pragmatism can be dangerous in the way it places a premium on short-term thinking and measurable results at the expense of the less tangible long-term good.

I see narrow short-term thinking in the choice of locking street litter bins. I see a desire to make a change for the sake of change — to be seen doing something bold! And I see the new fixation for branding everything with the name of the city as advertising aimed at convincing voters they’re getting something “de-lux” for their tax dollars.

I see short-term thinking in the city infrastructure; in road paving and sidewalks for instance.

80-year-old concrete is routinely in better shape than 20-year-old concrete. And I see subcontracted paving jobs that are deliberately “good enough”, that begin to crumble within a year.

I would suggest that the city administrations of 40 and 80 years ago took it for granted that they were building a city for the future. And If what they built lasted a hundred years it was a good thing.

Modern city administrations would see such longevity as a waste of money on their watch. They’re not working for the benefit of future city administrations; they’re working entirely just to get themselves reelected.

Owners think in the long term. Short-term thinking, I would suggest, is what renters do.

I think Vancouver’s building phase has been over for a while. We may be electing little more than maintenance crews now.

It occurs to me that the only people left in Vancouver politics with a builder/owner mentality might be the, um, developers.

But you knew that, didn’t you? Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Vancouver B.C.

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