Why homeless people are helping clean up pandemic trash in this B.C. community

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Homeless people are helping clean up pandemic trash in this B.C. community
  • Cruise operators give Venice a miss — and protesters cheer
  • Turtle nursery offers hope for conservation

Homeless people are helping clean up pandemic trash in this B.C. community

Leanne McIntee, mobile outreach co-ordinator for the Kwakiutl District Council Health office and Ray Goodwin, peer leader for the Get the Point program, clean up trash in a forest in Campbell River, B.C. Participants in the community cleanup program include people who are homeless and previously homeless. (Kwakiutl District Council Health)

The pandemic has made it risky to spend time with other people indoors, causing many Canadians to flood onto trails, beaches and into parks. It’s also disproportionately hit the most vulnerable urban residents, and some no longer have a choice but to spend most of their time outdoors.

That’s contributed to lots of litter and trash in outdoor spaces, including some potentially hazardous kinds that weren’t commonplace before, such as masks, gloves and sharps.

Now that COVID-19 lockdown measures have mostly been lifted, some community groups say they’re ready to help clean up green spaces in both wilderness and urban areas.

They include people experiencing homelessness, or who have in the past, in Campbell River, B.C., as part of a program called Get the Point. 

It’s run by Kwakiutl District Council Health out of a bus that delivers support services for the city’s vulnerable residents, from medical care to counselling.

Leanne McIntee, co-ordinator of the Mobile Outreach Unit for Health and Support Services (MOUHSS, pronounced “moose”), says the economic impacts of the pandemic and a recent fire in a low-income housing building have doubled the homeless population in the city.

Many of them are living in a growing number of encampments, including some who are now pushing into environmentally sensitive areas, such as green spaces along ecologically valuable streams. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic has changed services like meal programs, which now deliver in disposable bags and containers, increasing the amount of trash that people living there have to deal with.

“The encampments can be quite dirty,” McIntee said. “It can actually be not healthy for folks to be there or even go through.”

So starting about three months ago, MOUHSS began doing informal cleanups at the encampments and other places impacted throughout the city. Cleanup sites include places such as the city’s downtown;  Nunns Creek, considered an ecologically valuable salmon stream; and parks along the waterfront.

MOUHSS has since received provincial funding to do three cleanups a week. The program provides equipment such as gloves and trash pickers, and trains people who might otherwise not have access to jobs, including people who are homeless or were previously homeless. They learn how to safely deal with trash, including hazardous items such as needles. While some of the workers choose to volunteer, others are paid using the provincial money and consider it a job.

“It reduces stigma and it gives them opportunities to be engaged in their community again in a different way…. It’s really given people a sense of purpose,” McIntee said. 

Sometimes people who see them working will join in. 

“They’re not even part of the program and they start cleaning up the area!”

When MOUHSS is doing a cleanup in an encampment, it’s also a chance to connect those living there with its services. 

During some cleanups, the team has collected seven or eight bags of garbage and recovered a dozen shopping carts from the bush.

The cleanups are led by peer leader Ray Goodwin, 63, who has overcome drug addiction and homelessness and aims to offer hope that others can do the same. 

He said the impact of the cleanups is visible and improves conditions for people living in the encampments: “It’s not so depressing, right?”

He added that many recovered addicts recognize that when they were using, they took a lot from the community. 

“So now that people are sort of sober … that’s their way of giving back and they feel good about it.”

– Emily Chung


Reader feedback

Emily Chung’s piece last week on the connection between speed limits and carbon emissions garnered a number of responses.

Al Roffey wrote: “Lowering the speed limits will not accomplish as much as enforcing the speed limits already/previously in place. Too low a speed actually increases air pollution and reduces mileage. Speed limiters set at 100 km/h for all trucks and buses should be required in Canada. This setting must be enforced. In addition, low-speed electric vehicles should be approved.”

“Anything that we, consumers, can do to reduce our pollution, is welcomed,” wrote Roscoe Petkovic. He said one hurdle that will need to be overcome “is the aggressive marketing of high-fuel-consumption vehicles that are mostly occupied by one person: the driver. Just look at the Big Three [auto manufacturers]. All are pushing massive pickup trucks and high-priced SUVs. Pickup trucks in particular seem to placate males of our species, who believe their manhood is praised by the size of the vehicle they drive. That kind of illogical reasoning is far more dangerous to any possibility of consumers doing anything positive in the fight to reduce pollution.”

Also: Last week, we ran an infographic on countries that have pledged net-zero emissions targets (most for 2050). The graphic featured 19 countries, but after publication, it was brought to our attention that additional countries have set such targets. We removed the infographic from the web version of last week’s newsletter and plan to return to the topic once we’ve done more digging.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show! Make sure to listen to What on Earth every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. in Newfoundland. This week, host Laura Lynch looks at what it would take to decarbonize Canada’s economy and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. You can also subscribe to What on Earth on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen anytime on CBC Listen.


The Big Picture

For a long time, protesters have sought to have cruise ships banned from Venice’s lagoon, particularly over concerns of the environmental impact of the big ships on the historic and fragile area. Earlier this month, they found a reason to celebrate. Opponents of cruise ships planned a party in the city, the Guardian reported, after operators of two Italian cruise lines said Venice won’t be on their itineraries this year. Vessels operated by MSC Crociere and Costa Crociere will leave from Trieste or Genoa when services resume after the shutdown spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. There’s no sense how long Venice will stay off those itineraries, but it looks as if it’s likely to remain that way at least until 2021.

The MSC Magnifica cruise ship is seen from San Maggiore’s bell tower leaving the Venice lagoon on June 9, 2019. (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Turtle nursery offers hope for conservation

August is a busy months for the staff at the RARE Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge, Ont. They are looking after 1,900 turtle eggs this year. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Sarah Marshall has been “living and breathing turtles” for the past few weeks in the hope that her work will boost chances for survival of the tiny reptiles in southern Ontario.

Each day, she checks on nearly 2,000 turtle eggs she and her team gathered from along the sides of roads in June and July and took to a turtle nursery in Cambridge.

“After the August long weekend, we come in daily, even on weekends to check for hatchlings every morning,” said Marshall, a conservation technician with RARE Charitable Research Reserve.

“We get to a point where the expectation is that we’re living and breathing turtles.”

Marshall leads their Turtle Nursery Project, which launched several years ago in response to the large number of turtles being injured on the road.

During the summer months, it’s not uncommon to find Marshall and her team hunched over, digging on a road’s gravel shoulder, where turtles like to nest.

Marshall said even though gravel is ideal for turtles to make their nests, it puts them at a greater risk of getting hit by a vehicle.

“It takes about 200 eggs to make an adult turtle because of how high their infant mortality is.” 

The largest snapping turtle nest she found this year was near light rail tracks in Waterloo, with 59 eggs. 

Most of the eggs under Marshall’s care are snapping turtles, with a few painted turtle eggs in the mix.

Once the eggs are collected from the nest, they’re put in plastic Tupperware containers filled with vermiculite. Then they’re labelled and put in an incubator at 29 C for several months.

Marshall said hatching is slow at the beginning of August, but then it ramps up by the end of the month.

Each hatchling is weighed and measured, with the data logged in a spreadsheet that can be made available to universities or researchers.

A few days after hatching, Marshall and her team release the tiny turtles in wetlands near where they were found.

“Not a huge number of hatchlings make it to adulthood, but at least we get them through the first, hardest hurdle,” she said.

Marshall says more turtle fences, like one being installed on Roseville Road in Cambridge, are needed to protect the region’s turtle population. 

The fencing directs turtles to under-road tunnels so they can pass underneath traffic safely.

Despite the pandemic reducing the number of vehicles travelling, Marshall said they still received calls about injured turtles being found on the side of the road.

“Projects like this make such a big difference to turtle conservation,” she said.

“I think protecting adult turtles from crossing the road and getting hit in the first place does so much more than what I do.”

– Carmen Groleau

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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