‘A battle for resources’: Three Metchosin volunteer-led groups victim to bottle thefts
How the recyclables fund initiatives—and what happens when they’re stolen
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How the recyclables fund initiatives—and what happens when they’re stolen
Jenn Sorrie’s heart dropped to the pit of her stomach upon arriving at Hans Helgesen Elementary on a sunny Thursday morning. Her eyes were dead set on the school’s bottle donation bin, which was ominously propped open.
“Pickups are usually on Tuesdays,” she reminded herself.
Hopping out of her car, she quickly spotted a broken lock at the foot of the bin. Picking it up, she could clearly tell that a heavy duty tool had been used to snap it in half. The discovery that a pair of bolt cutters were found in the bushes less than an hour before she arrived confirmed her fears.
All of their donated bottles had been stolen.
“I was waiting for it to happen,” says the Hans Helgesen parent advisory council president. “Recently, I was checking in on a daily basis. So many times, large bags end up beside the bin, so I have to make sure they’re placed inside or they’ll end up disappearing.”
By the time Sorrie arrived at school on May 20, two school staff members had already cleaned up most of the shattered glass in the parking lot, located the mesh bag that’s normally found inside the bins a couple hundred metres down Rocky Point Road, and contacted West Shore RCMP to take the bolt cutters for evidence. She says broken glass was spotted all the way down to Lombard Road, around half a kilometre away.
Notably, the incident at Hans Helgesen is one of three community groups that were hit within mid-May alone.
Just two days prior, a similar bottle bin belonging to the 14th Juan de Fuca Scouting group located at the Metchosin Community Hall was broken into. A week before, on May 11, around 30 bags were taken from the property of a Metchosin resident’s home that volunteers with FLED, a non-profit that finds lost and escaped dogs across Vancouver Island.
The loss of these funds may seem like chump change to many, but for volunteer-led community groups, it could mean the difference between balancing the budget and dipping into personal savings.
Since last fall, Hans Helgesen has been raising money for a GAGA ball court, dubbed as a gentler version of dodgeball. The goal of the game is to hit someone below the knees with a soft ball within the confines of an octagon pit with multiple players. The last person who hasn’t been hit wins the game.
Since the game only requires a single ball to be touched, Sorrie says it was a COVID-friendly dream come true. Compared to hockey sticks, badminton rackets, or jump ropes, the game which requires fewer items to sanitize was appealing for teachers and staff.
But the game requires specific brackets to hold several wooden panels together to form the pit. Plus, they will be ordering an accessible door addition for children with disabilities to participate. In total, the court is estimated to cost between $6,000 to $7,000. With the bottle bins bringing in up to $200 each month, the PAC have a steady cash flow to rely on, on top of their infrequent bottle drives and fundraisers.
“You’re stealing from kids,” says Sorrie, when asked what she would say to the person or persons responsible for the theft. “Our kids are going to suffer in the long term when the funds don’t come in. If you need the money that bad, maybe we could help you out, but these are the kids' funds.”
For the Scouts, the bottle funds they receive helps offset costs for camp registration at Camp Bernard, purchasing camp food, and buying badges for the kids. They’re on the same bottle bin donation program that Hans Helgesen has with Encorp Pacific, which sees the pickup and organization of bottles every alternating Tuesday.
“Whenever the treasurer reads how much we get every month, it puts a smile on everyone’s faces,” said Curtis Becker, a member of the 14th JDF Scouts leadership team for the past 20 years.
“Unlike Hans Helgesen, we don’t have a big community volunteer group to rely on. With a small core team, there’s only so much time in a day to organize bottle drives. Without the bin, it would be a hit to our program.”
Becker pointed out that they haven’t been able to host Metchosin Day, which usually is a big raker for funds as the scouts would be responsible for all concessions during the event, including a pancake breakfast.
For FLED, the funds are used for practically everything: anything from gas cards for devoted volunteers to trail cameras and accompanying batteries too.
For instance, the rescue group set up several cameras at Bear Mountain after a Korean Jindo dog went missing just three months after its owners moved into the neighbourhood. Volunteers set up a feeding station and a humane cage trap to find and secure the pet safely.
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“We’ve had a pretty lucky streak since we started up seven years ago,” said Jill Oakley, founder of FLED. “We’ve only lost a single camera while up at Mount Work. The community has been a steady support. Sure, we can devote a full day to a bottle drive at the recycling depot, but it’s much easier to let the bottles build up then cash them in later. Everyone knows where we are.”
FLED volunteer Maureen Schultze says around 40 percent of the bottles the community had donated were stolen from her property during the day. She left the house early in the morning and arrived back by 2pm to find a chunk of the donation bags gone.
She believes the theft was partly due to the pile beginning to overflow in front of the wooden board that runs along the side of her home, making it easy to spot. She estimates the total worth of each cash-in earns the group around $400, as they only sort the bottles a handful of times each year, after big party holidays such as New Years, Halloween, or Canada Day.
“This is an act of vandalism and it should be treated as a criminal act,” says Becker, with the Scouts. “To me, it’s pretty low hanging fruit. The fact that someone would have the guts and balls to cash them in blows me away. The worst part is that none of this can really be tracked.”
Becker tells Capital Daily he wants the person or persons responsible to attend their next Scouts meeting and explain to the kids why they stole the bottles and what they’re planning to use it for. He says the leadership team collectively believes honesty is a prime way that others should also lead by example.
Meanwhile, Schultze says she’s considered setting up a bottle donation at her house specifically for those that are in desperate need, but has yet to act on it. She says those that took the bottles were “probably in a desperate situation.”
It’s unclear who exactly is responsible for these acts, as tools were presumably used in two of the three instances.
Doug King, executive director with Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), says it’s unlikely for someone to be stealing the bottles by bike or foot in rural Metchosin, but it’s possible in a car as part of a larger operation.
“This incident is a classic reminder that there’s quite a lot of people relying on recyclables for income,” says Doug King, executive director with Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), though it’s currently not known who is behind the thefts.
“This is a battle for resources. I think it’s safe to say that the people stealing recyclables for certain organizations don’t have anything against them personally. They’re seeing it first and foremost as a resource, no matter how it’s gained. It’s easy to get into an us-versus-them mentality, but we have to remember that this is all caused by opportunity and need.”
Although it’s hard to know someone’s motivation to steal bottles without being able to ask them why they’re doing it, King says it’s more important to eliminate the need for stealing bottles in the first place.
King says the latest incidents in Metchosin are part of the larger economic issues for those under the poverty line. On a fundamental level, there needs to be more support networks that are high enough to provide access to safe and secure housing and an increased standard of living so that low income communities don’t engage in different forms of theft.
Binning and panhandling are two of the biggest ways those living in the lowest income communities in the Greater Victoria region try to earn additional income with no strings attached, says King. He says that non-profits should start questioning whether their bottle drives have a benefit, as he argues they could have adverse effects.
As an alternative, King suggests that residents who want to support nonprofit organizations or community groups can donate their money directly instead of using bottles. He believes the drives held by community groups don’t support, but rather benefits from the lowest income people to supplement their own programming instead.
“Most people think that you’re getting a donation from somebody when they drop off a couple bags,” King says. “But in reality, that might be a loss of money from someone who desperately needs it and relies on it as a source of income. It’s not going to be a loss for someone who just places it on their curb.”