Ruth the Can Collector: The Case for Restoring Old Testament Gleaning Principles
If Ruth the Moabite lived today, she would probably have resorted to collecting empties from recycling bins and on the sides of roads to feed herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi.
Few Bible stories warm my heart like that of Ruth. When Ruth moved to Israel from Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi, she was vulnerable on a number of levels: widowed, without children, a foreigner, and the caregiver of her mother-in-law, who was also widowed.
But thanks to the civil law of her age, she wasn’t without means. “Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.’ Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter,’” (Ruth 2:2). This opportunity arose because God had commanded his people, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10).
In God’s providence, Ruth’s gleanings provided not just food, but also a husband. Boaz and Ruth would go on to be the great-grandparents of David, and eventually also Jesus Christ himself.
I have long wondered how the biblical concept of gleaning could be applied today so that those in need might have the opportunity to work for subsistence. There are organizations called Gleaners, but these groups typically organize volunteers to collect leftover produce, process it, and distribute it to those in need without any work by the recipient.
I’ve seen gleaning principles applied in other contexts, besides food and fields. In ARPA Canada’s first year, I worked part-time from an office space that was provided by a local businessman who sat on our board. Instead of trying to maximize profits by renting out the extra space in his building, he let me work from one of the offices for free.
Where I currently live, a lot of my friends gather firewood as the primary way to heat their homes. This strenuous job is occasionally made easier when local forestry companies leave some timber next to the road and choose not to bring it to the mill to process (because of the quality of the wood). Instead of burning it, which is the norm, they spread the word that it can be used by locals willing to pick it up for firewood.
When we were growing up, my older siblings would often roam along the railroad tracks, looking for grinding discs that the rail workers had thrown away. They collected these and brought them to a local welding company that paid “good money” for them, as they apparently had life left in them.
The problem with these examples is that they aren’t that helpful to most people in Ruth’s position. Children these days aren’t encouraged to roam along railroad tracks, most Canadians don’t or can’t rely on wood stoves to keep their families warm, and most non-profits won’t be able to find a business that offers extra office space for free. An abundance of labour and safety laws make it very difficult for businesses in western nations to have extra people come onto job sites for short periods, and our social welfare programs discourage ambition in those looking for assistance.
So, the most relevant example I can come up, that has the best potential for applying gleaning principles to today, is bottle collecting.
Return for Refund
If you spend some time in most Canadian cities you will likely come across homeless people with massive garbage bags crammed full of empty bottles and cans. They collect these empties from recycling bins, garbage cans, and scattered on the ground throughout the city. It is one of very few legal means to work for money without having an “official” job, and without already having money to invest.
When I was a child, my siblings and I would walk for kilometres on the roads each spring, looking for empties in the ditches after the snow melted. Since we didn’t get an allowance, it was how we saved money. Although my children’s standard of living is higher than mine was as a child, we still collect empties each year. It helps clean up our community (we sometimes combine it with garbage collecting) and capitalizes on what would otherwise be wasted. We are slowly saving up for a road trip to California, and have collected enough bottles to get us to northern California one way (not a bad place to stay anyways). Plus, our children think it is fun to spot empties – they treat it like a treasure hunt!
When we collected empties as a child, we would get 5 cents for pop cans and bottles that are 1L and smaller, and 10 cents for beer cans and bottles. In 2019, BC raised the deposit for non-alcoholic empties to 10 cents as well. But Manitoba and Ontario still don’t have any deposit for non-alcoholic empties.
10 cents for an empty beer can in 1986 is the equivalent of 21 cents today, thanks to inflation. But when I return a beer can today, I still get 10 cents like I did as a child.
The motivation behind the current system of bottle deposits is solely to get these bottles recycled. And between the financial incentive and the growing desire of the public to be environmentally conscious, this seems to be an adequate incentive. For example, in Alberta, 86.5% of aluminum soft drink cans are recovered, and the number goes up to 90.5% for beer cans. In BC the figure was 80% for non-alcoholic and 94% for alcoholic, probably in part because the refund for alcoholic empties was twice as large. In Ontario, the rate is 81% overall, likely because there is no refund for non-alcoholic returns. You can compare all the provinces here.
That said, when you look at plastic bottles in general, the recovery rate is generally under 50% across Canada, with the only exception being 56% in Nova Scotia. This shows that deposit return systems are about 2.3 times more effective than municipal curbside or voluntary systems (without financial incentives), according to a report prepared for the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.
Given that empty beverage containers make up as much as 40-60% of litter in some locations, increasing the return rate is a huge win for clean neighbourhoods. It isn’t a surprise that most of the arguments for “bottle bills” are built around recycling and helping the environment.
But the gleaning laws of the Old Testament were not designed simply to reduce waste, as valuable as that is. It was primarily a means to help the poor. The law required farmers to be less thorough, so others could benefit from the crops God supplied. The poor were expected to put in the effort necessary to take advantage of the provision made for them.
If Ruth was collecting empties today, she would probably go hungry, especially if she lived in Ontario or Manitoba, where she would only get money from alcoholic containers. The incentive is so little that it isn’t surprising that most needy people don’t see can collecting as a viable option – but maybe if we redesigned recycling with gleaning in mind, we could make it worth the time.
Proposal: Gleaning Empties
I propose that all Canadian provinces require deposits for all beverage containers, including milk and water bottles. The deposits should start at 15 cents per container and be adjusted every five years for inflation. There needs to be an adequate financial incentive to return an empty.
Given the billions of beverage containers purchased each year in Canada, this would generate a substantial amount of money from the deposits paid at the point of purchase. For example, a pack of twelve Coke cans would come with a deposit charge of $1.80 at the till.
The full amount of the deposit would be recouped when the cans are returned to a depot. But there are always containers that never make it because they are abandoned. The deposits that aren’t paid out to those who return the containers to depots can be used by the provincial governments to help build and modernize the depots themselves.
For example, in BC there are about a billion empties returned each year. The return rate is about 75 percent. If we mandated a 15 cent deposit, that would total 1.33 Billion X $0.15 = 200 million dollars collected from deposits per year. If three-quarters of these are returned for a refund (the amount is likely less as many will be recycled without a refund given), that would mean at least 50 million dollars of deposits don’t get paid back. That can go a long way to modernizing the public depots.
When I bring empties to our local bottle depot with my children, we still have to sort them all, which is a hassle that most people won’t be bothered with for the tiny amount of money to be made. But there is now technology in southern BC that allows users to simply put their empties in a bag, attach a label, and drop it off at an express depot, and receive an automatic deposit in their bank account within 48 hours. Expanding this kind of technology can make bottle collecting and returning far easier, increasing its popularity and feasibility. And it doesn’t have to preclude the traditional way of sorting and depositing for those who need the cash or don’t have a bank account. Perhaps it could even result in a financial bonus of some kind.
I’m convinced that increasing the deposit amount and extending it to all beverage containers in all Canadian provinces would have an enormous positive impact including:
- Bringing dollars into the pockets of vulnerable Canadians (i.e. modern-day Ruths) who are unable to get or hold jobs;
- Improving the health and wellbeing of vulnerable Canadians through manual work, leading to increased confidence, self-esteem, and skills;
- Decreasing crime (especially theft). The cost can be much higher than the actual item stolen. For example, the cost of the damage to a vehicle is often greater than what was stolen from the vehicle);
- Decreased reliance on the government for social assistance;
- The increased recycling rate of beverage containers;
- Less litter in our communities;
- Less reliance on one-time-use containers;
- Providing additional means for non-profits and clubs to raise funds through bottle drives.
Although the government would be involved in setting up the system and ensuring compliance, the funds themselves would come from those buying the beverages. And if people are concerned about the increase in cost to their groceries, they can simply ensure they drop those empties off, getting the money back.
Although she has long since departed to glory, I would like to say that I have at least one endorsement for this proposal –Ruth!