New refuse rules criminalize can-collecting

December 2nd, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Some years ago certain enterprising margin-dwellers, for the most part homeless men, started rummaging through refuse bins at train stations for discarded magazines and comic books, and then sold them to equally enterprising persons who in turn resold them to commuters for less then the cover prices. Publishers eventually got hip to this practice and pressured the authorities to crack down on these pirates.

No, you can't (photo Mark Thompson)

The crackdown obviously closed one small window of income opportunity for homeless men, and recently the government of Tokyo’s Sumida Ward passed a law that may shut another one. On Oct. 1 a new regulation went into effect in the ward that makes it illegal for anyone except agents authorized to do so by the ward government to remove recyclables left at designated refuse locations. The ostensible reason for this law is to prevent removal companies that do not have contracts with Sumida Ward from taking recyclables such as cans, bottles and newspapers. However, groups that support the homeless have complained that the law effectively criminalizes an activity that many indigent inviduals rely on for their only income. It’s not uncommon, especially in areas near the Sumida River, to see homeless men pushing shopping carts loaded down with enormous collections of discarded aluminum cans, which they deliver to recycling centers for cash.

Most of the local governments that have passed such laws — 13 of Tokyo’s 23 wards have these regulations, as well as the cities of Saitama, Sapporo and Chiba, to mention only three — say they are not specifically targeting the homeless, but homeless support groups, some of whom have held rallies recently at prominent locations in Sumida Ward, including the area surrounding the Tokyo Sky Tree, have said that these regulations’ lack of specifics as to what consitutes an “unauthorized agent” opens the door for a crackdown on homeless can collecting, and, in turn, may further demonize the homeless in the eyes of the general population. The city of Kyoto, for instance, enforces a similar refuse law but plans to amend it with a clause that respects homeless people’s “independence.” The Sumida Ward rule sets a fine of up to ¥200,000 for violations.

The central government has quietly said that it would prefer that local governments find some way of allowing the homeless to continue their collecting activities without interference, obviously because can-collecting actually relieves the government, in some small way, from the burden of actually having to think of real solutions to homelessness. The burden remains, however, since the price of recyclable aluminum has dropped steeply in the past few years. A kilogram’s worth of the material — between 60 and 70 cans — fetches only ¥100. At that rate, a person can earn at most ¥2,000 a day, if he’s fit enough to spend five or more hours roaming streets and alleys and carting 20 kg of cans around. For that reason alone, it’s easy to understand why homeless can-collectors would hang around recycling sites: There’s all those cans in one place, ready to go.

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