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April 5th, 2011:

Bi-weekly waste collection in Ottawa – suck it up!

C’mon – you KNOW I had to weigh in on this sooner or later! I am “Trashy”, after all!

Here’s what’s up:

OTTAWA — A city plan to pick up garbage every two weeks, while increasing green-bin pickup to every week, will save taxpayers $9 million annually for six years, according to a report to be released Wednesday.

Biweekly garbage pickup doesn’t come as a huge surprise, as city officials — including environment committee chair Councillor Maria McRae — have indicated for weeks that they are headed in that direction. But from the moment the city announced early this year it was going to consult the public on possible changes to the way it deals with our waste, biweekly pickup has been controversial in some quarters.

Three east-side councillors immediately declared war on any proposal to collect regular garbage less often, sending out a joint media release that earned them a scolding from newly sworn-in Mayor Jim Watson.

There are three points of measurement for those of us who deal in waste research: the first is when the waste is generated – that is, the sum total of all the “stuff” that we don’t want anymore. This is everything, whether we can or choose to recycle it, or not.

Then the stream splits into two – the waste that is disposed of in a landfill or in an incinerator, and that which is diverted from disposal. Diversion might be through recycling (putting materials out for collection or taking it to a depot), or reuse (donating to a charity, for example), or by composting the organic stream (either in a backyard composter or through using a centralised composting system).

OK? got that?

So, say that we as a city or as a society declares that dumping less waste into landfills and incinerators is desirable? After all, it us a helluva waste of land, leachate can poison the groundwater, the transportation of the waste creates GHG emissions. And GHG emissions like methane is leaked from the landfills into the atmosphere, etc., etc.

If we accept this, then there are several points in the waste stream where a city or whomever can intervene in order to try to reduce thus waste.

1) Reduce generation. This can be achieved by encouraging less packaging, building products that are longer lasting, encourage the use of things like reusable grocery bags and reusable water containers in lieu of plastic disposable bottles.

2) Encourage more diversion and provide the systems and tools needed to divert more. Increasing the number of types of materials that qualify for the recycling system is one way to do this. As is encouraging composting by making it easy for residents and the non-residential sector to compost their organics. Ottawa has set up a curbside pickup system. Other municipalities give away or subsidise backyard composting bins.

3) Finally, more direct demand management approaches can be used. Some provinces or cities prohibited the dumping of some materials into the dismissal stream. Nova Scotia, for instance, forbids the disposal of organics, among many other items. It is enforced, and if you are caught putting something out for garbage pickup that is verboten, you can be fined.

Other places issue bag tags where residents are allows a limited number of tags per week and if they want more, the have to pay… no tag, no pickup.

Here in Ottawa, the Council has decided to limit the frequency of pickup – which is effectively the same thing as the bag tag system: less waste is picked up through the year. The City is affording its residents the opportunity to scale back the quantity of waste put out for disposal by offering both a curbside composting program and an extensive recycling system. It is possible and really not that difficult to live without weekly garbage pick up.

Now, this is not perfect. The compost bins that were chosen, in my humble opinion, suck. They are fragile, aren’t large enough and lack adequate ventilation to cut down the (gross) maggot factor.

There will be more illegal dumping of waste on the sides of streets and country roads. Larger families are penalised while two person households can handle the change easily. Plus, multiple family residences are still a big egg that few municipalities have been able to crack.

Me, I prefer the bag tag approach. Encourages reduction of waste but has some built-in flexibility. Plus, there needs to be some coordinated efforts at all levels of government to assure that less waste is generated in the first place.

Another problem that very few Canadian municipalities have yet to grasp is dealing with the waste that is most harmful to our environment – hazardous waste. Sure, there are gaz waste days scattered through the year, but this is inadequate. The problem for Cities in terms of offering more is the cost of handling haz waste. It is very expensive.

Yet, all said, cutting back the collection is a qualified positive move. But only if the City continues to afford opportunities to divert more and generate less. But I do have a couple of suggestions:

– for Pete’s sake, do something about those substandard green bins!
– monitor the private sector collectors more carefully. Many of the trucks make a huge mess, don’t empty any of the bins completely, and treat all of the bins as if they were made of titanium and not plastic.