Residential waste removal in Canada currently comes in three flavours: one, two, or three stream. You either have the ability to compost and/or recycle, or you don’t. One is required to pay a flat fee for whatever one’s city offers. The concept of composting is also far from universal – the major centres, such as Toronto and Ottawa, have barely implemented it, if at all. Saint John lacks curbside recycling, instead requiring residents to lug recyclables to far-off centralized depots, located in mall parking lots.
It’s time for fundamental change in how waste removal is handled across our country. I believe that we are near the limit for incremental improvements to the quality of service we receive, and our landfills are filling up almost as quickly as ever. No matter one’s opinion on environmental and social implications of landfills, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just get rid of them forever?
When I lived in Germany I became accustomed to a vastly different system, one which inspired PEI to become the first province to implement three-stream waste removal in the early 1990s (province-wide rollout came later, but PEI was the first province or state in North America to go jurisdiction-wide). In Germany, all houses and businesses are required to compost. Recycling is done in neighbourhood bins, similar to those in Saint John, but located every few blocks, no more three or four minute walk from anywhere I lived, and always on the way to the park – perfect when walking the dog or going for a stroll.
The fundamental difference in the German system is that of providing options to the consumer. Carts came in two sizes and had a variety of lid colours. A family of six or more (or a smaller, but more wasteful one) could opt for the full sized bins, the same size as are used in Nova Scotia for composting and PEI for both compost and waste. Small families, single people, retirees, or very environmentally conscious families could pick a half-sized bin, similar to the compost bins used in Ontario. Another layer of choice was added to each bin: weekly or bi-weekly pickup. Pricing varied according to bin size and collection frequency. The lid colour was the cue for collection frequency. This allows retirees or environmentally-friendly individuals to save money, and bringing the system close to charging the true cost of waste removal.
The reality of this structure is that it’s not too far from our current system in many cities. Some municipalities provide weekly collection, which means there would be little change in their overall plan, though trucks may be able to cover longer routes, depending on operational requirements.
Critics of such a pricing scheme would argue that it hurts families. This fear is not entirely correct, as consumption has more to do with income than family size – a large family who monitors consumption could very well end up with no waste, or so little that only a small, bi-weekly bin will be required. The inverse is also true, as I am familiar with many two-person households who fill both the black and green carts on a bi-weekly basis.
The other principal criticism of such schemes is that people will purchase the smallest bin in order to save money, then dump trash illegally. I believe that our police do a reasonably good job of finding and stopping illegal waste sites, so I find this to be a minor concern at worst.
Another idea that should be implemented at the same time is the ability for houses to opt for single-cart waste removal. Rather than having a compost cart and a waste cart, houses who choose to do their own composting should be allowed to opt out of compost collection. Garbage crews already audit bins to ensure only the correct products are in each, so fraud should be difficult.
Through a series of reforms, we could achieve such a system, providing options for small households who generate little waste. The lower prices will provide a financial incentive to houses to make the effort to curb their waste-generating consumption. Simply put, the time has come for subsidized waste removal to end.