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Picking Up After Yourself?

Photo by –richelle– from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Trash is a surprisingly sexy subject. From the aesthetics of refuse bins to the contents of our recycling boxes, Torontonians take their garbage policy seriously. Yesterday’s standing-room only meeting of the Public Works Committee was primarily devoted to the subject of trash, specifically to some new proposals for reducing our garbage and litter production. The committee met for an epic ten hours and heard from more than thirty deputants, impassioned speeches were made, and children spoke touchingly about their future and the need for change. The upshot of all this deliberation: your Timmy’s cup will be around for a while longer, but plastic water bottles and grocery bags are facing new limits. The committee voted to recommend a ban on selling bottled water on city property, and to require retailers to give you a ten cent discount for every plastic bag you save. Rejected, and going back for further review, were proposals to ban coffee cups that aren’t compatible with the city’s current recycling system and to impose a mandatory twenty cent discount for those who bring their own reusable coffee cup rather than taking a paper one.
Complete details after the jump…

Yesterday’s debate focused on proposals for dealing with three specific materials: hot beverage cups (we throw out more than one million per day), plastic grocery bags, and bottled water bottles on city property. The problem with the first is that the cups aren’t currently accepted by the city’s recycling facilities and go into landfill; the problem with the bags and bottles is simply that we’ve got too many of them. The proposals were produced after a year-long consultation in which manufacturers, retailers, and city staffers tried to come to agreement on strategies for dealing with these problems. According to several city councillors who were involved in the consultations, the business and industry representatives just didn’t want to play ball and resisted attempts at implementing serious trash reduction measures; the councillors eventually concluded that the city would have to impose some mandatory policies in order to make significant headway.
2008_11_13waterbottles.jpgWhy can’t we just toss our coffee cups into the blue bin? They are made, after all, of polycoated paper, a material that is recycled in many other jurisdictions. The plastic lids are likewise recyclable. The answer, in a nutshell, is that the lids are made of plastic and would need to go into a different recycling stream than the cups (which would get sent along with other paper products to a pulp mill); currently, the city’s recycling facilities cannot separate the lids from the cups cheaply or efficiently, and thus the cup-plus-lid combo cannot be recycled in the city’s existing system. An upgrade of the facilities to deal with these materials would be costly: $3 million in optical scanning equipment, and $1 million in annual operating costs.
Why not just make paper lids instead of plastic ones? Industry representatives swore up and down that this was technologically impossible, that it had been tried and failed, and that plastic lids were the only way to prevent spillage and burning. (This was met with some incredulity.) An education campaign, teaching us to pull the lids off our cups before we send them to the blue bins, making sorting easy for recycling facilities, was also ruled out. As Adam Giambrone explained, we aren’t very good at trash sorting. A quick glance at a randomly-chosen TTC bin will reveal that the “garbage” it contains consists largely of materials, like newspapers and aluminium cans, that are not only recyclable but that have been advertised as recyclable for ages. If we can’t manage to get that right (he said that the waste stream from TTC bins is highly contaminated and often poses serious problems at recycling facilities), adding to the rules we need to learn before we can sort our own trash will hardly solve the problem.
At the heart of the meeting, lurking behind all the minutia about different grades of plastic and the cost of a coffee cup sleeve, was a fundamental ideological dispute about the respective roles and responsibilities of industry and government. Industry’s position is that dealing with trash is not primarily their responsibility, that they pay for 50% of the recycling program and that measures to reduce the amount of waste they produce are onerous and overstep their responsibilities. The legality of the city’s proposals was questioned several times, described as undue interference in business practices. Recycling is their preferred method of dealing with garbage. Many city councillors, on the other hand, said industry has no right to dictate to the city how it deals with trash, and no right to expect the city and its taxed citizens to pay for the disposal of its products. As Gord Perks pointed out, the city is not required to collect trash at all—it’s simply not a legal responsibility. It does so because anything else is unworkable, but the aim is to provide a means for dealing with waste individual citizens cannot properly manage, not to provide a subsidy to business. Part of the cost of a product is—or should be—the cost of its disposal, and offloading that responsibility onto governments and taxpayers is overstepping in the other direction. Reduction and reuse are far more important than recycling, according to this view, for they reduce the environmental burden we collectively need to bear in the first place.
And now, in lieu of further wonkish discussion (we haven’t even broached the take-out food container controversies, which are actually far more compelling than that description would lead you to believe), Torontoist gives you water cooler talking points in easy-to-digest, Harper’s-style bullet points:
290: approximate amount, in millions of dollars, that the city spends in a year on garbage disposal, not including the green bin program (City of Toronto)
10: amount, in millions of dollars, that the province contributes to cover recycling costs (City of Toronto)
60: current cost, in dollars, for the city to recycle one tonne of material (City of Toronto)
400-1000: estimated cost, in dollars, for the city to recycle one tonne of material if the disputed coffee cups and lids were mixed in (City of Toronto)
.00031: percentage of Toronto’s waste consisting of plastic water bottles sold on city property (Refreshments Canada)
0: percentage of the plastic used in water bottles that has come from recycled sources (Refreshments Canada)
1: cost, in cents, that bottlers such as Coke and Pepsi pay for 3,000L of municipal water, which they then filter and sell in bottles under various brand names (Polaris Institute)
68: percentage of plastic grocery bags Torontonians reuse (Canadian Plastics Industry Association)
1-3: percentage of plastic grocery bags recycled in Canada (York School 6th grade class)
4: average number of plastic bags used per person per week in Ontario (Environment Ministry)
13-27: cost, in cents, to retailer of a single-use coffee cup, including lid and insulating sleeve (City of Toronto)
Bottom photo by a virtual unknown from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


  • Rachel Lissner

    I would love to see a ban on the Roll Up The Rim – it hurts me to think of the endless and senseless waste it creates.
    It also makes me cringe and unbelievably pessimistic about the future of the human race when people cannot even pull the lids off their cups.

  • Robsonian

    Is the top photo from the parking lot at the bottom of Wilshire Ave?

  • Gauldar

    I’m sure that the McDonalds Monopoly sales event doesn’t help either. People don’t allow themselves the time to bother with proper disposal of these products. If there were 2 separate bins, one with a slit for lids, and one round one for cups, I would use it. I’m sure there are people that are in such a hurry to not even finish their drink and just throw the whole thing in the garbage. Getting people to follow these rules would be like herding cats. And then we have styrofoam, hooboy! That’s a problem on it’s own. I’ve read into research SONY is doing which uses acid from orange peals, just try rubbing an orange peal on styrofoam and see what effect it has. Where they are at right now with that research, I don’t know.

  • xtremesniper

    Rachel, I think there’s two main reasons for that:
    1. Most people don’t actually know that the entire cup (lid and everything) is not recyclable.
    2. Most people in TTC stations are in a rush to make a connection or to get to work/home so they don’t want to take the time to stand in front of 3 bins and read the extremely small and hard to see diagrams showing where they need to put whatever is in their hand. They just toss and move on.

  • friend68

    It pains me to think that something as delicious as coffee is making Rachel so sad.

  • Gauldar

    I duno, I kinda agree with Rachel to some degree. Don’t worry, the human race will survive like it’s cousin the cockroach. No matter how hard mother nature tries, she just can’t freaking get rid of us. She’s tried and tried, oh well, she’ll get us eventualy.

  • Gloria

    I got a traveller’s cup for my daily coffee. Plus, the coffee stays freakin’ hot.
    I’d like to see fast food courts serve food on plates and in bowls, with forks and knives (and reusable chopsticks! My god, what a plague of cheap disposable chopsticks we’re suffering in this city). But I guess the cost of replacing and washing them is too much.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    It’s hard to sort out the facts from all the misinformation. Reading this FAQ, I will accept that nothing can be done about plastic lids (except perhaps investing in bioplastics research), but I wonder why any effort must be made to upgrade facilities to handle polycoated paper. The cups (along with sugar packets and wooden stir sticks) could go in with the green bin waste stream.
    More from Harpers’ August 2007 Index:
    Estimated amount of oil, in barrels, used to make the bottled-water containers sold in the U.S. last year: 16,000,000
    Ratio of the amount of water used to make the containers to the amount of bottled water consumed: 2:1
    Average number of litres of bottled water delievered to U.S. troops in Iraq each day: 1,400,000

  • nib

    great article, i liked this part:

    …the city is not required to collect trash at all—it’s simply not a legal responsibility. It does so because anything else is unworkable, but the aim is to provide a means for dealing with waste individual citizens cannot properly manage, not to provide a subsidy to business. Part of the cost of a product is—or should be—the cost of its disposal, and offloading that responsibility onto governments and taxpayers is overstepping in the other direction.

    it makes me wonder the rationale behind the advent of public trash collection. there HAD to have been opposition to it on these grounds, that it simply isn’t the government’s responsibility to pick up after garbage created by someone else. it’s too bad mechanisms weren’t built in from the start to have the manufacturers, and subsequently the consumer, pay for disposal at point of purchase.
    as for the coffee cup lid issue, what about if they sold at starbux or timmy’s reusable plastic lids that can go onto paper cups? kind of like a sippy-cup lid type thing that you can buy for like 50 cents or a dollar, and put it on the paper cup. then you keep it and chuck out the paper cup into the recycling. but i guess at that point you might as well just buy a whole insulated plastic mug, which probably would work better and last longer. maybe they just need to start selling them really cheap to encourage more people to buy them.
    or what if the whole cup was recyclable plastic? did they talk about that at all?

  • x_the_x

    “As Gord Perks pointed out, the city is not required to collect trash at all—it’s simply not a legal responsibility. It does so because anything else is unworkable, but the aim is to provide a means for dealing with waste individual citizens cannot properly manage, not to provide a subsidy to business. Part of the cost of a product is—or should be—the cost of its disposal, and offloading that responsibility onto governments and taxpayers is overstepping in the other direction.”
    This is a very superficial argument. True, governments don’t have any legal obligation to pick up trash, but that isn’t saying much because governments don’t have legal obligations to do much of anything, they have mandates and collect tax dollars to provide services that “individual citizens cannot properly manage”. It remains the fact that trash collection and other services incidental to property are one of the reasons invdividual citizens tolerate a city government.
    The businesses forcing the city to cover the costs of their garbage part of the argument is just a shell game, feeding off lazy anti-business sentiment. Businesses wouldn’t produce anything – including waste – if there wasn’t any demand for their products. It’s just as legitimate to require the consumer of the products to pay for the waste (through their tax dollars) as it is to require the producer, and if the producer bore the burden the consumer would be paying anyway through higher prices. This sort of economically illiterate advocacy is why council too often is an embarassment.

  • andrew

    i’ve learned to drink coffee without the lid, now that i patronize mercury espresso bar – they don’t offer paper sleeves, and when i got a lid a friend totally gave me the gears ’bout it. i have learned to stand on the streetcar, hold onto a pole, and hold a cup of coffee. if i have sufficient amounts of things to hold – for instance, one very excitable puppy’s leash – that i will not be able to hold a cup of coffee without it splashing around, then i don’t drink a cup. unless you have some sort of medical condition that does not allow for steady hands, learn to live without the lid already. that way, businesses see the demand for them go down, and we all stop paying for the recycling of it.

  • rek

    In Seoul when you go to a fast food place like Burger King, unless you’re getting take out, the drink comes in a plastic cup that you empty and return to a collecting station next to the condiments and garbage when you’re done.
    And on the fast food front, I went to Arby’s the other day and they actually gave me a styrofoam container for an eat-in meal. WTF?

  • Rachel Lissner

    Xtreme, you make valid points and I agree with you on both of them.
    After living in cities where recycling on the street isn’t even an option, I applaud and take advantage of the fact that Toronto makes recycling and sorting so effortless. The only place I have found recycling bins in New York was in Central Park and even that is better than most other cities I have been to.
    I’ll admit that I am very committed to recycling and am known to put dislocated items in their place, but I think Torontonians should appreciate that by recycling, they are helping/not destroying the local community and the international one (in an environmental sense).
    The bins in Toronto, however, could definitely use a major face lift in comprehensibility. The numbers posted on plastics always get a bit confusing and a lot of the bins aren’t particularly explicit about what belongs where.
    What kills me the most is when people throw water bottles and cans in the garbage bin that is right next to the bottles and cans bin…when someone can justify that for me, I’ll stop being pessimistic.

  • Robert Lubinski

    People are either lazy or in a rush or both, so they often don’t bother putting things into the right slots. How do you change that? Some people just don’t care. Others make a special effort to put the recyclable items into the right slots.
    We need start teaching kids to be responsible about what gets thrown where and make sure that they understand the reasons for it so that as a generation they will make it a part of their lives and do it without thinking, just like when I was young and they used to hammer “Don’t be a Litterbug!” into our heads. It stays with you after you grow up. Educate the young! Get them into it and it will stick with them and eventually it will be second nature to everyone.

  • rek

    We teach kids not to litter, but we don’t tell them to bring their garbage home or put it in a bag until they find a waste/recycling bin. They do in Japan, because the government doesn’t put out garbage bins.

  • andrew

    Rek, there might be more to it than that, in terms of cultural context. Even if they’re not explicitly religious, I’d say Shinto animist philosophy does have some secular penetration into a Japanese perspective on litter. If every natural thing has a spirit, and you risk its wrath if you piss it off, then you probably don’t want to be throwing stuff all over for fear of bringing on the wrath of a spirit.
    Also, with so little land, so many people, you just have to make mental adjustments to not make things bad for your neighbour and thus for yourself.

  • canuck1975

    Are you folks so short-term memoried out now that you forget the days when recycling just started? The arguments about people not willing/caring/being able to/whatever excuse separate their paper coffee cup & lid are the same ones that were used 20 years ago when it came to separating plastics # 1,2,7 & 12 from the rest (ignore the numbers, I just picked ‘em out of thin air).
    As far as I remember, once grey vs. green bins were eliminated, there was a bump in recycling at homes. Maybe my memory is serving me wrong, but I’m pretty sure I remember hearing about that a few years back. What caused the increase is pretty obvious; it simply got easier.
    Giambrone has a point that the TTC garbage bins are a mess, but that’s probably because they’re too confusing. A simple solution to that problem: colour code the bags or put colour coded bins around the bags that match the city’s colour scheme. It may not solve the coffee cup issue, but it should would reduce the mixed garbage thanks to the visual clues.
    Oh, and yeah… maybe putting receptacles on the train platforms might help too. Shocker there, eh?