Picking Up After Yourself?
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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.