Category Archives: recycling

Second-rate marketing

Consider the logo of the Recycling Council of Ontario.

Consider the message it might be subliminally sending.

Wonder how much that cost.

What to do with a broken wine bottle?

Problem: Ontarians buy a lot of wine and liquor from the government booze store. The glass bottles are recyclable, but they’re different colours, so they have to be sorted first because mixed glass isn’t worth much in the recycling trade. Drinkers tend to throw their bottles into their recycling bins any old way and they all get smashed up together and sometimes the pieces just get landfilled.

Solution 1: Get people to be more careful. Not realistic. How many different bins for glass can one person be expected to keep?


Solution 2: Get the government booze store to take back empties, the way the privately operated Ontario beer-store monopoly does with beer bottles.

REJECTED by the government-run booze store. Too expensive. We don’t do that Why don’t you try the privately operated Ontario beer-store monopoly?

Solution 3: Get the privately operated Ontario beer-store monopoly to take back wine and liquor bottles. We’ll charge a deposit at the government-run booze store, which you can get back if you go to a whole other store that sells something else, which you might or might not drink.


Result: A 58-per-cent return rate. Craziness at the beer store, where people who just want to buy beer compete with bottle-returners for the clerks’ time. Smugness for the government.

Unexpected side-effect: Danger for beer-store workers, who are accustomed to dealing with whole, reusable beer bottles instead of wine and liquor bottles that get taken into beer-store custody, separated by colour and then smashed, possibly throwing glass dust into the air.  Health-and-safety lawsuits doubtless imminent. Government-run booze stores as happy as ever.

It boggles me that Ontario’s retail alcohol industry, which is all ultimately operated by Ontarians’ own government, is run this inefficiently. I expect high prices and indifferent attention to customer trends — I don’t expect the different parts of the system to be at war with each other quite this overtly.

Opting out of the garbage system

TrashcanToronto’s tentative plan to switch to a garbage system where householders pay an annual fee according to the size of bin they use is, let’s say, controversial. (I wrote about this earlier and attracted some irate attention.)

I repeat that I think the general concept is sound but Toronto’s plan bungles the pricing structure for garbage.

Everybody gets a $209 rebate right off the top, representing the average cost of garbage service to each household in the city; instead, they ought to subtract the costs proportionately to the taxes people pay.

Worse, though, the smallest bin you can order from the city carries with it a fee of $209 a year, so best-case, you come out even. (Bigger bins cost up to $360 a year, for a net extra charge of $151.) If you’re really good with reducing, reusing and recycling, it ought to be possible to pay less than you do right now as a reward for really doing what the city wants of you. Unfortunately, Toronto’s city staff say they’re trying to pull in an extra $54 million for more diversion programs, so nobody’s allowed to come out ahead.

One further option that Torontonians ought to have, which the proposal (PDF) doesn’t appear to give them, is the right to opt out entirely and have someone else handle their trash. Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute points out this is a trend in Britain:

So I was pleased to learn of a new, private collection service called Bin & Gone in Yorkshire, which apparently charges £90 a year to ensure householders get a weekly collection, and has bought its own refuse truck to do so. Meanwhile a friend in Hampshire tells me that a body in Romsey also plans a private alternative to the local authority’s service (or lack of it), and are putting out flyers to gauge the market. The service “will be provided at minimal cost and include the supply of free dustbin and peddle bin liners as well as a free bin washing service” – rather better than the council’s grudging effort.

The private companies, being profit-making enterprises, have to find landfills that will take the garbage they collect and will doubtless pay the going “tipping fee” for the landfill space. Their customers won’t be the city’s problem at all.

(Photo credit: “Bulembu,” Flickr/Miss Heidi B)

Life with a small garbage can

They changed the garbage cans at work, and I’m surprised by how much it’s affected me. We’re probably about the 50-millionth office in the world to have gone from standard-issue office garbage cans, maybe 18 inches high, to tiny little containers that hang off the sides of our paper-recycling bins. You could maybe fit a brick in one, if you had some reason to throw it away.

The change seems gimmicky — we know we shouldn’t throw recyclable things out, or gratuitously fill trash cans with anything and the issue’s particularly important to me personally so I’ve always tried to be extra conscientious about it. Besides, there’s no penalty for overstuffing one of these miniature garbage containers, or for dropping your stuff in a neighbour’s. What difference could it possibly make?

It’s no longer possible to discard anything of any size at all, at least not conveniently. My officemates and I have often wondered whether the plastic containers that the nice lady with the table near the front door sells salads in are recyclable; they’re transparent and made of a plastic that’s hard but flexible because it’s extremely thin, and they don’t have any numbers printed or punched on them. Before, it was a matter of idle curiosity. Well, now it matters — the large size containers wouldn’t fit in the new garbage cans, and the small ones do but just barely. Definitely inconvenient if you’re going to have a banana peel or an apple core to dispose of later in the day.

The truth, in the interests of full disclosure, is that we don’t know yet. With no plastic number on the containers, we need the lunch-seller to do some research for us and she’s thus far been disinclined. So mostly I’m buying sandwiches in saran wrap, which poses no disposal problems at all, and making more of an effort to bring lunch from home in reusable Tupperware.

My point, in this self-indulgent digression, is that a very small change in actual real-world incentives can make a big difference even in the behaviour of someone who believes he’s committed to making environmentally friendly choices.

A tax on time

A couple of more theoretical notes on a beautiful Saturday morning when I ought to be outside.

First, an insightful observation from Tom Worstall of the arch-libertarian Adam Smith Institute, on how not all taxes are financial:

Households that fail to recycle most of their rubbish will face a “fine” of £30 a year under Government plans to cut waste unveiled yesterday.

Of course there are those pointing out that this isn’t either a tax or a “fine”. Rather, it’s a rebate if you do recycle, something you don’t get if you don’t.

However, the entire scheme is still in fact a tax. It’s a tax upon your time… [J]ust because it’s a tax on your time rather than your money doesn’t make it any less of one.

Last year, the City of Ottawa where I live was struggling with its municipal recycling program: rather than collect basically all plastics and sort them out at a depot, the city council changed the rules so that only some plastics would be collected — there was no market for the others. Citizens were asked to examine all their potentially recyclable plastics to find the little number that identified what sort of plastic each was, and only drop an item into the bin if it was a No. 1 or 2; plastics Nos. 3 through 7 would not be collected.

This is reasonably easy to remember, if you want to make the effort, but of course a lot of people didn’t. Furthermore, the city decided not to emphasize the numbers, but published lists of the sorts of things that made acceptable and unacceptable recycling and — lists in which not even people of goodwill could discern a pattern.

So you had two options for complying with the city’s demands: spend a lot of time peering at your plastic containers looking for often-hard-to-find numbers, or memorize two seemingly arbitrary lists of recyclables and non-recyclables. Most people gave up and either tossed all their plastics in the bin in the expectation the city would sort it out, or tossed all their plastics in the garbage. Finally, the city relented and resumed doing a lot of the sorting, and also found markets for some of the recyclables it had previously not been able to sell.

From the city’s perspective, asking citizens to do this wasn’t any big thing — officials acknowledged it’d be a little inconvenient at first, but assumed residents would adapt. If they’d thought of the move as imposing a tax on people’s time, they might well have thought differently about the consequences.

Magical thinking about garbage has a link to a very interesting Fortune story on some businesses’ efforts to achieve a zero-waste level in their operations. There’s Interface, the carpeting company whose crusading chairman with the charming southern accent, Ray Anderson, is a frequent media guest, but Fortune finds a lot of companies (and municipalities) that are seeing real value in reducing their waste streams. “Waste” is something you have to pay somebody to take away — so if you either find a buyer for your byproducts or stop producing them, there’s a measurable effect on your bottom line.

But this is the part of the post by WorldChanging’s Sarah Rich that caught my attention:

When I lived in San Francisco, my food scraps went into this giant compost heap, and the resulting substance went to growing some of the regions finest wine grapes and sweetest peaches. But the heart of the Fortune piece is not about how nice the compost is in San Francisco, but about how to get other cities, big businesses, and average residents, to take the time to become cogs in the zero-waste machinery. …[T]here’s a certain degree to which mass participation at the origin of disposal would make the process run more smoothly. So financial incentives come into play. San Francisco offers community members a discount on waste hauling if they accept a smaller bin for non-recyclable/non-food waste. It’s a “pay as you throw” pricing scheme that leads easily to that critical extra second of thought before tossing a recyclable bottle into the trash bin.

Figuring out what to do with all the junk we produce is a major problem for many Canadian cities, including Ottawa where I live, but amazingly few of them have decided to do the obvious and charge user fees for waste disposal. Any time the subject comes up, you only have to read the letters page of the local paper to see evidence of the loads of people who argue that garbage-disposal is a basic municipal service for which they pay property taxes, so why should they pay extra just to throw out an extra bag of trash? It seems to me to be a kind of magical thinking, in which what you pay in taxes is disconnected from the services you get.Calgary landfill

The city doesn’t create landfill space out of nothing. Landfills are expensive. Recycling is expensive. People who put more junk into the stream, whether it’s for landfilling or incineration or recycling or whatever, ought to pay more, and thereby face the true consequences of their retail decisions. I guarantee we’d see a lot less Styrofoam and a lot more compostable corn-based wrappers, really damned fast. And shortly thereafter, reduced pressure on the city budget, which would mean either tax cuts or money freed up for other things.

Yes, you could cheat, and the real jerks would because they always do, but some people you just can’t reach. Doesn’t mean you don’t try. And yet Ottawa’s previous mayor was first elected in part on a promise to do away with a tag-a-bag experiment, and followed right on through.

The photo above is of Calgary’s Spy Hill landfill,
taken by Flickr user D’Arcy Norman,
used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Ottawa’s pleaUpdate: At the stop where I catch the bus in the evenings, my city government has started pleading with me to do the right thing out of the goodness of my heart. The small print says: “Ottawa residents throw too many milk and juice cartons into their garbage. When tossed into the Blue Box, these cartons can be recyled into products like tissue and toilet paper. This helps us all by creating income for the City and saving landfill space. PLEASE DO YOUR PART. USE YOUR BLUE BOX.

Creates income for the city, eh? Not to be crass about it, but why can’t I have a taste, if only in reduced fees for doing the right thing?