Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Few Facts About Recycling Bins

Prince Albert's current residential recycling program isn't working. And, unfortunately, rather than admitting that it isn't working and trying to figure out how to make it work, some civic leaders are minimizing the problems, and suggesting that the problems are not as widespread as they actually are. I'm not sure why we think that the way to solve problems is by ignoring them, or by trying to mislead people about the scope of the problem.

The city has had a recycling program for about eight years, although the entire city wasn't provided with this service until the last year. The service is provided either through individual blue bins at each home, or large communal bins, the last to be provided, in the Midtown and East Hill areas.

These bins are meant for recyclable materials - paper, cardboard, milk jugs. The material goes to the material recycling facility which is on 40th Street, at the south edge of town. Once there, it is sorted, and sold to the markets that can be found for these materials.

From the beginning, with the individual bins, there have been problems with garbage being included with recyclables - to put it plainly, people were treating blue bins like garbage bins. In the worst situations, potentially dangerous materials, such as used needles, were tossed into bins. The garbage required extra sorting, and thus extra handling costs, at the recycling facility. The needles added a level of hazard that is unacceptable. The two areas noted for having a high level of contaminated blue bins are the West Flat and the West Hill, which have the individual bins at each residence. In some areas, the problem is so ubiquitous that the bins are taken directly to the landfill, without bothering to take them to the recycling centre for checking.

The problem has been brought to the city several times. The city's most recent solution has been to have someone inspect the bins before pick-up, and tag them if they are contaminated, and thus not suitable for recycling. It would appear, however, that this has merely been a make-work project. When one councillor followed the recycling truck on its route, the result was a bit of a surprise - even untagged bins which were presumably free of garbage were taken directly to the landfill.

The large communal bins are also subject to this sort of contamination, and face another problem as well. They are so poorly designed that water leaks through the hinge on the lid at the top, meaning that the material within gets wet with every rainfall. The bin contents are weighed at the recycling centre, and if they're too heavy, are sent to the landfill, since that means that the material within is either wet, and thus not recyclable, or someone has dumped heavy garbage in there. It's disappointing to me, after waiting for seven years to get a recycling service that I had been paying for from the start, and after noting that my neighbours appear to be extremely respectful of the recycling guidelines, since our bin contents seem limited to paper and cardboard, that one good rain every two weeks makes our good intentions pointless.

The whole point of residential recycling is to reduce the amount of material going to the landfill, to save the city money in having to develop a new landfill area. It's also the right thing to do, from an ecological perspective. But obviously these reasons haven't been enough to persuade some residents of the city to make the small effort of separating their garbage from their recyclables.

I think that the hard truth is that for most people there has to be some sort of financial incentive. For example, in Ontario, where there is residential recycling for a host of materials, including aluminum cans, we see pop cans all over the streets when we head there for a vacation. In Saskatchewan, where we pay a deposit on cans and bottles, which is then returned when you take your cans to the Sarcan depot, any can or bottle left on the street is picked up in short order, and the line-up at Sarcan is often quite overwhelming because the program is so popular.

So what sort of financial incentive could the city provide to get people to follow the fairly simple rules for recycling? How about, in order to get a recycling bin for your home, you have to sign up for one, and doing so gets you a reduction in your sanitation fee, or your property taxes. That way, only those who were interested would have bins. Then, if there were problems in a certain area, the inspection process could be used to identify the abusers, who would then lose their bin, and their lower tax rate or sanitation charge.

One of the reasons that we signed up for the Crown Shred and Recycling plastic recycling program, even though it costs a nominal amount, was the good feeling that comes from knowing that the materials that we put in our blue bin every two weeks are not adding to the problems at the landfill. But not many people are willing to pay for that sort of environmental service, and for those people who need extra incentives, we have to admit that our current residential recycling efforts haven't been successful, and find a way to make it financially attractive for people to do the right thing.

Finally, just a response to Thomas's comments on the last blog - sadly, Bylaw Enforcement isn't proactive, they are complaint driven. I agree, I think that when they notice a problem they should take action, even if there hasn't been a complaint. And regular inspection tours would be a way of identifying potential problems before things get out of control. And I've asked about the cameras as well, but as is often the case with my inquiries, I have yet to receive a response from city administration.

"To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival." - Wendell Berry

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