Subscribe
Update Subscription
 
Article Reprints

Sign up today!
October 2006

 

Mandatory collection bags

Waste specialists across Canada face a common problem when trying to boost the rate of waste diversion (from landfill) to 60 percent or higher. Many communities (such as Markham, Ontario) are making significant progress with single-family homes, but hit a wall when they tackle “multi-rez,” which includes townhouses, small apartment blocks and high-rise apartments and condos. The challenges are numerous and include the fact that residents lack garages, porches and other areas in their dwellings to store large organics carts and blue boxes. Let’s face it: a garbage chute at the end of the hall is a lot more convenient than hauling source-separated materials to special carts or bins downstairs.

So, what to do? Given that roughly half of its dwellings are multi-rez, and that it plans to divert 100 percent of its waste from landfill by 2010, Toronto offers a great example of a city that needs a solution. Somehow the city must get the 470,000 tenants who live in 5,000 multi-family buildings to divert their waste at a rate similar to that of single-family households.

In 2005, single-family homes used blue boxes and green bins to divert 53 percent of their waste, which is only 7 percent shy of the 60 percent diversion goals set by the province. For that same year, multi-family diversion sat at an abysmal 13 percent. This 47 percent shortfall from the provincial target represents 177,000 “divertible” tons of waste or 5,000 trucks that drive to Michigan (basically a truck per building). (It’s worth extrapolating that province-wide, Ontario has 12,000 private multi-rez buildings with more than 6 units.)

Toronto has a plan entitled “SWMS Multi-Year Business Plan - 2005” that outlines diversion initiatives to meet the 60 percent goal:

  • Implementation of source separated organics programs in multi-family dwellings;
  • Increasing the recovery of recyclables in such dwellings;
  • Mandatory diversion programs and enforcement (with implementation of a bag tag program for single-family dwellings);
  • Waste limits, fees (or levies for multi-family dwellings).

The multi-rez sector represents a huge untapped source of recyclables and compost material, and increased diversion would greatly reduce the pressure on Ontario’s limited landfill space.

There is no single model for a multi-rez diversion program because of variation in building size, layout, and disposal systems. Some programs require residents to deliver materials to a central location. Others provide collection from chutes or chute rooms. Behavior challenges include the lack of tenant accountability (due to anonymity), inconvenience, the absence of financial incentives/disincentives, lack of enforcement, high resident turnover, communicating programs with people who speak different languages, and cooperation from superintendents who are busy with other priorities. Contamination is a consistent and persistent problem. So, again, what to do?

The grocery bag issue

The first thing we’ve got to ditch is the ubiquitous use of grocery bags for garbage that are currently popular with tenants. It’s an outdated concept that stands in the way of the changes we must put into effect.

Since multi-rez tenants cannot dispose of their refuse and organic material in bulk, the material must nevertheless be bagged. But how? That’s the conundrum. The small multi-purpose grocery bag is “free,” abundant and, above all, convenient. Residents wrap their waste in it, then it’s out the door, down a chute or inside a bin (and out of their lives).

But the convenience stops there. For waste managers, this Mr. Hyde of disposable containers prevents significant progress in reducing waste. A grocery bag is designed to carry products, not waste. It leaks, causes obnoxious odors and attracts vectors. It’s the bane of compost programs and causes problems for debagging and recycling equipment. Most importantly, because it’s opaque and unregulated, visual checks and enforcement are impossible.

Source-separated organics (SSO) collection and expanded recycling programs in multi-rez buildings will not be successful without a new system, preferably one that sends an economic signal to the resident that rewards waste diversion and charges for disposal.

How it would work

A fresh solution would be to outlaw all regular plastic film bags for any type of waste, organics and recyclables, and to introduce instead a “Mandatory Collection Bag Program.” Understanding how this might work could trigger an effective (and cost effective) new approach to these thorny issues.

The solution is to introduce three different types of in-unit plastic bags: one for collecting household waste, one for recyclables and one for food scraps. These transparent sealable bags would come in different sizes: a small bag for organics; a medium-sized one for waste residue; and, a large bag for recyclables.

Innovation is needed here and we need a “can do” attitude. The plastic bags have to be made out of a thicker gauge plastic than the ones used for lugging groceries short distances. Perhaps a certified compostable bio-degradable plastic bag could be introduced as an alternative, too (so long as it’s easily distinguishable from the other regular plastic bags). In any case, the bags would be different colors — a system that tells residents the purpose of each bag (blue tint for recyclables, green tint for organics, transparent for waste). The color system will also make collection and downstream sorting easy.

Mandatory use of regulated bags would deter contamination, and be fairly easy to implement and enforce. (An effective communication strategy would, of course, be required.) Semi-transparent tinted bags would help monitors, collection crew, and custodians make quick visual checks. Property managers and building superintendents would be the front line “recycling coordinators” but (importantly) the system will not increase their work load.

The technical details are important. A pleated self-standing organics bag could be designed to easily store away in the corner or underneath countertops. The bag can be designed with a tough, resealable seal to prevent spillage and odors. (As we all know, this technology is already in wide use in the market.)

In addition to the color coding, the bags could have universally understood graphics printed on them depicting the various materials that are suitable to collect. In fact, potential advertising revenue can offset the cost of the bag. All of this will keep refuse and SSO cross-contamination in check

One of the biggest benefits from this plan is that no changes in building infrastructure are required. The same large bins and collection equipment can be used and no expensive automated sortation devices need be installed in garbage chutes.

Regulated bags offer the monitoring tools for building owners to enforce and encourage waste diversion. And they’ll be motivated, since disposal costs will go down over time as more and more clean SSO and recyclables are separated. In fact, the bags themselves will be a relatively clean stream for the re-manufacture into different plastic products.

Implementation

In this proposed “Mandatory Collection Bag Program” a grace period would precede the outlawing of regular grocery bags. An education and promotion campaign would introduce the new bags. Ideally, grocery stores and other retailers would participate and sell their wares in special bags that are compatible with the new system.

With regulatory incentives such as garbage credits, building and condo owners will have an incentive to support this initiative, which represents increased profit for them (from a lower their garbage bill) or savings for tenants where costs are passed along.

It can’t be overstated that building managers and superintendents are crucial allies in implementing the program, and it must make logistical and economic sense to them. A huge benefit of this system is that different colored bags can be loaded into the same storage and collection container and sorted at the MRF. Or some kind of segregation could occur at the building. In any case, waste credits likely won’t reach tenants directly, so tenants need an opportunity to be rewarded for doing the right thing. One way is to charge them for their waste and recycling services in a variable rate program. This could be tricky in some buildings, since the colored bags will often end up in large storage bins and collected in bulk; it’ll be near impossible to calculate how much (or how little) each resident is throwing out.

The solution to this is a levy funded through the purchase of bags (partial pay-as-you-throw) and targeted towards wasteful tenants. In other words, the bags themselves could support different fees that encourage or discourage specific behaviors. A tenant buying lots of green compost bags and blue recycling bags, and very few transparent disposal bags, will pay less for their bags than someone doing the opposite. Ideally, recycling and organics bags would be supplied for free, and refuse bags would be more costly. A levy on refuse bags could subsidize cheap or free recycling and composting bags.

If there’s a concern that this is a “head tax” for big families, the threshold per unit waste limit could be adjusted based on the number (and even age) of residents in each unit. A waste generation table can help calculate the number of free bags for each apartment. But such systems need to be kept simple. Rather than track each resident’s activities, it might be enough to just insist that only the regulated bags be used, which might be available in stores, and inspect the contents of illegal bags in order to identify violations. Government inspection and backdrop regulation could support this system, but it would be best to allow the private sector market (including grocery stores, other retailers, property managers and waste services companies) to implement the system with clear guidelines.

Many details will need to be worked out for a Mandatory Collection Bag Program to succeed. But it’s an idea whose time has come, as long as the political leadership is there and people are led to accept change.


877-777-0737    •     Fax 419-931-0740     •     118 E. Third Street, Suite A   Perrysburg, OH 43551
© Copyright 2006 AR Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of content requires written permission.