Waste & Recycling


How Do You Eat an Elephant?

Diversion in the mult-rez sector across Canada regardless of building type and location is stunningly low -- 14 per cent is a fair average. It contrasts sharply with single-family curbside collection ...

Diversion in the mult-rez sector across Canada regardless of building type and location is stunningly low — 14 per cent is a fair average. It contrasts sharply with single-family curbside collection capture rates which can be as high as 65 per cent, depending on the program. The big question is: what corrective actions need to be taken to close this humungous gap? Or, thinking of the old Chinese proverb, how do you eat an elephant?

Several big bites have been taken by municipalities in Canada and the United States. Vancouver, Toronto, Hamilton and New York City are trying to figure out how to “eat the elephant.” Where should efforts be focussed to create positive systemic changes? Waste diversion program experts know this is no easy goal, and it’s not just another step in the continuous improvement model that has worked so well for many curbside programs.

In curbside, the interaction is directly between householders and program operators and their collection crews; one size can fit all given the conformity of home and street layout and human interactions. Householders control their own internal collection system; they participate in full view of their neighbours and in concert with collectors who have the option to give the proffered recyclables a passing or failing grade. The collector is the program’s teacher and the ambassador.

Contrast this with multi-rez recycling which is controlled by building owners and property managers who also control the purse strings and, consequently, operations. They in turn delegate waste management to superintendents (a high turnover, low/no training sector). Oftentimes recycling is plonked into a structure designed to capture and remove garbage fast. Voila! — the handy garbage chute! It comes as no surprise to read this New York City study conclusion (based on a study of 156 buildings): “Having a refuse chute…greatly diminishes the building’s capture rates. If residents can simply toss materials into a chute, it seems as if they are much less likely to recycle everything they can.”

Okay, so we have this reality. Short of retrofitting the thousands of multi-rez buildings across the country with three handy chutes, what can be done? Where do we start biting at the problem?


Studies funded by Stewardship Ontario, the Ontario government and the City of Hamilton are looking for solutions. Results are gradually emerging, pointing in some specific directions. The overview of all this analysis indicates that a three-pronged approach is required. These “elephants” vary in size and design — a heterogeneous herd with low, medium and highrise apartment and condominium towers, and lower density townhouses, so unlike detached and semi-detached residences.

Looking at design for a moment, multi–rez structures are created to maximize revenues which translates into little or no tenant-friendly, accessible space for the add-on recycling and organic collection programs. This is a new imperative, but note one that’s as sexy as the current drive to reduce energy consumption.

The first step is to deal with the operational side of things. This includes analyzing, on a building-by-building basis, where to conveniently locate the recycling area. If residents are going to make this part of their turf it must be accessible 24/7, neatly maintained, well lit and have simple, easy to follow instructions. It has to be as safe as the other public areas in the building. This means that those recycling bins stashed out in the back of parking lots, which are covered with snow and ice for months, just don’t cut it.

Ask yourself, would you bother schlepping your recyclables out to the “back 40” if you could simply walk to your garbage chute in your slippers? Focus groups and statistical surveys indicate that it’s mainly the real “true believers” who will make this supreme effort, day after day, rain, shine or blizzard. According to an analysis conducted by the Association of Municipal Coordinators, funded by Stewardship Ontario, multi-rez buildings with higher diversion got this part right: recycling is either indoors or if outdoors it’s very close to the building.

Next, the focus must be on all-important capacity. Think “curbside collection” for a moment, as municipalities drive

up diversion by equipping households with more blue boxes or big wheelie bins. Toronto’s new blue bin program, for example, offers householders the opportunity to select the capacity they require with a choice of three different size bins on wheels. The largest one holds the equivalent of six blue boxes. Contrast this with the impotent multi-rez occupant who has no control; he or she must make do with what the building management provides. So here is a typical scenario: residents take the elevator down X stories. When they get to the recycling area are there clean, well-signed carts awaiting their precious recyclables? Or are they confronted with a hodgepodge of wee plastic bags, recyclables and things that don’t belong there?

Multi-rez buildings with winning programs uniformly provide adequate capacity. The ratio is usually one cart for every eight to ten units, depending on household composition. Bear in mind that the average household size of multi-rez is smaller than curbside, and residents may tend to be older on average; hence, less waste and recyclables per household.

Building manager/owners and proliferating REITs are driven by three common goals: profit, profit and profit! In this context, recycling is often below their radar. Make no mistake: their willingness to invest in additional recycling carts, accessible recycling areas, and maintenance schedules is essential to drive residential diversion. A key part of the solution is to rework the economics of recycling so that it favours investment in infrastructure and staff support. This includes educating and motivating superintendents to make recycling a priority and a touchstone of the building’s overall quality standards. It’s worth noting that high diversion alongside other maintenance factors can help differentiate buildings operating in competitive housing markets.

The next course in the elephant eating feast is promotion and education, again taking a page from the successful curbside municipal programs. Stewardship Ontario, CSR: Corporation Sharing Responsibility and countless municipalities have proof positive that educating curbside recyclers and their children works. Translated into the multi–rez sector this means that winning multi-rez programs have taken the time to distribute city-provided recycling lists. They’ve posted recycling signs in the elevators, lobbies and other public areas reinforcing the building’s recycling program. There’s a regular flow of information to residents, reminding, encouraging and reinforcing good behaviour. And, as focus groups and measurement surveys with residents indicate, it must include feedback. This could be a report card reading something like this: “Congratulations, so far you and your neighbours have collectively diverted X per cent of your waste, these are the recyclables that are ‘getting away’ and thus need to be added to your source-separation efforts and this is the list of things that don’t belong in the recycling carts.” Couple that periodic feedback with symbolic rewards for high diverting buildings and their management. Together these responses can build a sense of ownership which is sadly lacking in most multi-rez recycling programs.

More results of on-the-ground winning programs are surfacing and will be reported as they emerge.

Hlne St. Jacques, M. Ed, is President of Informa Market Research Co. Ltd. in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Hlne at helene@informaresearch.com

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