Ontario's iconic blue box program is arguably the province's leading environmental program for solid waste and was a precursor for many other eco-efficiency programs. Curbside recycling has spread acr...
Ontario’s iconic blue box program is arguably the province’s leading environmental program for solid waste and was a precursor for many other eco-efficiency programs. Curbside recycling has spread across the continent. Participation levels have hit over 90 per cent across Ontario, resulting in an average provincial diversion rate for blue box materials of 57.6 per cent (Waste Diversion Ontario’s Guide to the Blue Box Program, December 14, 2006). While this figure includes both multi-rez and curbside, it’s generally accepted that curbside recovery rates far exceed those of multi-rez. Also, it should be noted that curbside diversion rates vary depending on the community; London, Markham and Peel Region have attained or exceeded the provincially-mandated 60 per cent level.
As good as this is, a serious shortcoming of the program is that it works great for single-family dwellings but not so well (thus far) for multi-residential buildings — especially the “vertical” communities (high-rises). The average provincial diversion rate for multi-rez is 13 per cent, far short of that for curbside programs. (See “Collection” article, page 46.) Multi-rez residents either deal directly with their recyclables through curbside collection or via their building’s waste diversion system. These are dramatically different contexts that govern awareness, behaviour and confidence that recycling works.
And the problem is growing.
“Curbsiders” (the “horizontal” community) represent the bulk of Ontario recyclers — 74 per cent at last count — with a minority of people (26 per cent) living in apartment or condominium buildings. But the percentages are shifting in favor of multi-rez as an increasing number of seniors and single citizens demand compact homes. Toronto is the most glaring example with almost half of households located in multi-rez buildings. The graph prepared by Central Mortgage and Housing illustrates this point.
The Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC) engaged Informa Market Research to examine barriers and identify opportunities for increasing waste diversion in the multi-rez sector. The project was financed through the Effectiveness and Efficiency Fund, a component of Ontario’s blue box stewardship funding. The fund is administered by Stewardship Ontario. The goal was to examine barriers and identify opportunities for increasing capture and reducing contamination levels in multi-residential recycling programs.
Informa conducted a seven-city in-depth study in mid-2006. This included cities with low concentrations of multi-rez buildings such as Essex-Windsor (17 per cent) and higher density cities (e.g., Ottawa and London, both 31 per cent). Sixteen focus groups were held with multi-rez residents and five with building superintendents. Also, 35 individual onsite interviews were conducted with property owners and managers.
Informa already had a background in studying behaviour among curbside recyclers, having worked on the issue since the inception of blue box recycling in the 1980s. The consultants knew that curbside recyclers and multi-residential recyclers live in totally different recycling contexts and act accordingly. It was a great opportunity to study this oft-ignored sector.
The recycling behavior of residents in low, medium and highrise buildings is mainly governed by circumstances beyond their control. Yet, they concur with curbside recyclers that recycling is “good” — for the environment and for the community. There’s a broad census that landfill is not a sustainable or viable solution for household waste. So, at least multi-rez recycling doesn’t have to fight an uphill philosophical battle.
Instead, the challenges are practical.
First of all, multi-rez recycling is almost always an add-on. Most buildings are designed for quick and easy garbage disposal, many with a handy chute on every floor. Recycling bins are located at a distance from the units, oftentimes in the basement or parking area, in separate rooms at grade or even outside.
As one residents said, “…every floor has a garbage chute. You can imagine, with 31 floors, you’re not hiking downstairs to a common room (for recycling). It’s not happening.”
Further, their compact units don’t easily accommodate blue boxes (let alone green bins). Signals from other tenants, the superintendent and management may or may not support recycling. Many of the buildings studied showed no evidence that recycling is the norm. Informative signage is often absent. Recycling efforts from the most enthusiastic residents can be thwarted by bins that are overflowing, contaminated, or poorly maintained.
As one resident said, “…I don’t know what happened after that, whether we mix it all back together and actually recycle. I’m not aware.”
Compounding the challenges, most residents have never (or in recent memory) received a list of what can and cannot be recycled. Without educational signage and bin labels, recycling is haphazard or minimal. This stands in contrast with the curbside recycler in many programs who receives an annual calendar and list of recyclables, often augmented by attentive collectors who act both as educators and ambassadors by providing feedback.
Most apartment dwellers have little attachment to or sense of responsibility for their building’s recycling; the outcome is out of their control. Rarely are there garbage limits or incentives such as pay-per-bag. And while there are positive exceptions, it was surprising to learn that condominium owners can be as aloof from recycling as renters. Every marketer in the public and private realm knows that in order to engage people they must be motivated and linked with the consequences of their behavior. For the feeders of the recycling program, this translates into information about how well or how poorly the building program is doing.
Superintendents are the on-the-ground recycling operators; they work with what they’re given. The pivotal power rests with property managers. Superintendents’ situations vary considerably in terms of building quality and design, the profile of residents with whom they deal day to day, and recycling storage location and capacity. Some enjoy a positive and respectful working relationship with the property managers, while others feel they’re “meat in the sandwich” between residents with unrealistic demands and tight-fisted property owners.
The “supers” who are enthusiastic about recycling appear to be connected with the best-run properties. Superintendents who manage buildings populated mainly by seniors often provide glowing reports about the success of their programs. But others argue that recycling isn’t viable and is not “in the job description.” Overall, lack of space for bin storage, inability to deal with surge capacity (when recyclables must be thrown into dumpsters), indifferent tenants and unsupportive management render it unworkable. And, the prospect of introducing organic collection (even when embraced by some diligent tenants) is soundly rejected.
Said one, “See, we’re only as good as the owners let us be…It doesn’t matter what company you work for, you’re only as good as the people will let you be with that system.”
In many instances, even the most optimistic supers are hampered by lack of recycling carts. The capture rate hit a wall when management refuses to invest in additional recycling containers. Also, many supers lack educational materials for tenants and the expertise required to set up an efficient program. Yet, guesstimates of how much of their building’s waste is being diverted through recycling is oftentimes wildly optimistic: 30 to 50 per cent is common. Having no measurement of outcomes appears to breed indifference or false optimism on the part of residents and building superintendents.
Property owners or managers may be responsible for everything from one small building to thousands of units in
different locations. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) own and operate a growing share of the rental market, using a highly stratified management style. While some hands-on managers are aware of the dynamics of setting up and running an efficient recycling program, most are remote multitaskers with other priorities. Garbage and recycling is delegated to untrained superintendents. Yet this doesn’t square with managers’ bottom-line orientation; depending on the municipality and the cost of garbage collection, there’s evidence of potentially substantial savings with a modest investment in training and equipment. However, rental managers tended to see recycling as an expense that can’t be passed along to tenants.
Incentives and solutions
Government-controlled rent increases and competition to keep rents down means that there’s insufficient funds to invest in recycling infrastructure (e.g., training and rewarding superintendents, upgrading recycling rooms/areas or purchasing additional recycling carts). In contrast, energy reduction measures have become the Holy Grail of sustainable buildings and can quickly pay-off. Hence, it’s essential to make a business case for recycling in order to get manager’s attention, coupled with raising awareness of mandated diversion rates.
If they start to tell me, “that [garbage] lift is going to cost you X amount of dollars,” that creates more incentive for me to go heavier on the recycling,” said one.
Many superintendents and managers are not aware of the provincially mandated 60 per cent diversion goal for 2008. Given that recycling is a municipal initiative, they rely on local government to provide overall direction, collection, education and tools (bins or reusable bags) for the recycling program. The local government is assumed to have the expertise and budget to educate and motivate residents, akin to efforts directed to curbside programs.
Multi-rez residents concur; they observe that recycling messages are directed to the curbside program, and feel like second-class citizens in this regard. This needs to be fixed and multi-rez residents need unique programs and educational materials to motivate them to take ownership of their waste, separate recyclables and, eventually, separate their organics and household hazardous wastes.
The report has identified the challenges and hints at the way forward. It’s up to the experts and managers now to respond and implement diversion programs in the multi-residential sector to bring it up to par with curbside systems. Several municipalities have heeded the call to action, crafting custom design solutions on a building-by-building basis. They understand that boosting multi-rez diversion will require considerable hands-on focus; a cookie-cutter approach simply does not work for “vertical” communities.
Future editions of this magazine will showcase some of these initiatives and solutions.
A copy of the report “Effectiveness & Efficiency Fund/Approved Multi-Family Recycling Projects” is available under Posted Documents at the homepage ofwww.solidwastemag.com
Hlne St.Jacques M.Ed, is President of Informa Market Research Co. Ltd. in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Hlne at firstname.lastname@example.org