The City of Toronto operates Canada’s largest curbside recycling program. The sheer size of providing three-stream curbside collection (recyclables, organic and garbage) to 500,000 single family homes is a major feat in itself. And add to the complexity, this service is delivered to what is said to be the most culturally diverse city in the world. The favoured destination for Canada’s immigrants, Toronto’s streets bustle and resound with people speaking over 100 languages. A sizable number of new residents, from near and far, are introduced to the City’s curbside collection program every year. This is the backdrop for Toronto’s new bin program. Currently, the iconic blue box program, coupled with the popular green bin program together manage to divert over 60 per cent of Toronto’s waste from single family homes. But that’s not good enough given Toronto’s fast disappearing access to Michigan landfill and the city’s plan to treat its recently acquired Southwest Ontario landfill site like the precious resource it is. The city plans to boost diversion to 70 per cent under a recently launched program brand called “Target 70.” (See cover story, last edition.)
To reach this aggressive target, Toronto needed to raise the funds to operate new and existing diversion programs while at the same time focus householder attention on diversion. An “out of the box” solution was needed. Toronto’s Solid Waste Management Services looked at all options and picked the volume-based rate structure used elsewhere in Canada and the U. S. A similar program has also been launched for Toronto’s 500,000 multi-residential homes.
The City of Toronto’s challenge is to roll out a new bin program for recyclables and garbage to the 500,000 single family homes in a relatively short period of time. Householders had to be quickly informed about the new program so they could choose the bin size they needed for recyclables and garbage. The new volume-based approach for garbage also means that householders experience a direct link between the amount of garbage set out for collection and cost. For instance, a medium size garbage bin holds 1.5 bags and after November 1, 2008 will cost $39 per year; the annual charge for a large size garbage bin holding three bags-worth of material jumps to $133. There is no cost for the new blue bin.
The pricing signal was understood by focus groups participants: If you want to create more garbage, you will pay dearly for it.
The city’s launch ads needed to reach all curbside recycling householders with the news that waste collection services would be changing dramatically, and fast. The message needed to be straightforward, un- ambiguous, simple and visually powerful. In order to get it right, Toronto initiated in-depth communication development and message refinement research in the form of focus groups. A combination of messages, themes, facts and visuals were tested for their communication value; did they help convey the basic facts or not?
The focus groups represented a broad spectrum of householders, urban/ suburban dwellers, living in compact and sprawl housing types, city-wide. Some remarkable things emerged. First is the fact that recycling has become integrated into people’s thinking. For the most part it’s what people do with their waste when at home. The blue box was the beginning and remains the transformational tool for people’s perception of waste.
As the program matured, householders accumulated a whole fleet of bins and carts, in colors blue, grey and green. Nevertheless, the plan to swap the collection of blue and grey boxes with one combined bin (with a lid and wheels) for all recyclables was accepted, particularly when focus group participants learned Toronto is targeting 70 per cent diversion. This target was seen not only as “do-able” but as essential given the widespread awareness that Toronto has been exporting its garbage to the U. S. Many viewed the fleet of garbage trucks moving down the 401 as embarrassing and regressive. It certainly does not fit with the newly emerging perception that Toronto is going “green” — a source of pride for many.
The other major new variable is that Toronto’s new bin program heralds the introduction of a volume-based approach to solid waste. The funds raised through this approach will create a self-funding solid waste utility, much like the current systems for water or electricity. Many people thought it made good sense; it was broadly seen as a way to drive diversion. Study participants endorsed this sentiment with approval of the phrase “the more you recycle, the less you pay for garbage.” This positions the new financial link positively with the goal of increased diversion. Indeed it was seen as a tangible way of rewarding ‘good’ diverters and penalizing garbage generators. In fact, the extra-large garbage bin (which hold the equivalent of 4.5 bags) was described as the “scarlet letter” branding the user as shirking their civic duty.
There is no doubt the new bins will require adaptation. New in-home storage patterns will be developed, and depending on the property size and access, will mean some households will have to keep the bins out front. On the plus side, the bins now mean recyclables will be contained (i. e., less blowing litter). Also, the footprint of one new bin will substantially reduce the amount of space needed to store recyclables, given that many householders reported owning three or four blue and grey boxes.
All in all, Toronto has introduced a profound change to blue box recycling with relatively few bumps along the way so far. It will be interesting to see if formerly “sloppy” recyclers will be able to attain their “personal best,” shrinking garbage volumes in order to save money. What the research did reveal is that most Toronto householders were willing to adapt to the new bin program for 70 per cent diversion, and that’s good news!
Hlne St. Jacques, M. Ed, is President of Informa Market Research Co. Ltd. in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Hlne at firstname.lastname@example.org