On June 18, 2008, Council for the Region of Durham (just east of Toronto, Ontario) passed a resolution authorizing staff, in conjunction with area municipalities, to proceed with a three-month pilot program in which residents were asked to set out residual garbage (i.e., non-recyclable or non-compostable materials) for collection in clear plastic bags. One collection route was designated in each of the City of Pickering and the Municipality of Clarington. Durham is an upper tier municipal government in a region of 621,000 residents who live within eight local municipalities.
In 1999, Regional Council approved the Long Term Waste Management Strategy Plan: 2002 to 2020, with a goal of diverting at least 50 per cent of the residential waste from disposal by 2007, or earlier. This goal was reached in 2007. The region intends to increase waste diversion from landfill to 70 per cent by the end of 2010.
Across North America, over 75 clear bag collection programs have been launched in cities including Guelph, Ontario, the entire Province of Prince Edward Island, numerous (33) municipalities across Nova Scotia, Saint John, New Brunswick and Omaha, Nebraska (among others). A 2008 study funded by Stewardship Ontario, entitled The Use of Clear Bags for Garbage as a Waste Diversion Strategy: Background Research on Clear Bag Programs across North America (E&E Project #177) provides an excellent overview of such programs.
The Durham pilot project had two specific objectives: to assess whether the use of clear bags increases (a) diversion and (b) participation in recycling and composting programs.
The pilot project was divided into three specific phases or time periods to enable staff to collect and segregate data under differing enforcement level scenarios, as follows:
Phase One — Voluntary: Residential participation was voluntary with no additional direct interaction or correspondence beyond an initial launch package provided to individual residents.
Phase Two — Voluntary with encouragement: Participation remained voluntary; however, non-participating residences were approached by regional staff and provided with supplementary promotional material such as door hangers to encourage participation.
Phase Three — Mandatory with enforcement: Non-compliant bags were left behind and tagged with information that all garbage must be placed in clear bags.
Three levels of data were collected during the pilot: macro route tonnages, micro household audits and control household audits. The macro data was the most statistically significant and the most appropriate for extrapolation region-wide. The micro household audits provided insight into the specific effects on each waste stream. The control audits assisted in explaining potential unforeseen variability.
Within Clarington, a single collection route comprised of 774 single family dwellings was selected; monitoring and waste collection was undertaken over an 11 week period (January 14 to March 25, 2009). Similarly, within Pickering, a single collection route comprised of 607 single family dwellings was selected and comparative monitoring was undertaken over a 13 week period (January 15 to April 9, 2009). Due to the difference in service-levels between the Pickering and Clarington pilot areas, the Pickering data was used to extrapolate region-wide results.
Based on a comparison to the 2008 waste tonnage data, a clear bag program for garbage could increase waste diversion within the region by three per cent (or about 4,668 tonnes) of recyclable materials and organics. It has the potential to cost an additional $61,000 per year in processing and collection fees. The micro household audits indicated that with a reduction in overall waste generation, the relative diversion rates could increase by up to 7.7 per cent.
The use of clear bags did not influence the level of participation in the recycling program but did increase participation in the organics program by an average 14 per cent when compared to seasonal variations. Clear bags could therefore be a useful tool to further enhance participation in the region’s organics program.
A total of 1,381 surveys were circulated to all households within both pilot areas. Approximately 540 surveys were completed (a 39 per cent response rate). The majority (53 per cent) expressed support for clear bags as well as a decrease in the garbage bag limit, if it helped to increase waste diversion. The majority believed they’d recycle more as a result of their participation in the clear bag project.
Although privacy concerns were raised, the majority of respondents were satisfied with the option of being able to place a smaller opaque bag within a larger clear bag. Some worried about clear bags possibly costing more, but this fear was neutralized by the comparable price of clear and opaque bags sold in local retail outlets.
Other survey results included:
• 72 per cent support the use of a smaller clear bag for in-house use (i.e., as a kitchen catcher);
• 78 per cent did not notice an increase in illegal dumping;
• 88 per cent did not support the use of a full “bag tag” program to stimulate waste diversion;
• 70 per cent responded that the information package delivered to their home was the best way to receive their information; and
• 69 per cent of residents agreed that a two month phase-in period was sufficient to enable them to get used to the program, prior to the mandatory phase.
An extensive public education and promotional strategy was implemented by regional staff to ensure that all pilot area households were well informed of the intent of the project and the specific parameters of participation. The separation of increased diversion or participation that resulted from the intensive promotion and education was not possible. Therefore, comparable results of a region-wide clear bag program would only be possible if a significant promotion and education program was undertaken at a cost of $35 per household.
The effects of the voluntary or mandatory phases produced mixed results. If the clear bags program is approved for region-wide implementation, it’s recommended that it be launched as a voluntary program, with a mandatory dimension investigated for potential future use.
Due to the economic downturn, overall waste generation rates have tended to decrease. Revenues received from recyclable materials are much lower than 2007 and 2008 figures. Because of this, tonnage and diversion rate results from this pilot could have been affected.
A number of additional considerations must be addressed prior to the launch of a region-wide clear bag program, including:
• Lead time of one to two years to notify all stakeholders prior to the program launch;
• Retail supply and availability of clear plastic bags of different sizes;
• Residents having adequate time to use stockpile of opaque plastic bags;
• Medical waste and diaper exemptions;
• Waste Call Centre requirements; and
• Provision of additional blue boxes and green bins.
“Clear bags for regular garbage collection provide municipalities with an extremely easy, user friendly and cost effective ‘soft approach’ to increase the diversion of recyclable and organic material within existing waste diversion strategies,” says Dave Douglas, President of VisionQuest Environmental Strategies Corp., speaking in general terms and not specifically about the Durham Region project. “Depending on the maturity and extent of existing diversion strategies, it’s conceivable for a municipality to increase diversion by an incremental 20 points above existing rates, simply by switching to a clear bag for refuse (garbage) collection.”
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com