Solid Waste & Recycling

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The City of Toronto is struggling over both how best to manage its finances (which are in extreme deficit) as well as increase waste diversion. It's therefore important to evaluate whether or not its ...


The City of Toronto is struggling over both how best to manage its finances (which are in extreme deficit) as well as increase waste diversion. It’s therefore important to evaluate whether or not its recent decision to spend $100 million or more on carts for residential waste diversion was wise, especially since other cities and towns may wish to follow Toronto’s lead. The city plans to provide households with a set of three carts — one each for recycling, organics and residue waste — at a cost of $160 per set.

Recycling carts

Let’s start with the recycling carts. Toronto has $28.5 million for these, plus another $7 million for a 10-year maintenance contract. Staff says the carts will capture an additional 15,000 tonnes per year (tpy) of material. This may sound impressive, but it amounts to just 1.7 percentage points in additional waste diversion.

The recycling carts will cost roughly $30 million over 10 years, or $3 million annually; this translates into roughly $200 per tonne to collect the 15,000 tonnes of added material. Meanwhile, the average selling price is just over $100/tonne. Put another way, collection in this manner loses $100/tonne — $1.5 million a year — even before processing costs.

This sounds like a very expensive way to divert very little additional tonnage from landfill.

On a per-household basis, the scheme represents just 1.2 lbs per week, bringing the total bi-weekly recycling set out up to roughly 24 lbs per week. Meanwhile the largest of these carts, 360 litres, itself weighs 36 lbs (i.e., 50 per cent more than the recyclables they’re to contain!).

So what else might the city have done? One alternative would have been to provide households with additional blue boxes, at a cost of just $3 apiece. It may be that the city doesn’t know how many blue boxes the average Toronto home has. In any case, this option was mentioned in a staff report on this issue, but was never tested. Was there a bias against simple blue boxes?

Had the city expanded collection of recyclables using a $3 blue box, the cost per additional collected tonne would have been just $10. The city could have realized a profit on the sale of this material at $100 tonne, instead of a loss. More money devoted to education and promotion would have made such a program even more successful. But the city plans to spend only about $500,000 on education and promotion.

Residue waste and organics carts

Now let’s consider the provision of a residual cart as part of a new Pay As You Throw (PAYT) plan. Again, $28.5 million is budgeted along with the same $7 million for maintenance. Here things get even screwier.

If I subscribe to the 75-litre pail service, my cost is $209/year (or $2.79 per litre) for biweekly residual collection. If on the other hand I subscribe to the 360-litre cart, my cost is just one dollar per litre!

A much better alternative would have been bag tags. Ironically, the city plans to print these anyway to accommodate occasional overflow in the cart! Bag tags allow residents to pay a constant price for the residual they discard, not less (per litre) the more they generate as in the 75 L. vs 360 L. example.

The city has budgeted $20 million (plus an unspecified amount for maintenance) for a new Green Bin. This is disturbing when the majority of those currently in service are less than three years old.

Staff may argue that these three carts will increase collection efficiency (although cart-based collection is arguably slower). Regardless, Geoff Rathbone, General Manager

for Solid Waste Management Services stated in an interview with CBC Metro Morning that savings of 10 per cent on the total solid waste management budget of $200 million/year are possible.

This is misleading as any savings will only be on single-family collection, which staff has indicated is approximately $40 million/year. This equates to a saving of maybe of $4 million/year, achieved by spending $10 million per year ($100 million over 10 years)! No wonder the city’s in such rough financial shape!

I look forward to hearing city staff defend the economics of their cart-based program. Of additional concern is contamination. I once attended a presentation by Steve Grealy, the head of solid waste for the City of San Diego. Over the years San Diego has tested every type and combination of carts and has come to the conclusion that no matter what size of cart you give residents, they will try and fill it. Taxpayers want to get their money’s worth. Another concern is diversion; residents think a certain size of bin effectively needs to be “filled up.”

In a recent speech, Jerry Powell (editor of Resource Recycling magazine) mentioned that a cart-based program in Phoenix caused the contamination rate to soar to 35 per cent. In Toronto’s case, what’s to stop a resident from getting the 75-litre pail for residuals and a 360-litre recyclables cart in which to hide residuals overflow?

Finally, the cart-based program does nothing for multifamily households, which outnumber single-family homes; only a scant $7 million is set aside to increase the current low 13 per cent diversion rate.

In conclusion, I believe the burden of proof is on Toronto staff to demonstrate their plan will divert as much waste from landfill as possible, at the most reasonable cost. Right now, the only people who should be satisfied are the companies supplying the carts.

Rod Muir is Founder of Waste Diversion Toronto/Canada and the Waste Diversion Campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. Contact Rod at rodmuir@sympatico.ca


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