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Reaction negative as Toronto proposes bag limits, fees

City of Toronto waste management staff have proposed limiting to two the number of garbage residue bags or containe...


City of Toronto waste management staff have proposed limiting to two the number of garbage residue bags or containers residents can place at the curbside, after which point they must purchase bag tags for $1.50 each.

User pay schemes, sometimes called "pay-as-you-throw," are increasingly popular in North America as cash-strapped municipalities seek to recover higher waste disposal costs and encourage citizens to recycle, compost and otherwise divert waste from landfill. More than 100 Ontario municipalities charge user fees for garbage, and Toronto has included $1-million in revenue in next year’s budget that it expects from the program.

Many municipal councilors have expressed concern, even outrage, to the media, and spokespersons for the Toronto Environmental Alliance have said they oppose the fees. The fate of the proposal to limit bags and impose fees is uncertain, although because the city has booked the $1-million in its 2005 budget revenue, it’s difficult to imagine the plan will be scrapped.

Opposition to the scheme revolves around several factors, including general weariness over the many new waste diversion programs the city has introduced (most recently source-separation of organics via "green bin" carts and containers). But the main concern appears to be the sense that this is just another tax grab by the city, which faces a severe budget shortfall and has (once again) asked the province for a bail out, which may or may not be forthcoming.

While the stated goal of the scheme — encouraging people to recycle and compost more — is accepted as reasonable, the city probably made a mistake by not offering property tax relief equal to the anticipated revenues. Pay-as-you-throw schemes are accepted by the public more readily when fees are charged in place of (as opposed to "on top of") taxes that previously paid for the service.

Commentators fear (perhaps rightly) that this is the "thin edge of the wedge" and that eventually the free bag or container set-outs will be reduced to one, then none. On top of that, they suspect the price of the bag tags will increase over time.

Whatever they think of the plan, compliance will not be optional. The city recently hired a dozen new bylaw enforcement officers whose duties include inspection of garbage bags dumped illegally (in parks, ravines or eslewhere) in order to identify the perpetrators via such things as envelopes with addresses, etc. Fines can total $300 or more.

Toronto residents face dramatic changes in their household routines as Toronto is pursuing the most aggressive waste reduction and diversion scheme of any large city in North America. The city has explicitly committed itself to the goal of diverting 100 per cent of garbage from landfill. The initial date was 2010, but this was recently moved back to 2012 when it was realized that the schedule was unrealistic. The goal is in part motivated by a provincial mandate that all jurisdictions must try to divert 60 per cent of their waste from landfill by 2006.

The province has very little new approved landfill capacity coming on-stream in the foreseeable future. Much of the provinces garbage is exported to the United States, with Toronto’s waste going to Republic Waste’s Carleton Farms landfill in Michigan. Although they can’t explicitly ban waste importation under the NAFTA and U.S. interstate commercial law, Michigan politicians have legislated various conditions for waste disposal in their state and have launched inspection programs, with funding from U.S. EPA, that could soon see many waste truckloads turned back at the border. Increased security at the Canada-U.S. border has also increased delays and costs for garbage export.

After rejecting other disposal options over the years such as the construction of local landfills and incinerators, Toronto citizens are waking up to the reality that they’ve left themselves no alternative to increased recycling and composting, and having to pay for excess garbage bags. But once must concede that the city’s failure to credit the property tax system with about the same amount it anticipates it will collect in user fees looks like a tax grab, and therefore the pay-as-you-throw scheme is less popular.


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