“Let’s talk garbage!” Howard Tam exclaims, and this crowd of about 60 Torontonians actually looks jazzed.
Over the next four and a half hours, he guides the multicultural mix of volunteers — of all ages and genders — as they work through their feelings about recycling, obstacles to doing it right and possible solutions to the complex system’s acknowledged problems.
The “design sprint” Friday, co-hosted by the city and a non-profit at Civic Hall Toronto, was a first attempt to tackle Toronto’s vexing, expensive recycling woes through the eyes of the residents who actually use — and sometimes abuse — the resident-funded garbage, blue-box and green-bin system.
“We normally deal with the waste management industry or packaging companies or the manufacturers,” to fight problems including “contamination” of blue bins via food waste that stains paper or addition of non-recyclables, such as old clothes, says the city’s Vincent Sferrazza.
“This is a great opportunity for us now to engage with residents, community groups, social groups and others to ask, ‘What are we doing — and not doing — right?’,” he says, with recycling as well as a multi-pronged public education campaign to tell people what needs to go in which bin.
His solid waste division last spring warned city councillors of a potential 2018 budget shortfall — now forecast at about $10 million — triggered by factors including Chinese recyclers turning away non-pristine paper fibre and, at home, increased bin contamination that boosts processing costs.
About one-quarter of everything put in Toronto blue bins shouldn’t be there. The city still manages to divert about 53 per cent of waste away from landfill, but the long-standing goal is 70 per cent.
Ten people are gathered around a table in a former warehouse in The Junction looking at a clear plastic lid, an empty air freshener bottle, a tea bag, a muffin wrapper, a standup pouch, an old VHS tape, a plastic rubbing alcohol bottle, a foam egg carton, a plastic yogurt cup and a shoe.
Half of them decide what goes next to a tiny blue bin, what goes next to a tiny organics green bin and what is garbage. The other half observe and take notes, looking for emotions including the inevitable indecision, consternation and surprise that, say, a muffin wrapper goes in the green bin.
Through other exercises the same phrases come up. “Frustration,” “confusion,” a “desire for information,” appreciation for the system, including from some people whose home countries haven’t embraced recycling but stress at possible mistakes because “we want to do the right thing.”
Mabel Ernest, a reuse, reduce and recycling “ambassador” for her Toronto Community Housing building at Pelham Park Gardens, near Davenport Rd. and St. Clair Ave. W., is eager to pick up new techniques to coach the residents of her 18-storey tower.
“I do the best I can, but it is very difficult for seniors to sometimes decide what is recycling and what is garbage, so they’re dumping everything in the garbage chute,” she says, suggesting the city might put up signs telling residents how many millions of dollars contamination costs the city each year.
City encouragements to do the right thing include an online “Waste Wizard” search tool to identify the proper bin; a TOwaste smartphone app that includes the waste wizard plus collection calendars and depot locations; and an advertising campaign that includes Raptors sportscaster Jack Armstrong saying his trademark “Get that garbage outta here!”
City enforcement includes waste audits where inspectors lift blue bin lids and, if they see visible contamination, put a sticker on it and push it back toward the home. City council will at some point consider the possibility of monetary penalties for those who dump obvious trash in recycling.
Possible solutions that came from the residents included rules to ensure all fast-food packaging is recyclable; other rules to force manufacturers to standardize packaging that now rapidly changes; monetary incentives and disincentives to influence behaviour; and more information for residents.
“There is a lot of confusion over what is recyclable but also why,” one woman told the gathering. Many people dump paper coffee cups in the blue bin not realizing the wax waterproof lining makes them trash.
“If we knew why it was recyclable or not, we might see the pattern and the big picture. My parents ask, ‘Why is this recyclable and this is not?’ and I don’t know,” she said, suggesting a “Why?” button be added to the online Waste Wizard.
The Ontario government and local partners are developing a system whereby producers of waste will be fully responsible for its sustainable disposal, rather than just helping to defray municipal recycling costs. That could eliminate the need for cities to have, or at least fund, blue-bin systems.
But its introduction is bogged down, with a proposed “full responsibility model” not expected for at least one year. If it proceeds under the new Ontario government, there could be five to 10 years of implementation.
Sarah Climenhaga, an environmentalist who ran for mayor in the recent civic election, participated in Friday’s forum that might be repeated in other parts of the city. She saw some value in residents giving city staff feedback but said the solution ultimately lies with makers of waste.
“Our recycling system is far too confusing, and it’s not going to work until we find a way to make it simpler,” and work with waste producers to get them to produce less packaging, take responsibility for what they produce and reduce or eliminate single-use items, she said.
“I hope the city will listen to the problems people are saying,” she said, “but the solution is not going to come from this room.”
David Rider is the Star’s city hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider