In the three years since Toronto Mayor John Tory unveiled the $31-million new-generation green bins and declared war on raccoons, residents have made 472 complaints about the clever critters breaking into or damaging their raccoon-resistant compost receptacles.
The 311 complaints — obtained through a freedom-of-information request, since the city’s waste management division does not track them — come from all corners of Toronto and range in tone from baffled to furious.
At least 352 of the complaints were about raccoons getting into the bins, while another 120 reported raccoon damage.
“Raccoons opening bin every single night. Please investigate,” said one complaint from Scarborough-Southwest.
“Caller is irate and demanding to speak to a green bin specialist,” said one from Etobicoke Centre.
“Resident would like to have her old green bin back,” said one of several complaints from residents demanding the return of the original compost receptacle.
Some wards were targeted more than others. Scarborough-Southwest tops the list for reported green-bin breaches with 59 complaints, a claim to fame that may be attributed to what one resident guessed last year was a “superhuman muscular raccoon operating locally,” though more likely it’s because Scarborough was the first area to receive the new bins during an 18-month rollout.
Don Valley West comes in second, with 43 complaints, followed by Beaches-East York with 27.
The total complaint count is far greater than past estimates provided by officials with the city’s waste management division, who say they do not have a “formal process” for tracking raccoon-related green bin complaints because “it has not proven to be a significant issue.” Previous estimates were based on “surveying staff in the field,” Lisa Duncan, director of collection and litter operations, said in a statement.
Late last August, the city said there had been roughly 24 complaints city-wide about raccoons getting into the new green bins. In fact, the data suggests there had been 241 by month’s end.
The city is happy with the new compost receptacles. “Overall the feedback remains very positive and the program continues to be very successful,” Duncan said, with only 2 per cent of bins requiring repairs for any reason, including issues with animals.
Designed with a special raccoon-resistant turning lock, Toronto’s new organic waste bins were distributed across the city to great fanfare beginning in April 2016. The following spring, reports began to surface of raccoons turning the locks and breaching the bins, but the city and green bin maker responded with skepticism, questioning whether residents were securing their bins properly and suggesting the locks had simply grown loose from wear and tear.
A Star investigation last year found that some raccoons can open the bins — even the freshly repaired ones — by knocking them to the ground and turning the handle.
“With approximately 460,000 bins rolled out, 472 still represents only a tenth of a percentage,” Duncan said. “The city asks anyone having issues with their bin to call 311 so that we can investigate the problem and work to resolve it.”
Many of the 120 complaints reporting raccoon damage described holes gnawed through the receptacles, including one St. Paul’s resident reporting “a hole the size of a raccoon,” but the city says squirrels are the likely culprits when it comes to chewing.
The 352 complaints about raccoons opening the bins are earnest and indignant, reflecting Toronto’s collective frustration with the animals who feast on our leftovers while we sleep and the city’s efforts to mitigate the damage.
The first complaint came from Scarborough in September 2016, five months after the city began distributing the bins. “Please investigate complaint via councillor office and Lisa Duncan. Resident is reporting raccoons are getting into bin.”
One Don Valley East resident had a sense of humour about his raccoon woes. “Got up at 6:00 a.m. … to discover our green bin had been dragged from our driveway almost over to our neighbours,” the complaint said. “The raccoons have definitely figured out the bins. The lid had been opened and the buffet began. I’ll try the hot sauce but I have my doubts!”
Others did not find it funny. “This is baloney,” said an Etobicoke-Lakeshore resident dealing with repeated raccoon break-ins.
A Beaches-East York resident called to report that the lock on her bin was damaged and she was not able to open the bin. “However,” the complaint noted, “the raccoons can.”
Two days before Christmas last year in Don Valley West, a resident called to report that “raccoons continue to break into his green bin and that the mechanism put in place to stop this is failing.”
From Scarborough-Rouge Park: “Resident states new bins are not raccoon proof.”
From Etobicoke Centre: “Raccoon has figured out a way to open the bin. Caller would like bin replaced. Either bin is faulty or raccoon is too smart.”
Roughly 42 complaints described repeated raccoon break-ins, where frustrated citizens called 311 to report that raccoons were continuing to open their bins, even after the locking mechanism had been repaired or the bin replaced multiple times.
“Caller has a NGGB,” begins a complaint from Don Valley West, with NGGB being a 311 acronym for new-generation green bin. “It is her second one. Her first NGGB was replaced after submitting a request as she believed it was faulty. Raccoons have been knocking over her NGGBs and successfully opening them. Resident states that she now has to find a place to store her NGGB to prevent Raccoons from getting to it. She’s expressed that it’s very frustrating and suggesting that they be improved.”
Dennis Monestier, environmental sales manager for green bin maker Rehrig Pacific in Canada, remains confident in the bins. While 352 complaints about raccoon break-ins in three years may seem like a lot, it’s only a tiny proportion of the nearly half a million bins distributed, Monestier said. “In the grand scheme of things, that’s an insignificant amount.”
“If the lid doesn’t work or the lock doesn’t work, that’s something that we take responsibility for and we cover the cost of.”
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The city’s waste management division noted that some of the 311 complaints in the database provided to the Star “flagged that the lock was either loose or broken and as a result raccoons were getting in versus a raccoon opening a bin that was locked.” In other words, the city suggests the loosening may not have been the fine work of raccoons, but the result of wear and tear during collections.
And since the new green bins were distributed over 18 months during which some residents would have still had the old bins, “it’s possible that some of the service requests” captured in the data set “were related to the old bin,” Duncan said. (The Star weeded out complaints that were clearly related to the old bin from a larger set of data, though it is possible some were missed.)
For Alan Somerset, who lives in the Scarborough ward with the highest number of complaints, even one break-in is too many. “If it’s not raccoon proof, it’s not a solution,” he said.
Raccoons first broke into Somerset’s green bin in September 2017. The city replaced his bin, but within weeks the raccoons had breached the new one. He didn’t bother to call 311 again. He fashioned his own $10 safety lock with a screen-door compression spring and a couple of bolts, and hasn’t had a problem since.
Somerset said he can understand why city officials have been defensive about the raccoon bin breaches.
“The city has invested millions in these bins. They don’t want them to fail. So they keep insisting everything is fine,” he said. “They don’t want to admit that they’ve been defeated by the raccoons.”
I suspect more bin breaches go unreported. Last year, after residents’ complaints to the mayor and city staff about raccoons breaching the green bins were met with skepticism, I spent the summer filming animal activity in my laneway. I discovered that some clever raccoons — including at least one in my neighbourhood — can definitely open the compost receptacles, simply by knocking them to the ground and turning the handle.
Raccoons have breached the green bins of at least six homes on my small neighbourhood block, but only two of us — me and my immediate neighbour — reported our issues to 311. The rest took matters into their own hands, storing their bins in garages or in one case adding a key-lock from the hardware store.
My compost bin has been repaired or replaced three times. The raccoons continue to break in. I haven’t called 311 this year. We have fashioned our own solution with a bungee cord that prevents the raccoons from tipping the green bin over. It works — most of the time.
A taste of the complaints:
Etobicoke Centre: “The raccoons crack the code and are now able to open the bin.”
Scarborough-Rouge Park: “Issue is raccoons are able to knock bin over and gain access to inside. Suspected lock is faulty. Please replace bin, every week raccoons are getting inside the bin and making a mess.”
Scarborough Southwest: “Resident wanted to report that NGGBs in her area are being accessed by raccoons. Finding the next morning the NGGBs knocked over and the lids open. suspects that they are swatting at the lock when knocked over until they are able to open it.”
Beaches-East York: “Design is faulty, raccoon still getting into green bin, do not want another replacement because they are all the same.”
Scarborough Southwest: “Raccoons are getting into the NGGB frequently, they have learned how to knock it over and can turn the lock.”
Eglinton-Lawrence: “Third request for bin to be replaced as this bin is continually being opened by raccoons. Every day there is a mess to clean up and resident would like to try a new bin. Previous 2 requests for damaged bin to be repaired have been unsuccessful.”
Don Valley West: “Raccoons tipped bin and opened it. Not sure if a new bin will prevent it from happening again.”
Don Valley East: “Green bin gets opened by raccoons. He states it locks for him, but somehow raccoon still opens. He believes the lock is defective.”
Parkdale-High Park: “Caller states that NGGB is not damaged and the locking mechanism is not broken but raccoons were able to get into his bin. Would like this investigated as it has happened three nights in a row.”
Scarborough-North: “Caller leaves NGGB in locked position but believes raccoons still able to open. Notices bite marks. Unhappy with the design of bin even though it is understood bin raccoon resistant not racoon proof. Would like feedback to be looked into/design.”
Don Valley West: “Resident says that raccoons are still getting into his bin from the lid. Says its an ongoing problem and wants a bin that racoons cannot open.”
Beaches-East York: “Raccoons are once again getting into it and making a disgusting mess.”
Amy Dempsey is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @amydempsey