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GREENINGS: Municipalities should flex their green muscles (City Election 2018)

October 17th, 2018 · No Comments

Time to stop subsidizing cost of garbage

By Terri Chu

“I’ve got more freezer packs for you,” my friend said as she handed me a gigantic bag. She recently started using those meal delivery services where they pack and portion ingredients for you, include a recipe card, and you cook it when you’re ready to eat. Sounds like a great idea except for the box of garbage she generates weekly from it. When I heard she had excess freezer packs, I asked if I could have a few. She gets so many she’s told to snip the corners, pour the contents down the drain, and “recycle” the plastic. Her weekly meal delivery is more like a weekly waste delivery.

The problem is, many packages labelled “recyclable” are not (it can vary by municipality what is actually accepted) and Torontonians are some of the worst offenders for contaminated recycling. So much so that the City of Toronto is looking at an increase in our garbage fees to absorb the cost of people recycling badly.

What if we reduced or eliminated the flat garbage fees and instead had it charged by weight at the till?

I thought it was ridiculous how much waste is generated: if waste wasn’t a subsidized cost and they actually had to pay for it, it would become economically feasible for them to use reusable containers and pick them back up when they drop off the next box.

And there was the crux of it.

Garbage is free for companies to produce. We pay for it as a line item on our taxes, but we essentially don’t have to think much beyond that. There’s very little incentive for anyone to reduce generated waste because it is so cheap. It is cheaper to provide freezer packs with every new box of delivered food than it is to pick up old ones and reuse them.

So, what can big cities do about their garbage problem?

For one thing, stop subsidizing the cost of garbage!

Garbage is charged a flat fee and nobody thinks about it beyond that. What if we reduced or eliminated the flat garbage fees and instead had it charged by weight at the till? Consumers would start making decisions differently and businesses would start to adapt very, very quickly. The reality is that municipalities have a lot of influence on how much garbage is generated, how much people drive, how much electricity is used, and in general, how much we contribute to climate change.

Granted, the premier could just decide to un-incorporate Toronto and completely take over, making all these arguments moot, but in general, a city has a lot it can do to change behaviours, much of it starting with hitting people in their wallets.

We saw the resounding success of charging for plastic shopping bags.

The five-cent fee cut use by half. The city could just as easily demand fees for plastic cutlery, straws, and food packaging.

Manufacturers know exactly how much packaging weighs. One only needs to look at product specifications on Amazon to understand the level of details that manufacturers know their products.

They know every dimension, product weight, and shipping weight. If the difference between product weight and shipping weight was charged a fee per gram, the race for manufacturers to package their goods smartly and reduce waste would be on.

When consumers are faced with a marginal cost they can control, their behaviour is startlingly different from when they face flat costs that they can’t.

Surely lobbyists will be descending on Toronto if we did this, but we are long past the time for action. There will soon be more pieces of plastic than fish in the ocean, 500-year storms are now nearly an annual occurrence, and this year, British Columbia alone lost 1.2 million hectares of forests to fire. Cities need to take proactive roles in the battle against climate change. We’ve already lost a lot, it’s a matter of preserving what we can now.

Though transit is on the top of everybody’s mind this election, be sure to ask the candidates for council what they would do to curb municipal waste. There’s a lot in their power. It’s only a question of whether or not they dare to use it.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy and distinguish environmental truths from myths.

 

READ MORE BY TERRI CHU:

GREENINGS: Short-term solutions haunt future (October 2018)

GREENINGS: Urban under-representation (Aug./Sept. 2018)

GREENINGS: Nurture the neighbourhood by cultivating green canopy (Summer 2018)

GREENINGS: Results beg for electoral reform (July 2018)

GREENINGS: Choosing the lesser evil (Election Special 2018)

GREENINGS: Reduce, reuse, and then recycle (May 2018)

GREENINGS: Car-free parenting is not rare (Spring 2018)

GREENINGS: The science of board games (Mar. 2018)

GREENINGS: Driving fuelled by unseen subsidies (Jan. 2018)

GREENINGS: No solutions for nobody’s problem (Dec. 2017)

GREENINGS: Celebrate science not milestones (Nov. 2017)

GREENINGS: Down to the data (Oct. 2017)

Tags: Annex · Columns · Opinion