Clear bags – A waste reduction solution?

Image by Susan Sermoneta |

Image by Susan Sermoneta |

Waste management has been an issue that has challenged many a community. The smelly, costly, and often environmentally-destructive disposal of that which we no longer want or cannot use has been a source of much debate.

Athens, Greece is often cited as the first city in the world to introduce a waste management law decrying that garbage must be dumped at least one mile from the city back in 500 B.C.E. Over time, a variety of other options have emerged for dealing with waste including “piggeries” (where waste would be fed to pigs), incinerators, landfills, and recycling programs.

However, this blog post is not about the history of waste management or the staggering amount of waste we produce (Canadians produce on average 777 kilograms of waste per person — the highest per capita average in the world!) or even about the destructive nature of e-waste that we routinely ship to landfills overseas where regulations are negligible and where the workers who break down this waste often do not have the proper protection.  

On the contrary, this blog post is about the trials and tribulations of waste management in my hometown of Toronto and the success that could be learned from its northern neighbour.

Toronto first began to take waste management seriously in the 1860s following a cholera outbreak when it introduced crude incinerators to help deal with the problem. Pretty much from that point on, waste management has been a topic of concern.

Today, Toronto’s residential waste management policy is heavily focused on recycling with the remaining waste being sent to a few landfills. This recycling policy includes, among other things, accepting a wide variety of products (including organic waste and even things like diapers, polystyrene, and metal paint cans) being picked up from the curb (paper, plastic, polystyrene, etc one week and organic the next). By contrast, garbage is collected every two weeks.
In 2013, Toronto’s residential waste diversion rate stood at 53%. While this was an improvement from 32% in 2004, it is still far off the mark the city has set for itself and only a slight improvement of four percentage points since 2011. In fact, the goal was to have 70% of its waste diverted by 2010, but Toronto has now pushed that deadline to after 2016. 

Given the emphasis on recycling, it is telling that greater progress has not been made. According to the Toronto Environmental Alliance, a local non-profit organization, more than two-thirds of what Torontonians put in their garbage could be recycled, composted, or reused. Moreover, with a deadline of 2026 when the city’s Green Land landfill is set to close (based on current diversion rates), there is a need to find a solution sooner rather than later.

However, it might be the case that a sophisticated recycling program can only do so much on its own and that another element might be even more important to getting those numbers up.

Enter the City of Markham.

Toronto’s northern neighbour, with a population of more than 300,000 people, is a leader in waste diversion not just in Canada, but all of North America. Markham’s waste diversion rate sits at 81% and that target was achieved ahead of schedule. While they too have a sophisticated recycling program, their secret weapon seems to lie in the requirement of the use of clear garbage bags and the unspoken power of shame. 

Simply put, the ability to be able see what your neighbour is throwing out is proving a powerful motivator to recycle, compost, or reuse lest ye be judged. As well, collectors are able to see the contents and are able to refuse pick up if harmful materials are inside or if a significant number of recyclables has made it into the bag.

Unfortunately for Toronto, the clear bag option does not appear likely in the future given its previous investment in garbage and recycling bins for residents that can be picked up automatically by collection trucks. 

It should be noted that the province of Ontario also plays a significant role in waste diversion in that it has responsibility for industrial, commercial, and institutional waste regulations. These sectors collectively have an abysmal waste diversion rate of 25%, while also being responsible for approximately 70% of the total amount of waste produced in the province.

Nevertheless, Markham’s clear bag policy demonstrates that a relatively simple idea can have a significant impact over and above a sophisticated residential recycling program. It also suggests that one can never discount the importance of understanding human behaviour when it comes to waste management. After all, nobody is proud of their garbage.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.