Where does all the garbage go? Think about what we throw out

Editorial & Opinion, Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Once a week, most of us pack up our garbage and recycling and it drop it at the curb. From there, it magically disappears, and we don’t think much more about it. I’ve been thinking about it.

Shel Silverstein, one of my favourite writers growing up, wrote the poem Sara Cynthia Silvia Stout would not take the garbage out, where the pile grew and grew with drippy bits of moldy stuff until she finally decided to take it out – but it was too late. How many days would it take for our garbage to fill up our houses? Would we throw out so much if we saw it accumulate? Could we reverse the trend of our disposable society?

Along these lines, there is a new documentary called Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home where one family kept their garbage for three months (see www.garbage revolution.com). Interesting concept. Perhaps garbage collection shouldn’t be so easy. Maybe I might finally start that composter, or install a garborator if I had to pay a sizeable amount per bag or had to bring it to the landfill myself.

Aside from the sheer quantity of garbage, I’ve also been thinking about what I throw out. We tried to buy a new battery for our cordless drill, but were told it would be cheaper to buy a new drill, since the batteries are near impossible to find. What happened to the small appliance repair stores, where my mother brought our toaster to be fixed? I want my old drill repaired; I don’t want to buy a new one.

And it’s not just what I throw out, but what I recycle. I want to recycle as much as possible, and was disappointed to learn that much less is recycled here than in other communities. In Ottawa, I couldn’t remember where to put juice boxes or tetra packs – here you put them in the garbage.

I found a list on the city website that says to recycle number one and two plastic containers, but according to Green Circle’s John Martella, it is only number one and two plastic bottles and jugs. This means that all of those number one cherry tomato containers I’ve “recycled” should have been rejected and left in my bins.

The website does remind us that recycling reduces “garbage by as much as 30 or 40 per cent.”

Until now, I thought garbage and recycling were city services. I didn’t realize that the city’s recycling service was a business owned and operated by Green Circle. My berry trays and yogurt containers are not accepted because in Martella’s words “there is no market for it” and they’d lose money shipping them to southern Ontario. They are a processing plant that goes through a broker, collecting only what will sell. Interestingly enough, the majority of plastic recyclables go to China and the paper goes to India. “It is simple supply and demand, with prices fluctuating daily, with a bunch of buyers offering their prices on the open market,” said Martella. “One day you get $300 a ton, next day you lose your shirt. We are so far north that our transportation costs kill us.”

The rules we are asked to follow are in place to ensure that a quality “product” is created. Only a certain amount of contamination is allowed before the product is rejected. We’re asked to rinse bottles and cans for this reason as well. Another form of contamination is the lids on bottles made of a different plastic, hence we are asked to remove them. Pharmaceutical bottles, even though a number two, are not accepted because of the contamination from pill residue. Aluminum foil is contaminated if it is covered with melted cheese, but otherwise can be balled up and recycled in the blue bin.

I would think it would go without saying, but Martella has seen it all, so let me remind you on his behalf that leaving a half pizza, though it may taste like cardboard, in the pizza box, is not acceptable in the yellow paper and cardboard bin.

In Ottawa, I was able to recycle my number five plastics. Here, I keep all our larger yogourt tubs, which to my kids’ delight make excellent towers. They don’t cause injuries when they tumble, are light, highly stackable and portable. Slap a Fisher-Price logo on them and you’d have the next toy craze.

Martella hopes that they will accept my yogurt containers in the future, but is cautious to make sure products are actually recycled and don’t end up in landfill. Green Circle is also proactively looking at moving forward with a proven automation technology making the journey to the curb easier for homeowners, and pickup easier and safer for staff.

Other services are being proactively offered, including a new facility for packing Styrofoam and computer waste at 285 Wilson (not on the city website) and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for household construction and renovation materials can (it is listed). Still wondering what gets recycled? Contact Green Circle, and they’ll fax you a list, though I would think they’d want to save the paper and post it on their website or get the city page updated.

As individuals, we need to reduce our consumption and disposal, reuse or regift what we can, and recycle everything possible. Let’s leverage our naturally gifted, local good news stories (solar and wind power, waste diversion, biofuel) and put ourselves on the map as the Great Green North. Eh?!

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