Garbage collection: Transforming our incentives

Update May 7, 2015: I now have a bit more information about the situation for multi-residential buildings. Please see the end of the post for details.

This week, Region of Waterloo Council is considering changes to the curbside collection program for waste. The April report has two options. Both would put limits on the number of bags of garbage that could be collected per week, with unlimited green bin and blue box collection. But Option 1, the option staff prefer, would collect recycling and organics every week, and garbage bound for the landfill only every two weeks. Option 2 would continue weekly pickup of garbage.

Our community needs to step up and support Option 1. More than half of the garbage that is currently going to the landfill shouldn’t be going there at all: it should be going to the green bin organics program. Another 14% could be going to the blue box recycling program, which was started right here in Waterloo. Option 1 is expected to divert almost twice as much from the landfill as Option 2.

The Region has done extensive survey work on this, and the very readable results are here. The survey showed that the bag limits proposed for each option would accommodate the current practices of the vast majority of households. But bi-weekly garbage pickup, combined with weekly organics and recycling pickup, would do much more to encourage people to separate their recycling and organics, keeping much more of them out of the landfill. (If you’re just hearing about these proposed changes, there’s lots of great information on the Region’s website, including about plans to manage occasional weeks with more garbage.)

With the expenses associated with finding and building a new landfill site, along with the collection contract savings, this isn’t just about our environment. It’s the fiscally responsible choice. But change is hard, and there will likely be some loud voices that are hesitant about this one. Regional Council is holding a special input meeting this Wednesday to hear from the public on this issue. If you receive curbside collection and care about reducing our impact on the environment or having a sustainable and affordable waste management system, please consider registering. If you can’t make it, please submit comments by email before Wednesday.

That’s the current challenge, but this review has gotten me thinking about the bigger picture. We need to have a serious conversation about whether the current eligibility for waste collection meets the Region’s other goals.

The Region’s land use planning framework aims to support the creation of more dense housing in core areas, so that we can accommodate the growth we’re facing while protecting farmland and environmentally sensitive areas, and create more liveable neighbourhoods that are more affordable for our municipal governments to service. Many, like me, are choosing to live in such housing.

Apartments like mine, a 20-storey condo building, should be a breeze for garbage collection. The waste of more than 100 homes can be picked up from my building at a single location, much more efficiently than the curbside collection program could service the same number of households.

But despite this efficiency, the current waste system punishes those of us who live in apartments. My condo building has to budget more than $12,000 per year for garbage collection. So we all pay twice: we pay for the curbside collection program we don’t receive through our property taxes, and then we have to pay for our private collection on top of it.

We know that those of us who choose more dense housing arrangements already subsidize services provided to single-detached homes that are less efficient to service: everything from water to roads to police services. But for garbage, we pay for less efficient services we don’t even receive.

So once some of the curbside collection issues are settled, I hope we can take a serious look at how the garbage collection system fits with the Region’s other goals. As we build more multi-residential housing, the perverse incentives that some programs like waste collection create, and the equity issues within them, need serious examination.

Afterword: Thanks to the proactive generosity of Councillor Galloway and a number of thoughtful staff at Waste Management, I had a chance to learn a bit more about the situation for mutli-residential buildings after the meeting last night. It turns out that the Region does provide a small rebate to multi-residential buildings that must pay for their own waste collection. Off the top of some very smart heads, the folks I talked to thought it was about $32 per unit. In comparison, they estimated, the Region spends about $125 per household to provide curbside collection. I’m hoping to find out more about these arrangements, because I really do think we need to eliminate this disincentive to denser living, but in the meantime, I’m glad to see that the disparity is slightly less than it otherwise would be.