The city will soon be picking up your old couch for recycling – and hopefully passing the tab to industry.
Picture it: town dump, turn of the 19th century. When municipalities finally started caving in to citizen calls to rid laneways and back alleys of festering trash, cities were mostly hauling away buckets of sewage and coal ash from stoves. Fast-forward to today and Bill Sheehan of the Product Policy Institute says a whopping 75 per cent of municipal solid waste is manufactured goods: mattresses, high chairs, TVs, stryofoam cups, you name it.
Few ever question the fact that while industry is responsible for spitting that mess off assembly lines, our discards are dutifully picked up from our curbs on the city's tab.
Sheehan calls the system "welfare for waste." He says we shouldn't be surprised that repair shops are vanishing, that products are effectively designed for the dump. In shelling out for free trash collection, Sheehan notes, local governments have become the "enablers of a throwaway society."
Zero-wasters want to see the bill and even the products themselves returned to sender. The good news is that a growing number of waste honchos seem to be listening. Just last month, Ontario Enviro Minister John Gerretsen told the makers of household hazardous and "special" waste (everything from paint to single-use batteries) that they're going to have to start coughing up the entire cost of collecting and recycling toxic trash.
Same goes for electronics makers when the province-wide recycling of TVs, computers and eventually everything with a cord starts next spring. Finally, we'll see some extended producer responsibility for the junk they manufacture, where the producer actually pays (unlike in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where consumers dish out $25 or $45 whenever they go to buy a new TV to help subsidize recycling).
But even more extraordinary is that starting November 1, the same day we begin paying for our new trash bins, the city will pioneer a one-of-a-kind recycling stream for all that bulky crap you feel guilty hauling to the curb. Old broken lawn chairs, hockey sticks, loveseats, pots and pans, and, yes, nasty old Posturepedics that have until now either rotted in your basement or in landfill will soon be picked up every other week so they can be yanked apart and reborn into new products. Electronics will be part of this new pickup schedule, too.
The few hundred thousand mattresses collected every year by the city, for instance, will have their springs melted down into new coils, their wood chipped into mulch and their foam shredded into carpet underpads.
All right, so at first they won't have markets for all the weird widgets they gather. But city solid waste manager Geoff Rathbone says, "We've taken the attitude that it's better to just jump in. We're going to be learning as we go, creating new markets as we go."
Still, as magical as the notion of a brand new recycling stream for the bulkiest landfill-cloggers around sounds to greenies, the city could once again be left with its pants down and its wallet open. This is why Rathbone is lobbying the enviro minister for an innovative producer-pays set-up for mattresses, furniture, carpets and more.
Just how effective those fees are at greening the economy depends on how they're set up. Done wrong, well, say a company's paying a flat fee no matter how toxic its TV is, there's zero incentive to green its design. Even in systems like the Blue Box program, where manufacturers pay a little more for harder-to-recycle products, industry insiders admit that fees of half a cent per plastic casing are clearly doing jack to affect design overhauls.
Done right, "individual producer responsibility" programs that put the heat on individual brands give companies an impetus, and sometimes an explicit mandate, to design products that are easily disassembled and recycled, to reduce or eliminate their toxic load and to lessen the amount of dead-end waste they bring to the world.
Throw in more bans on single-use products (like plastic bags), says the Ontario Zero Waste Coalition's Liz Benneian, and have the city make a public commitment to going zero-waste by, say, 2016 (as Oki, Japan, has) and we should be damn near close to kissing landfills goodbye.