Special Report: Waste Management

Garbage Collection Decision Is A Missed Opportunity To Engage Citizens

We're rarely if ever asked to engage in a common purpose. Many decisions that affect constituents are seen as being done to constituents, instead of being done on behalf of constituents.

By Adrian Duyzer
Published April 20, 2011

I read about the city's public works committee's decision not to consider biweekly garbage pickup with dismay. Aside from Brian McHattie and Russ Powers, councillors rejected the proposal because they believe their constituents would see it as a service cut.

I agree with McHattie when he said that he didn't think this issue was the "sacred cow suggested by others". I could see this being a non-issue for many Hamiltonians. Diverting 65% of waste to green bins and blue boxes is a much more difficult task than stashing a bag of garbage for an extra week, and we're already well on our way to that diversion goal.

On the other hand, I could be wrong. Perhaps a majority of Hamiltonians would be outraged by the plan. Unfortunately, we'll never know, since no one asked us.

Imagine how different things could be if the city took a different approach by doing the following two things:

  1. Engaging Hamiltonians in a shared mission to improve the city by, among other things, cutting cost, reducing waste, and holding the line on property taxes.
  2. Consulting with Hamiltonians using a well-designed, feature-rich website.

Engaging Hamiltonians

In a recent Spectator profile of Mark Stewart, Director of Commercial Services at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Stewart paraphrased John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your city can do for you; ask what you can do for your city."

Our municipal politicians would probably get laughed out of the room if they started aspiring to JFK's elocution, but I find it interesting that we're rarely if ever asked to engage in a common purpose. Many decisions that affect constituents are seen as being done to constituents, instead of being done on behalf of constituents.

Yes, cutting garbage collection to every other week is a decrease in service, so some councillors are clearly thinking, "I don't want to do this to my constituents." Sam Merulla said, "I don't want the message out there that we are even considering bi-weekly pickup."

The other way of looking at it, however, is to think, "I want to save my constituents money and improve their environment, so I'm going to cut garbage collection on their behalf."

Consulting With Hamiltonians

There is absolutely nothing wrong with considering multiple ways of solving a problem. Merulla objected to simply considering options, which strikes me as close-minded and frankly patriarchal.

Rather than assuming that Hamiltonians are too immature to negotiate the merits of a particular solution to a problem, even when that problem is thorny, city councillors ought to rely on their constituents as a rich source of ideas, inspiration and yes, even sensible policy.

The city does consult with residents. A prime example is the Citizen's Forum on Area Rating. However, processes driven by citizen committees can be rather costly and lengthy (though, in the case of an issue like area rating, a thoughtful, lengthy process is warranted).

Imagine a website where the city lays out a major goal, or a set of major goals, and then asks Hamiltonians for their thoughts (and votes) on particular issues that affect those goals.

For example, a major goal is to freeze property taxes. The city could put forward a number of different issues that would contribute towards this goal. Residents could then debate and vote on decisions about those issues that would support that major goal.

If the site were properly designed, advertised and moderated, councillors could gain valuable insights into how their residents really feel about particular issues.

Who knows: Hamiltonians might use the opportunity to propose sensible solutions, or even to slay the occasional sacred cow.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 10:04:17

The city actually is consulting with the public as part of its ten year review of the solid waste management master plan. Unfortunately, in typical Hamilton fashion the level of engagement never really rose above tokenism: give the citizens a chance to fill out a form with some suggestions and then attach them as an appendix to a staff report.

The sad thing is that there's a strong argument for bi-weekly garbage collection coupled with weekly recycling/green waste collection: it saves taxpayers money while creating a strong incentive to divert more compostable waste out of the garbage.

As it is, only 55 percent of compostable waste currently makes it into green bins. The rest goes into the garbage and ends up in landfill.

A number of municipalities, including Halton and Gatineau, have already moved to bi-weekly garbage collection. Others, like Ottawa, are considering it.

Refusing even to investigate the merits of this option is a major failure of leadership.

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By Mark (registered) | Posted April 23, 2011 at 10:55:51 in reply to Comment 62498

I understand the need to continue the effort in reducing and recycling is an important one. There are a few problems that I have yet to see addressed. One of them is the dumping of excess or overflow garbage bags onto rural roadsides and over the escarpment. One only has to walk the rail trail near Fennell Ave. and Albion Falls to see the whole sections of the forest covered in dumped refuse. Sometimes good intentions and reality collide and there is nobody willing to clean the resulting mess. ...Mark

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 10:44:18

Great article, great comment by Ryan.

Such a shame we have these perceptions that prevent progress on the parts of our Councillors.

As it is, only 55 percent of compostable waste currently makes it into green bins. The rest goes into the garbage and ends up in landfill.

At the risk of veering the conversation...though I see it all as germane to the discussion...this 'compostable waste' element speaks volumes.

As a result of engaging in a full gamut's worth of seemingly disparate topics, I've become a pretty ardent believer in people taking responsibility for their own crap: I believe that every home...I'm not talking about multi-unit dwellings, though that would be the next phase...should be composting.

People point to the obvious in terms of waste, in terms of 'negative behaviour' environment-wise, but to me, the idea of not being responsible for your own 'natural' waste is egregious...especially in light of what would be required to actually take responsibility.

We had 'victory gardens' during two World Wars. There was a need to step up, and people did. There's just as much a need today, albeit in another arena.

(I'm visiting family in the US right now. And my mom was incredulous at the 'one bag' rule in Hamilton. I was just as incredulous at the fact that she was incredulous. Here, they don't do compostable waste (that is, food products). You're allowed one of those super-bins for your regular garbage pickup every week, one of these for recyclables every two weeks (no tiny blue boxes for them!) and you can put out up to about 20 bags of 'garden waste' each week. Oi-friggin'-vey. But then, there is a local recreational area previously a landfill known as Mount Trashmore...)

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By garbage man (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:17:27

Considering the fiasco that was sparked by one bag limit, I can understand why some of the councillors don't want to go any further. If there's anything the average Hamiltonian holds dear its the ability to throw as much stuff in the garbage as possible. Sadly recycling and composting are always seen as alternatives rather than the norm.

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By Abram (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:27:33

Our household certainly does not generate enough for weekly collection -- garbage less than once a month; recycling once or twice a month; green bin once every two or three months (we compost much of our own for the garden). I would imagine there are many other households that would do just fine on bi-weekly collection. We are a two-person household and by no means live austerely. What we do, however, is cook and bake almost everything from scratch and buy most of our non-perishables in bulk. We do not purchase packaged, ready-made, out-of-the-box/bag/can meals. It is mostly perishables -- fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs (not available/in season from our own herb patch and garden), etc. -- that we do not purchase in bulk. That leaves us with very little waste, including recyclables, and mainly when bulk containers are empty. I understand for people living in condos or apartment buildings without access to outdoor gardening and composting facilities, this lifestyle might be a little harder, though we've spent many years living in apartments and still managed to produce very little waste.

As suggested in the article, utilising well-designed websites, or even social media such as facebook and twitter, while not capable of engaging everyone, could certainly engage a great many Hamiltonians. Soliciting short stories, such as the one I opened with and including surveys with check-boxes and radio buttons, would give council a wealth of information at low cost. It would also allow them to target waste and recycling education much more effectively. And it would quickly show them which populations are not engaged through online media and follow up with them in other ways. There are many great and easy ways to engage the public. The City just needs to move away from a paternalistic management style towards more representative democratic processes that harness the many tools now available for public engagement.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:27:41

As much as I'd love to see bi-weekly pickups (my house puts out less than a bag most weeks), I really can't see this go over well if instituted by council. Most of my neighbours are still struggling with the bag limits, and this would be, in the purest sense, a service cut.

We need more creative solutions to this, and ones which are well-rooted in communities, not 'handed down' from authorities. I totally support more community consultation for this reason, and I would probably come to speak in favour of bi-weekly pickups. But if there's a clear majority against it, I'm not going to insist that it happen anyway. Democracy is important, and we don't need to give people any more reasons to see "environmentalists" as another group of people trying to force things on them.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:43:26 in reply to Comment 62507

I agree with what you're saying.

Maybe this is the sort of issue that needs to be spearheaded from outside of Council. Maybe it requires a decidedly non-political thrust, the initiative generated because it's the right thing to do, to avoid being seen as something 'taken away' by politicians, or mandated by them for the wrong reasons.

This seems to me to be an opportunity to create a groundswell, effect a shift in mindset. And it can't come from 'them', so it has to come from 'us', right...?

Non-political, non-invasive, inclusive, inspiring leadership. Hmm...

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:49:07 in reply to Comment 62509

Maybe we need a Citizens' Forum on Garbage Disposal.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 19:08:01 in reply to Comment 62510

Or an Our City, Our Garbage campaign!

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By BeulahAve (registered) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 11:40:21

Great article Adrian. Garbage pick-up would be a great issue for engaging citizenry: it is a pretty straightforward issue, everyone produces and disposes of it, and most people have an opinion. I agree that it was a missed opportunity.

It's also an interesting contrast the use of social media, especially Twitter, by the City's Economic Development office (as presented in The Spec the other day). Seems that it's all a question of motivation. Do councilors really want more input into their decision-making?

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 12:26:37

I'm already on bi-weekly pickup because I only put my bins out every other week. I wonder how many others are in a similar position.

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By garbage man (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 13:21:44 in reply to Comment 62511

I'm bi-weekly for recycling and green is even less. Garbage is probably once every two months, and most of that is kitty litter. If I didn't have that, who knows.

Going on a reduced schedule voluntarily is a good start, it means one less stop-start for the trucks that week. Perhaps if an entire neighbourhood adopted the same cycle it might spark some interest.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 13:27:29 in reply to Comment 62513

How can you go that infrequently? Cat litter is 90+% of what we put out weekly (3 cats).

With a litter alternative we could do bi-monthly, but with it in normal garbage stream we have to do weekly.

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By cmc (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 14:17:47

I'm with Undustrial on this. I live near the pedestrian overpass over the railway tracks at Emerald and just spent a good bit of my own time gathering up the accumulated waste and junk on the north side of the tracks. Not all of this dumping occurs because of the rules limiting garbage pickup but some of it surely does.

People have trouble getting rid of all kinds of stuff, especially if they lack a vehicle. If you want to social engineer your way to a post-waste society it's going to take a while and we still lack effective packaging laws in this province. Simple observation and experience tells me that the city's pickup rules are too restrictive now in some important respects.

The missing element in this discussion is the state of the city's finances. I don't question Councillor McHattie's motives in this matter but I tend to see this proposal as another measure devoted to cost cutting through service reduction under the cloak of environmentalism.

Something that doesn't receive enough discussion or acknowledgment on this site is the city's fiscal crisis. I support a city administration that provides the services the city's residents require through the city's public service. Unless Council finds ways to address the structural problems that force the tax levies upward, those services and the civil servants who provide them stand to be progressively cut or eliminated. I see the zero tax increase objective embraced by councillors this year as more of a political posture than an attempt to grapple with the underlying problems. Maybe that will begin next year.

People in my area seem to accept the current rules and mostly comply with them. If the city continues to turn the screws on garbage pickup I can imagine more non-compliance and a city that is that much less habitable. Let's allow that we all have responsibility for our own garbage generation but let's not turn this into a matter of morality to the extent that we forget that it is also a matter of practical necessity.

My own greatest ongoing crime against the environment--newspaper subscriptions which I maintain to support those institutions even though I can't really afford them. That's indisputably a lot of paper waste. Newspapers are delivered in plastic bags to boot.


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By rednic (registered) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 15:29:42 in reply to Comment 62516

i'll take those bags !... i have a dog ....

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2011 at 14:30:03 in reply to Comment 62516

This. If the city is going to push for further reducing garbage pickup, they need to provide a more convenient way for those occaisional times when you do go over, like pre-paid stamps or special licensed bags where you have to pay for the additional pickup bags. Driving out to the dump every time you do some serious housekeeping is not a good solution.

I keep under the bag limit, and would even be fine with the every-other-week limit, but whenever spring cleaning comes around I start pushing the limit hard. I wouldn't mind paying for the priviledge, but I would mind taking stuff to the dump, and I would also mind seeing more garbage in our ravines as cheaper folks look for creative solutions.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 11:41:36 in reply to Comment 62517

I'm completely with Pxtl here. My wife and I routinely skip one, two or sometimes three weeks before putting out a garbage bag. But every now and then we have two - and it's (mildly) galling not be be able to put out an extra bag on those occasions (after a weeks of pious sorting, composting and recycling :).

Comment edited by moylek on 2011-04-21 11:42:49

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By oates9 (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2011 at 20:07:45

With the exception of diapers, if people are using green bins properly, stinky garbage should not be a problem

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 00:50:00

There's a lot of promise in community-driven waste diversion. Far too much of what we throw out is "still good" but simply uneconomic to find a good home for. This goes for food, clothing, appliances and far too many other goods.

It would be interesting to see how much in terms of tons and value of goods "rescued" by services like freecycle and craigslist, as well as more informal means of scavenging.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 08:51:48 in reply to Comment 62539

promise in community-driven waste diversion

more informal means of scavenging

I am still waiting for our carbon tax credits operating miniature recycling plants out of our homes but garbage handling and waste management is the least of my concerns.

I hope none of you expect any cooperation or compassion from our leaders when all hell breaks loose into calamity. The best we can hope for right now, is that some of us will begin to form a more closely knit grassroots community.

I am a cynic about saving the planet and I think there's no doubt about that. So I visit Buckeye's each Thursday to indulge in some Sinnicks engage Guinness get stout and talk trash.

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By BlueBoxMan (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2011 at 13:27:58

Wow. Some great thoughts, comments, suggestions and lots of success stories in this thread. I want to note a couple of things: (1) there's a public session being held next week about the City's garbage master plan - check out the details here: http://tinyurl.com/3nsftog (2) I'm trying to stay connected via social media networks, but I have to admit I'm still a bit green (pun intended?!). Commenting on this blog is one example of how I'm trying to stay in tune with what's on your mind. I've also set up some of my own accounts: mygoldbox.ca "Join the conversation" blog, Blue box man on Facebook and @hamiltonbbman on Twitter. -Blue box man

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 22, 2011 at 00:16:55

I like the idea of saving the city a couple of million dollars. On the other hand the idea of 2 week old stinky diapers in a July heatwave is very revolting.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted April 22, 2011 at 22:28:36 in reply to Comment 62577

Cloth diapers, no garbage revolting or otherwise.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 23, 2011 at 03:16:41 in reply to Comment 62605

How many people use cloth diapers these days? When our kids were little we used cloth and we were definitely the exception. None of our friends or acquaintances used them.

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By HugATree (anonymous) | Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:22:29

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2011/04/trash-sorting-robot-could-reduce-waste-going-to-landfill-by-50.php?campaign=daily_nl

Not a member so have to cut and paste link, but enjoy! Well worth citizens of Hamilton.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 22, 2011 at 20:29:28

It might not be too late to reverse this decision. Contact your councillors.

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By biohazard (anonymous) | Posted April 25, 2011 at 19:45:24

It's more than just stink. If you go two 2 weeks you have enough time for the complete fly life cycle, i.e. the maggot becomes a fly and carries that human or pet feces "wherever". In through your kitchen window, I'm just say'n...

Having worked on a garbage truck I can tell you there are a lot of folks who don't empty diapers in the toilet or bag them, just dump the whole load straight in the can. Pop the lid, it's just a solid layer of thousands of maggots.

How much would you want to be paid to do that job?

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted April 26, 2011 at 03:06:28

I agree with the comments about diapers, pet waste etc.. You cannot leave those things around for 2 weeks in the Summer. It's a health hazard, & it's disgusting. It's going to cause problems between neighbours, when the diaperless & petless are assailed by the smell from their neighbour's trash.

FYI. They do not make cloth diapers to fit adults, & with an aging population, there are lot of seniors using them. (& handicapped people)

I'm really tired of this business of always putting the pressure on the individual citizen/household to provide solutions to industrial problems like garbage. Everyone in my neighbourhood is doing the best that they can.

Hamilton Does Not provide re-cycling for downtown business's. If we have a garbage problem, maybe assist the companies (who create the most garbage!), & give them recycling! Many companies want to do it, but it's not available to them.

We need to stop allowing those huge bulk storage containers of garbage, mixed with organics, mixed with toxins. Even when private contractors rent out the bins & remove their contents, those contents still end up at the local dump, as Garbage.

In some places, a fast food outlet or restaurant share these containers with a gas station, & a computer store. How can you compost organics that have been polluted with toxic materials? Separating them would be impossible.

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By Cityjoe (anonymous) | Posted April 26, 2011 at 03:27:59

In Toronto & other places, you can put pet waste into the Green Bin.

Until the past few years, Hamilton did not have a policy on pet waste. It wasn't compostable, & it wasn't even garbage. They wanted owners to pick it up, & rightly so, but had no idea what was to be done with it after the fact. It was not allowed to be put into the garbage. Poop in Limbo.

How many pets in the GHA, & until recently there was no policy or no actual thought to what to do with pet waste! It didn't exist, as far as city hall was concerned.

Thank goodness we have progressed from there, but it's that kind of thinking that has gotten Hamilton into the mess that it's in. ("Ignore it & it will go away.")

My green bin goes out full every week, because I don't want to have or create a rat problem. I compost garden material, but not kitchen waste. This area has had frequent rat infestations before, & that IS a health hazard. Keeping multiple green bins around for weeks will attract rats. mice, raccoons, & possums. The green bins are not very secure, so they must be stored in a garage ('don't have one!), in a separate garbage locked box, or in the basement. Oh Goody! The rec room becomes the wreck room.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted April 26, 2011 at 09:58:44

Adrian,

Good piece. Like many who have posted, I haven't had any problems with the one bag limit, although I don't have 4 kids to factor in. I would support an every-other-week cycle. FYI, garbage is picked up every single day in Paris, France. I suppose the greater the intensification, the greater the need to move the garbage out of the city ASAP.

As for the comments by His Samness, I for one am getting tired of decisions being made by Councillors like Merulla based not on leadership, common good, or what's right, but based simply on wanting to stay popular with constituents. Time to rewrite the Councillor job description?

Today he's quoted as saying he's "not open to any decrease in service." Sam at his pandering best. Rather than seeing it as a decrease in service, how about we see it as an increase in the contribution made by all citizens to a better environment while they save money doing it (estimated to be as high as $2 million per year)? From where I sit, that seems like a win/win solution.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 26, 2011 at 10:19:38 in reply to Comment 62697

Rather than seeing it as a decrease in service

It actually isn't a decrease in service. Residents would still have weekly pickup of recycling and green waste - the stuff that makes up most of what we normally throw up and all of what starts to smell if left lying around.

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By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted April 27, 2011 at 21:36:02

I believe there is some misunderstanding on the 1 "bag" limit. Its actually one container. Since the limit has been put in I have stopped buying green garbage bags. Instead I bought a large rubbermaid garbage can on wheels with a firmly closing lid. My kitchen catchers, small plastic bags with non recyclables go directly into the big can. It often takes two weeks to fill it. The sanitation guys have never not emptied it.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 28, 2011 at 09:42:46 in reply to Comment 62805

You can easily fit 2 full black garbage bags into a big rubbermaid garbage can.

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