Giving Good Conscience a Helpful Nudge

By Ben Bull
Published October 09, 2006

The Toronto Star's Ask Why campaign has been refreshingly thought provoking. By highlighting modern day issues and worrying trends - such as increasing traffic congestion, smog days and energy consumption - the Star is helping readers keep a reasonable perspective on the daily news, and re-evaluate our personal ethical and civic responsibilities.

It is a relief to see a leading newspaper fulfill its mandate to educate its readers and generate discussion in this way. Anyone who thinks that newspapers are only supposed to report the news should think again. Today's Ask Why question is this: “Why are we so green?

A comparison of seven Ontario municipalities has shown that Torontonians are by far the most diligent recyclers in the province, faithfully recycling over 90% of their newspapers, aluminium cans, plastic beverage bottles and glass. Ask Why

Having recently moved to TO from Hamilton I can provide this perspective: Part of the reason for this statistic may be due to the smaller average house sizes in the GTA. I lost nearly 50% of my Hamilton house square footage when I moved. As a result I can't afford to have bags of rotten garbage lying around as I don't have anywhere to put them.

On top of this, our garbage pick up is every other week, as opposed to once a week in the Hammer. So what's the net result? Well we now throw out one or two garbage bags every two weeks, as opposed to three bags a week in Hamilton.

So where did all this garbage go? Into the green bin and the blue box of course! Our new reality has forced us to be a little bit more dilligent in our food waste and blue box recycling. This hasn't happened out of good conscience; we do it because we have to.

The other notable difference between Hamilton and Toronto is the attitude of the garbage collectors. In Hamilton we had regular run-ins with the collectors because our bags were too heavy, too many, or our cardboard was two inches to big, and so on. The collectors would leave the offending garbage all over the road and leave us a generic leaflet explaining the rights and wrongs of garbage collection.

Whenever I tried to speak to them personally all I got was dirty looks and attitude. And so we were left trying to decipher the zillions of little nuances on the brochure until we worked out where we'd gone wrong. In Toronto when we screw up we get the same kind of note, but the collectors will usually take the trash anyway and sometimes even leave a hand written note explaining the problem.

Being treated like an adult certainly goes a long way in encouraging complaint behaviour.

The added benefit of Toronto's culture of compliance is that it appears to be contagious. Neighbours see rows and rows of full-to-the-brim blue boxes on the curbside every week and feel inclined to join the party (that's the way it worked for us at least).

I've always been in favour of pay-by-the-bag type policies - after all, we consumers need to appreciate the true costs of our behaviour - and my own little case study seems to bear out the theory that behaviour doesn't change unless there is a consequence or reward attached to it.

No doubt there is more than this behind the Star's Ask Why statistic, but it's certainly thought provoking. Something is working in TO and other municipalities would be wise to work out what it is - and copy it.

On an unrelated note, here are some other great reads from today's Toronto Star:

Profile of Gerard Kennedy - is he the intellectual elite he thinks he is? And why are so many of his followers so passionate?

One For the Road - read the last in a series of excellent articles uncovering the anatomy of a drunk driver, and the impact one man's erratic driving had on a Toronto family.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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