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A clear conundrum

Halifax, you’ve been naughty. Let the collective trash shaming begin

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Angela Mombourquette is a Halifax writer and editor. In 2012, she was awarded the George Cadogan Outstanding Columnist prize from the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. @angmombo

Angela Mombourquette is a Halifax writer and editor. In 2012, she was awarded the George Cadogan Outstanding Columnist prize from the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. @angmombo

Here come the garbage police.

Halifax’s “Changes at the Curb” campaign has begun. Perhaps you’ve received the flyers or seen the ads that feature photos of garbage bags, compost bins and recyclables sitting at a tidy suburban curbside. These ads are accompanied by infantile “Can you spot the differences?” brainteasers. (Answer key: 1. Different colour garbage bags. 2. Extra bush. 3. Windows 4. Clouds.)

This is Halifax’s way of telling you that some of you have been behaving like naughty children, and now everyone is going to be punished for it. Remember in Grade 3, when that mouthy kid couldn’t keep her smart remarks to herself and everyone had to put their heads on their desks for the next 10 minutes? (Sorry about that.)

Starting August 1, people with curbside garbage collection will have to put their trash into clear garbage bags, with a single dark bag allowed “for privacy.”

An HRM spokesperson says the main reason for this change is “to increase diversion of recyclable and organic material away from the landfill.” So I suppose I need to be clear and say this up front: of course I support reducing the municipality’s total garbage output.

What ticks me off is the vaguely insulting, deeply patronizing plan designed to shame citizens into recycling properly, because apparently, we have all being doing a fairly crappy job of it.

“Halifax,” says the spokesperson (as is typical, communications staff wouldn’t identify who had actually answered my questions), “has an opportunity to improve its current 52-per-cent residential diversion rate.”

The spokesperson didn’t explain to me what a “residential diversion rate” is, but I’ve got The Google, and apparently this is the number of tons that don’t go to the landfill divided by the number of tons that do go to the landfill.

“Is the goal 100 per cent?” I wondered. Turns out, no. HRM’s Solid Waste Strategy Review from January 2014 says “if all organics and recyclables were diverted, the best HRM could achieve would be 78 per cent diversion.” So perhaps we’re not doing as poorly as the “52 per cent diversion” figure would have us believe.

The municipality also says: “While we have seen great success in our solid waste management system over the past two decades, almost 50 per cent of the material collected curbside that ends up in the landfill should have been recycled or composted. Curbside monitoring data confirms that there remain a lot of residents who are not participating and/or doing a poor job of source separation. We believe that clear bags will be a powerful tool to help us divert more of that material to the proper organics or recycling stream.”

I’m not sure how those numbers add up but if “a lot of residents” in this municipality haven’t been sorting their trash properly, a “powerful tool” would have been to better educate them about how to do it properly before throwing down a bunch of new (and more complicated) rules.

Now, HRM is making “educators” available to “speak and conduct in home visits with residents who would benefit from a waste sorting and education session.” The new rules are all spelled out at Halifax.ca. Given the number of changes, I think a lot of people are going to need these sessions.

And until we’re all educated, it’s going to be up to the garbage police to inspect every single clear bag at the curb and decide whether our trash is truly trash-worthy. And by garbage police, I mean garbage collectors. And by inspect every single clear bag, I mean inspect every single clear bag.

You’ve seen these people work, I assume? They tend to move along at a pretty good clip, given that they have to cover a lot of ground within a specific time frame. The municipality says it’s pretty sure that the added inspections, tagging and returning of bags to the curb won’t add much time to a typical 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. day.

“It’s possible collection will take longer, but ultimately it depends on the number of residents who comply with the new by-law,” says HRM’s spokesperson. I’m going to suggest that whether residents comply or not, the “inspection” part will take the same amount of time. The municipality says it already tags bags, bins and carts, and says past changes (for example, when they changed the bag limit) did not have “a notable impact on collection time from the education phase at start-up.”

I predict a notable impact this time around. As for whether time added to the collectors’ workdays will be classed as overtime that the stubbornly intractable citizens of HRM will have to pay: “This decision is up to the contractors,” says the spokesperson, “and whatever terms and conditions of employment they have with their own staff.”

So use your “privacy bags” wisely, Haligonians, and show some sympathy for those of us with sensitive gag reflexes. And for heaven’s sake, mind the garbage cops before our municipal government catches wind that some of us are struggling and banishes the whole lot of us to detention after school.

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