Bag And Tag System Not The Answer

By Councillor Wilson Lo,

Hello and welcome to May!

I have never been good at trash talk, but this week, lets talk trash.

You may have heard the City of Ottawa is considering implementing a bag-and-tag system which would limit each household to two bags of garbage every two weeks and provide them with an annual allotment of bag tags.

Beyond that, at the time of writing, no details were available. However, on Thursday, May 4th the City staff held a technical briefing to share more about the proposed program with Councillors, the public, and the media.

I grew up in a town (well, now a city of almost 350,000) with a similar system—the limit was one bag of garbage every two weeks and twenty or so tags a year.

Markham boasts one of the highest waste diversion rates in the country, but it is not a result of the bag-and-tag system.

At the introduction of the system in the late-2000s, residents began visiting the town’s parks more regularly. They were not enjoying the scenery or amenities, though, they were illegally dumping their garbage in park refuse bins. Construction site dumpsters also saw an increase in illegal dumping from nearby communities.

So that certainly did not contribute to the town’s high waste diversion rates.

It was the strength of its recycling and composting programs. Markham collects all recyclables weekly and does not require residents to sort them (their waste collection contractor, coincidentally also Miller Waste, does that at a depot).

The town also has a hazardous household waste depot that is easy to access and regularly open to the public as well as a popular textile recycling program.

Along with policies familiar to us, like allowing plastic bags to line green bins and providing waste diversion services to multi-unit buildings, they have progressively nudged residents to divert more of their waste.

The success of the diversion program makes the bag-and-tag system pointless. FYI: Markham cancelled their bag-and-tag system in the mid-2010s.

The same can happen in Ottawa. Rather than imposing a hard limit and punishing residents who might need to go above that limit occasionally, we should progressively nudge our city in the right direction.

Ottawa is among the few cities in Ontario still requiring residents to separate their recyclables, due to the belief that mixing recyclables diminishes the value of recycled materials (which has merit, but not enough to hold back our waste diversion goals).

We can also expand the recyclable materials we collect for recycling by working with our contract partners, outside organisations, or even taking the initiative to set up our own systems.

Household hazardous waste disposal should be easier to encourage us to dispose of it properly.

We have a good system right now, but it can be better. There are better systems we can emulate, not just in my hometown, but in all of Ontario.

While increasing Ottawa’s waste diversion rates has great benefits for the environment, chief among the City’s concerns is the capacity of the Trail Road Landfill. The facility currently has room for another decade or so of garbage before it reaches capacity.

New landfills require years of approvals before one can open. Cost and process notwithstanding, nobody wants one near their communities, either. There are two privately owned landfills in the city, they manage mostly industrial, commercial, and institutional waste.

It is fine to pay lip service to tell you to reduce, re-use, recycle, and compost, but it is nothing without actively improving our program to make you want to throw less into your garbage.

I do not sit on the Environment Committee, so I will not vote on the bag-and-tag system during consideration in early-June, but I will be speaking and voting against it when it rises to Council mid-June.

Nudge. Don’t impose.