Big garbage households need to pay more

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by admin on March 24, 2010

By Andrew Henry

For five years I have been conducting an experiment on my co-workers.

Unbeknownst to them, I set out to modify their behaviour to see if they could make a simple adjustment that would reduce the amount of garbage they generated. Every day my co-workers get a coffee in a disposable cup from a neighbouring coffee shop in our mall. Most shops offer an incentive to those who bring their own mugs.

Everyone agrees that we should reduce the amount of garbage we generate, and doubtless my co-workers think the same. So I wondered why they would continue adding disposable coffee cups to the waste stream. I hypothesized that my co-workers were simply following the prevailing social norm of purchasing coffee in disposable cups, and that if a peer brought their own mug for coffee, then my co-workers would feel emboldened to do so as well. But, after five years, my co-workers haven’t changed their ways.

What does this have to do with MRC residents? My experiment suggests that reducing the amount of garbage our municipalities dispose of is going to take more than setting good examples and providing incentives. Disposing of garbage is expensive for municipalities in the MRC, as it is trucked to Lachute. Disposal will continue to be problematic, as there is little space left in landfills, no let-up in the garbage we generate and, understandably, few communities willing to offer a disposal site.

Some households divert recyclables to the blue box, compost their table scraps and choose products packaged in reusable containers, and end up filling only one or two grocery bags of garbage a week. No incentive is provided to these households for the savings that accrue to municipalities from these efforts. Those residents who can’t be bothered to make an effort are responsible for a greater proportion of municipalities’ disposal costs. In effect, citizens who make the effort to reduce, compost and recycle subsidize the disposal costs of residents who aren’t as conscientious.

Municipalities in the MRC need to do something profound to reduce the amount of garbage they have to dispose of. Rebates on composters and recycling programs won’t be sufficient, as they will only bring in residents who want to participate.

This brings me back to my co-workers and their coffee. The incentives that the coffee shops offer to those who bring a mug only capture customers willing to make the effort. If the coffee shops charged the real cost of the disposable cup (around 8 cents), the proportion of people bringing their own mug would be greater.

If municipalities are serious about lowering disposal costs they will have to charge residents for the volume of garbage they put out, as done in Toronto and Vancouver, where households pay based on the size of the garbage container they choose from the city. Households that generate little garbage choose the smallest and most economical container. Households that generate lots of garbage will need to choose the largest and most expensive container. This way, households who make the effort to reduce the garbage they generate are not subsidising those who aren’t.

Andrew Henry lives in Chelsea, Quebec.