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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Talking trash

It happens every election cycle: the matter of the garbage collection schedule is raised.

This year is no exception. Why don't we in London have same day garbage collection, meaning, why isn't our garbage collected on the same day every week?

There's a simple answer for that: because over the course of a year it costs more money to collect once every seven days than than once every eight days. And because there is such a thing as statutory holidays most—but not all—of which occur on Mondays. How do you deal with those fairly? And what about the overtime costs if you collect on the holiday or the following Saturday?

No matter how you look at it, adjustments have to be made. As a householder, you have to keep your wits about you to ensure that you don't miss out on your day, whether fixed or floating.

In London, the switch to a flexible pick up day started in 1979 when the city was looking for some savings by not doing Saturday pick ups to compensate for a holiday. Those pickups cost an extra time and a half over time; by eliminating them the city saved about $200,000 per year. It could have been more but, to sweeten the deal, the city introduced a green pick up program which proved to be very popular with those living in the suburbs who had to contend with falling leaves.

The current flexible six working day cycle was introduced in 1997 to save even more money. It meant adding an extra day after every pickup instead of only after a holiday. All you had to do was keep track of where you were in the cycle. The garbage calendar could help you do that.

More recently, the city has provided an automatic reminder of the impending collection via email. That was a handy service which, unfortunately, was interrupted by the introduction of the new city website. Fortunately, it's not too hard to to sign up again for the reminder.

Most of us, however, don't worry about reminders or calendars; we just look out onto the street and rely on our neighbours. Seniors seem to be particularly good about remembering the schedule despite the onset of memory deficits. Perhaps it helps that most are not distracted by work schedules or getting the kids off to practice. But if you really have difficulty remembering, you can always enlist the aid of a teenager who deals with six day rotations throughout the school year as a matter of course.

Still, there are those who are convinced that our current waste collection schedule is indicative of something terribly wrong. What other municipality does it this way? None!

“It's weird,” tweeted one citizen who aspires to becoming mayor.


Quirky, maybe. Unique, definitely. But weird?

That weirdness has saved London taxpayers $700,000- $1,200,000 per year since it's introduction, about $17 to $20 million over the past 17 years. Just think of what could be done with $20 million! Do you really want to spend that on garbage?

Few do. But there are other alternatives, some diehards will insist. Privatization, that's the key. Just outsource garbage collection. The private sector can do it more cheaply. Just look at all those communities that contract out the service.

The report that staff presented to the Civic Works Committee was interesting on that score. It contained the data collected by the Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative and, in deference to those on council who want a more “conservative” analysis, the C D Howe Institute report on municipal services. While it is hard to do direct comparisons since municipalities vary considerably in terms of what is included in the service, both sources suggested that London is very competitive in its waste collection costs per tonne and per household with other municipalities whether city run or contracted out.

And no wonder. Private operators need to make a profit over and above the cost of wages and benefits of its employees; the only way to offer the service more cheaply is to cut wages. But wage-cutting reduces the loyalty of the employees who will quickly leave for a better gig thereby reducing the quality of the service. Since the employees live in the community, reducing their wages has a negative effect on the local economy and their ability to contribute to the tax base through home ownership or property rental. And, of course, the city has invested significant dollars in vehicles and equipment. If things don't work out, it will be hard to raise the capital to get back into the game.

But staff was not making any assumptions about what council might eventually want to do. Instead, it recommended some short term strategies to improve waste diversion via recycling: a couple of blue boxes to every new home, multi-residential rollout carts at cost, and adding used vegetable and motor oil to the list of items to be accepted a the Enviro Depots.

It was a modest list. Nobody could take exception to it. As for other ideas that might be out there, a public engagement strategy from January to April was recommended while staff continue to investigate other options that could help the city achieve its ultimate vision of zero. Not zero tax increase, but zero waste. After all, what isn't diverted goes into W12A, London's landfill site. Having it has been fantastic for keeping down our garbage costs, but it won't last forever.

So we need to keep looking for ways to encourage people to get on the bandwagon when it comes to recycling. Most of us are doing a good job, but about 15% of what we put into the garbage should have gone to the blue box. How do we get people to shape up?

Some weeks ago, Councillor Stephen Orser suggested a “gold” box program: give good recyclers a gold-coloured box to show the world what good little recyclers they are. They do it in Hamilton and it works great!

What he failed to mention—perhaps he didn't know—was that Hamilton has a one container limit for garbage pick up. That certainly encourages people to seek alternatives for dealing with waste. But London still has a four container rule! Count them. Four!

I am curious about how the “gold” box works. Who decides who gets one? Do you have to apply? Is there a committee that evaluates the applicants? Is your garbage analyzed to ensure that there are no recyclables included? Is it a lifetime designation or do you have to keep proving yourself week after week?

As councillor Paul VanMeerbergen noted in an aside, it's a lot like getting a gold star.

And that gives me an idea. Perhaps, instead of a gold box, the city could just issue a large gold star. Or a happy face. It could be sent out with the garbage calendar. Or perhaps Councillor Orser could deliver them around the city after checking out people's recycling habits. It would justify his gasoline expenses and they could be paid for by the trinkets and trash account which is about to be doubled.

But that's an issue for another day. Coming soon. 

Right now, I have to put out the garbage. It's my day.


Anonymous said...

Small things for small minds. Another way for the fool from four to get attention

Roderic Brawsn said...

Hi Gina,
You must know by now that I proposed you over Brown or Fontana, for mayor on Phil McLeod's site. I know this isn't your time, and I said so, but your column of today reveals that you have the goods to do the job.

Anonymous said...

Why can't people read the calendar - it has pictures of garbage cans, blue boxes and best of all......Look at the number of days residential users have Yard Waste and you are given adequate notice plus a suitable picture.
Tell us please what it is about the calendar that you can't get your garbage to the curb. Just think of all the places in your kitchen that you see frequently. Maybe we need a contest for you, your street, your subdivision etc.or whatever you need - assuming you are remotely interested in saving money

Anne Marie said...

What really needs to be talked about in conjunction with this ridiculous angst about having to manage a different garbage day every week is the degree to which we are falling behind in other waste diversion, namely, the green bin program. As residents who were part of the pilot projectd we were so disappointed to learn that it was being cancelled because of the cost. We were grateful to city staff who offered us the option of continuing to collect our kitchen waste and take what couldn't be composted to the Clarke Rd. Depot, which we did faithfully every week until it, too, was cancelled. Again - cost! This is not responsible stewardship. I see clearly that in 10 years or 15 or 20, our children are going to be facing a landfill crisis, one that we are in a position to start addressing now. The green bin program is a great way to divert garbage from landfill. A city the size of London should be doing it regardless of cost, instead of bragging about our low garbage costs, compared to other municipalities. Duh! Yes, we spend less and that's because we're not separating kitchen waste that can and should be diverted from landfill. And now to think we're adding to this ludicracy by even discussing the possibility of going back to weekly garbage pick-up at a cost of $700,000. Unbelievably short sighted!

Anonymous said...

As far as I am concerned the current garbage pick up system works well. Why fix something that is not broke. Are there more important issues for city council to discuss than garbage pickup changes or is this just a distraction away from the mayor's court appearances Seems to me the public participation discussions will be for 4 months just about the same time his lawyer hopes to go to court. Me thinks this is a distraction, because if this is all city hall has to discuss it is sad.

Rockinon said...

"What other municipality does it this way? None!" London is a leader!

T said...

Thanks for putting out the garbage, Gina.

Lily Tomlin said...

i notice that the Rob Ford wanna be from Arva has some brilliant suggestions for privatizing garbage collection to go with his five hundred and fourteen other bright ideas. When do you suppose it will dawn on him that he has no credibility left and no one really wants to hear any more of his brilliant schemes?

UU4077 said...

So some councilors say that they get the most complaints about the garbage collection cycle and apparently they're listening. Since when do they listen to their ratepayers? They certainly didn't listen to residents of Byron about the reservoir hill apartment.