08/19/2013 05:12 EDT | Updated 10/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Toronto's Garbage Policies Are Rubbish

colorful recycle bins isolated

There is a certain mindset out there that thinks whatever we do for the environment -- as long as we call ourselves green or environmentally responsible -- then it is unadulterated good. So it was with Toronto's revised garbage policy under former Mayor David Miller. From now on, garbage would be the god that would rule Toronto, for Toronto "the good" had followed the pack of look-good and created an urban landscape of bins bins bins, giant bins on sidewalks, in front gardens, and in parks, all because we the good folk of the good city are being environmentally responsible with our garbage.

Well, we're not.

But that's another story.

This is about how making garbage into the god of environmental responsibility has harmed the most vulnerable in our society. People laud diversity and Toronto the haven for the disenfranchised, others yak on about taxes -- all enact policies that don't take into account how the vulnerable will be able to cope. While Mayor Rob Ford is fixated on who picks up the garbage, the real problem is the policy itself.

When Miller revamped the garbage policy, there was much blowback. As a result, the city ramped up a little-known service for the disabled: side door pickup. Basically, if you can't manage your own garbage and get a doctor's note saying so, you're eligible for side door pickup, which means the workers pick up your garbage at the side door or front door, depending on your house configuration. If the bins are beyond your physical ability, then you are allowed to put out bags.

There is no help for managing the cognitive challenges of sorting the garbage. When even healthy, intelligent human beings can't figure out what goes into recycling or organics, it's a problem. The garbage calendar is so poorly designed that one gets a headache and needs a nap after trying to discern the images and instructions. The colours of the garbage and recycling bins are so similar that I cannot tell the icons apart (thankfully there is a recycling icon over the blue bin), and except under bright sunlight, I cannot tell the actual bins apart without a good stare. I am not colour blind.

There is also no help for managing the physical challenges of sorting the garbage. Stumbling and falling in the kitchen while attempting to sort dinner makings into their requisite bins or bags can be a problem. Nor does it help that with the halving and quartering of the scheduled pickup of all the various parts of garbage that the individual loads have become heavier to carry out. Instead of a quarter bag of garbage, you have to carry out a full bag. Instead of half of a bag of recycling, now it's two bags.

It is far, far, FAR harder to deal with garbage today than when I was growing up. And I'm not finished.

Although side door pickup sounds good -- and is in reality hugely easier, so much so, one weeps in relief to get it -- it is a misnomer in one sense: The garbage isn't always picked up. In fact, side door customers get to know their regulars' vacation schedule and shift changes by the regularly missed pickups. At best, it's every three months. At worst, monthly or maybe weekly. 311 is efficient -- except when dealing with an operator who is new and unfamiliar with this common problem. At that point, one not only has to deal with a regular problem, one also gets accused of having done something wrong. Then one waits the phantom three business days while getting less sleep (as poor sleep cycles are interrupted) to put out the organics every morning in the futile hope it'll be picked up, when in reality it doesn't happen until the next scheduled pickup day.

The garbage crews are really nice. But they cannot pick up side-door garbage if it's not reliably on the map. I have no idea why management has no reliable mechanism in place to ensure workers know about these customers. I believe the schedule is fast; it's probably easy to whizz by a side door pickup location.

If the city were truly interested in being environmentally responsible, they would include humans in that equation and thus would actually be environmentally responsible:

  • Most important: For complete, accurate sorting, the city should use mechanized sorting instead of requiring imperfect humans to do it. Mechanized sorting means disabled aren't marginalized by the government either.
  • For reduction of garbage (which includes recyclables, they're not magically not garbage because they're recycled), the city should band with all municipalities and force manufacturers to reduce their packaging by at least a half and look at reducing waste production without making life more onerous for the vulnerable and people with three jobs living under the poverty line.
  • For reduction of pollution, the city should not stuff garbage into land for an eternity. They should use methane from old landfills for energy use, not pipe it into the air.
  • For productive use of our garbage, the city should look into and build modern, 21st century methods of turning our waste into energy.
  • For ensuring every citizen can participate and for not turning our city into an inaccessible, non-inclusive UGLY mecca of garbage, the city should dump the bins, increase pickup frequency (lighter loads), and pick up every form of garbage (the vulnerable don't always have someone to take them to the special environmental days, you know). Batteries are such a part of life these days that they should be on the pickup schedule, for example.
  • For making our parks beautiful again and not making us see honking, huge, UGLY bins as soon as we enter a park, the city should design and use beautiful garbage receptacles.

This is the real issue that Mayor Ford should be yelling about. But the vulnerable are by virtue of their situation a silent lot and so easy to ignore. Yet by putting people first, the city would ironically be environmentally responsible -- not just look like they are.

This post originally appeared on Shireen Jeejeebhoy's political blog at talk talk talk.

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