Ottawa faces a looming waste dilemma, and we need to take bold action. Fortunately, there are many intersecting solutions that we can - and should - choose to embrace. We at Ecology Ottawa support user pay to be adopted in Ottawa’s Solid Waste Master Plan, as one step that is part of an ambitious, concerted effort to reduce waste. User pay - or bag-and-tag, or pay-as-you-throw as this is sometimes called - is about reducing waste, not increasing cost for residents. Recycling and compost continue to be free for Ottawans, and there are many ways we can all reduce consumption and waste.
What is the waste dilemma that Ottawa faces?
The Trail Road Landfill is filling fast, and will reach capacity in just over a decade. Replacement is prohibitively expensive at $450M, and will take approximately 15 years for a suitable alternative. False solutions like incinerators would be prohibitively expensive, and would do more harm than good by generating excessive greenhouse gas emissions, while giving us permission to continue excessive consumption and waste. Waste piles up in our city parks and rivers, and also bleeds out into the environment beyond our city, affecting wildlife and ecosystems.
City waste audits show that 58% of what is collected curbside and disposed of at Trail Road should either have been recycled or put into the green bin. This means that our landfill is filling up more quickly than necessary, because many households do not use the blue and black box recycling program or the green bin organics program. It is our responsibility to take action that encourages Ottawa residents to compost and recycle more, and waste less.
How does waste management relate to other big environmental challenges?
Taking action to reduce waste is also action to fight climate change and protect nature. Excessive waste contributes to climate change and the loss of nature, from resources used and greenhouse gases emitted in the production and transportation of goods, to the emission of harmful landfill gases. There is a very close connection between waste and climate change, and it is estimated that circular economy strategies can cut global emissions by 39%. A shocking 58% of food produced in Canada goes to waste, generating the equivalent of 56.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. Organics in our landfills create methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.
What is user pay and how will it work?
Ottawa is proposing a partial user pay system where households will have 55 tags per year, which will be covered by taxes, after which additional tags can be purchased for $3, with the idea that residents will be incentivized to reduce waste and better use organics and recycling. User pay will improve the City’s currently mediocre waste diversion rate of around 45% by up to 6 percentage points, reduce garbage tonnage by up to 28% per capita and extend the life of Trail Road Landfill.
An important part of user pay will be designing and implementing it properly. Public education and awareness raising are critical, especially in early months - this equips residents with new tools and strategies for keeping their waste levels down, and is proven to be effective at preventing illegal dumping. The City is encouraged to continue developing strategies to permit waste diversion in multi-unit dwellings. The City must ensure that equity considerations are strongly considered, and look at how this system affects everyone, especially low-income families with many people in one household. Equity experts should be consulted on the development of the system, and ensure that the approach does no harm, and that there is “nothing about us without us”, where affected residents are consulted.
Does user pay even work?
User pay is a proven, effective approach in other Ontario cities, and we should learn from their examples and experience. In Ontario 132 municipalities have a user pay garbage collection system including Toronto and the big regional municipalities of Peel, York, Niagara, Waterloo and Durham. Kingston has had a user pay system since 1999 and Carleton Place for over 30 years. At 55 tags per year, the number of garbage bags for each household is generous, and can be decreased over time as people adopt the system to incentivize more waste reduction. Putting a price on pollution will prompt residents to be conscious about how much they waste and what they buy, and this change in consumer habits then affects purchasing decisions. When people choose lower-waste packaging, it puts productive pressure on companies to reduce their waste and excess packaging.
Is user pay enough?
This partial user pay system is a good first step, but it does not go far enough. We will need to become more ambitious to sufficiently incentivize people to change behaviour and make a meaningful reduction in waste, and eventually a full user pay system should be considered.
Meaningful action on waste management needs to be rooted in reducing waste and changing our whole approach to consumption and design in the first place, and there are a whole host of actions people can take to reduce how much they throw away. These include but are not limited to:
- Refuse what we do not need and reduce waste from the outset, thinking about every item we purchase and consume.
- Reuse items instead of throwing them away.
- Repair appliances and mend clothing to keep them in circulation for a longer useful life.
- Rot and compost organic materials, and work consciously to reduce food waste.
- Reconnect with practices of sharing with neighbours and community.
- Embrace the secondhand marketplace such as thrift stores and consignment shops, and engage in online Buy Nothing Groups, to sell, exchange and swap goods between neighbours and community and keep objects in use for longer.
- Buy plastic-free when available, support businesses that use less or no packaging, and inspire others to do the same if the choice is possible.
- Recycle as a last resort after taking other steps to reduce waste.
What is a circular economy, and a circular city?
Moving to a user pay system is not the only solution, but rather only one part of moving to a true low-waste, sustainable, circular economy in our city.
Big picture, we need to move from a take-make-waste extractive and wasteful linear economy to a circular one, where waste is reduced in the first place and items are redesigned to eliminate waste at the source. In a circular economy, items are kept in circulation as long as possible, and where renewable energy powers the system and depleted ecosystems are regenerated.
Individuals cannot be expected to solve waste and climate crises alone, and companies need to take responsibility. We have choice over what we do as a city, and in addition to embracing user pay municipally, we also need to encourage decision makers at other levels to regulate waste from the Industrial, Commercial, and Institutional (IC&I) players, and move to extended producer responsibility (EPR) where producers are held responsible for the waste they produce.
We know that Ottawans care about nature, climate change, and becoming a low-waste city. When the City goes to vote, they should support user pay, knowing that it will not solve the problem single-handedly, and is part of a larger move to become a circular city.