This summer, the city finally brought its solid waste strategy to the streets of Halifax.
Although residents have been using green carts to separate their organics from regular waste since 1998, those of us out and about downtown streets have had only one choice for discarding our apple cores and empty coffee cups.
That is, until this past May, when the city installed 150 new garbage cans on downtown Halifax streets, 50 of them designed to separate organics, recyclables and regular garbage.
"The idea was that we wanted to have three cans per block," says Don Pellerind, HRM's superintendent of streets. "Each block has one garbage can on each end and a three-stream container in the middle. And we do that block for block."
Two other departments are working on bringing source separation online. Three years ago HRM Parks installed 31 four-stream containers (including paper as a separate stream) in various parks, and Metro Transit has contracted a private company to install streamed containers (paid for with advertising) at some bus stops and shelters.
All this might sound just fine to your average environmentally-aware citizen—that is, until they witness one of the new three-streamed containers being emptied. "We've heard complaints from people," says Pellerind, "that it looks like everything is getting put in the same container and taken away." And in fact, that is what's happening. Miller Waste is contracted to empty the 50 new organics and recycling bins, but instead of keeping the two streams separate, Miller workers are combining the streams as they collect them, and then separating them again back at their plant.
Pellerind's not concerned. "It's being sorted once it's taken off the truck," he says.
But why ask people to separate their waste at the source, only to combine and then separate those same streams again? One reason is that there's simply no choice. Miller workers are forced to sort through all the waste they pick up anyway, because the city's new three-stream bins aren't working as they should.
Or rather, citizens aren't working as they should.
"Even though the containers have signage labeled on them," says HRM's manager of solid waste, Jim Bauld, "You often see a mixture of everything in each compartment.
Many residents or pedestrians walking by will drop that banana peel, cigarette package, plastic bag or pop can in any of those three holes. So then you have contamination."
If source separation is one step forward in the world of solid waste management, contamination is two steps back. Post-source separation is labour intensive, and sometimes will just not work. While a plastic bag is recyclable and donair sauce is compostable, a plastic bag covered in donair sauce is garbage. And garbage is our most costly waste stream.
After nine years of separating organics and recyclables at home, you'd think we'd be better at it on the street. But with residential pick-up, getting people to put their banana peels and pop cans in the right place is easier to enforce. "At curbside, when we flip the lid open and see a plastic bag, or a sneaker, or a lampshade, we'll put a rejection sticker on the green cart. The resident will come home and see that and take that material out. You can control it right at the source."
"However, when you have a publicly-used receptacle on Spring Garden Road, and 5,000 people walk by it a day and throw the same materials in all three compartments, it's tough to control that."
Public bins also rely on good signage. Pellerind is looking at making some design amendments to HRM's new bins over the winter. Currently, bins are marked by their lids, which are usually found dangling alongside the otherwise unmarked containers. "That's adding to some of the confusion," says Pellerind. "Once the lid's off, you can't tell what's supposed to go in each can."
Next year Pellerind is planning to get more streamed bins and have city staff take over the collection process. "This was our first year," says Pellerind. "With education and learning, we'll see if we can do something better for next year."