EcoLog Environmental Resources Group

The City of Toronto rolls out its waste diversion program

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Courtesy of Courtesy of EcoLog Environmental Resources Group

The City of Toronto is in the final stages of rolling out its multifaceted waste diversion program, which is now city-wide. Entitled 'Target 70,' the program's key objective is diverting 70 per cent of city-managed waste from landfill disposal. This represents about 250,000 new tonnes of diversion.

As the plan takes effect, the city will become a North America leader in waste diversion.

In addition, Toronto aims to create value-added local jobs by reducing and eventually eliminating the need to ship residual waste to the Carleton Farms landfill in Michigan. Up to 400 garbage trucks travel daily from the Toronto area to Michigan. Five per cent of Toronto's residual waste is currently sent to its newly-acquired Green Lane Landfill, near London and the volume will increase in 2010. The city aims to preserve this valuable disposal asset; diversion could extend the operating life to 2034.

'Environmental benefits include increased recycling and composting, and fewer trucks rolling along the highway,' says Geoff Rathbone, General Manager of Solid Waste Management Services for the city, adding, 'There's also improved employee health and safety from automated collection.'

Volume-based utility model

As Rathbone explained in a presentation at a spring workshop of the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinator at the Hockley Valley Resort, the new diversion program replaces the conventional blue box curbside recycling program with a system that uses wheeled carts for residue (which is charged for) and separate carts or bins for recyclables and source-separated organic (SSO) materials (for which residents pay no fee).

Use of the carts has allowed Toronto to implement a volume-based solid waste rate structure, modeled on progressive programs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Jose and Vancouver. Instead of the cost of waste and recycling or composting being lost in property taxes, these costs will now appear in a new joint water and solid waste 'utility bill.'

So the new rates wouldn't be seen as 'double dipping' the cost of solid waste services has been removed from the property tax and current costs are being rebated to residential customers.

The rate supports existing services as well as new diversion initiatives. If a customer orders the smallest size container for their waste residue (the stuff previously set out in plastic garbage bags), they won't experience an increase in the cost of waste collection. If they order a larger size, they'll pay more. A parallel rate based program will also apply to the 500,000 apartments and condominiums units serviced by the city. Rathbone expects the new system to generate an additional $54 million per year, which will be used toward achieving the 70 per cent diversion goal. (Roughly half the increase will go to operations and half to capital costs.)

Residents can choose between four garbage container sizes (small, medium, large and extra-large) which equate to a range of between one and 4.5 bags of garbage. To encourage greater source separation, garbage is collected once every two weeks, while SSO is collected weekly. Recycling continues to be collected once every two weeks -- one of the key reasons for providing the new larger capacity blue bins. The bins provide the storage required for two weeks worth of recyclables, allowing maximum productivity via bi-weekly collection.

Because the city can't (for legal reasons) directly rebate property tax, an average solid waste fee of $209 will be rebated on the new utility bill. Additional annual fees for garbage bins will reward 'good' behavior and charge for 'bad' behavior. Users of small containers will actually receive a $10 credit; everyone else will be charged a fee in proportion to container size ($39 for medium containers, $133 for large, and $190 for extra large).

Toronto city staff wanted a system that includes unlimited diversion services in the waste rate, and other incentives to increase diversion. No fee is charged, therefore, to anyone wanting to 'exchange down' to a smaller waste residue container. (The exception is a $10 fee charged in the first three months of the program.) But if someone wants to 'exchange up' to a larger size, a $20 fee applies.

As for blue bin exchanges, one free exchange will be allowed prior to November 1, 2008. In October, residents will receive five free 'bag tags' in the mail to use for overflow material. (These tags expire in December of next year.) Additional tags will be available for purchase at Home Hardware for $3.10 each.

Rathbone says the volume-based subscription concept was chosen over, say, a strictly bag-tag system because it's deemed to be fair and equitable, and provides an immediate diversion incentive (as well as immediate feedback). It allows for rate stability and predictability, is simple to use, and requires minimal enforcement.

Getting from the current 42 per cent diversion up to the 70 per cent diversion goal will require the following diversion gains:

Program details

1. Source reduction initiatives (10,000 tonnes)

2. Green Bin organics in apartments and condos (30,000 t)

3. Enforcement of the mandatory diversion by-law (10,000 t)

4. Volume-based rate behavior change (43,000 t)

5. New materials for recycling (6,000 t)

6. Improved recycling capacity (15,000 t)

7. Curbside collection of household durable goods for reuse, disassembly and recycling (44,000 t) 8. Curbside townhouse collection (16,000 t)

9. Additional processing of mixed waste (75,000 t)

Rolling out the 'new blue' required an investment in marketing and education. Programs have included creative ads in community newspapers, transit shelters, public recycling 'silver box' posters, and posters in malls and other venues.

The expectation of larger quantities of SSO and recyclables has prompted the city to make capital investments in new processing infrastructure. The construction of two SSO facilities are planned as well as a third MRF and six new reuse and recycling centers for household durable goods. Currently the city uses its anaerobic digester located at the Dufferin Transfer Station to process 40,000 of its current 110,000 tonnes of SSO. For the time being, private contractors in Ontario and Quebec process the remainder.

The new way of doing things will enable excellent data management. Interestingly, all residential bins and apartment containers will be equipped with RFID identifiers. These will allow management of the billing system as well as immediate feedback to residents. This is a potentially powerful system management tool, and will allow for such innovations as the potential for RecycleBank rewards. (See editorial, page 4.)

The program administrators recognize that continuation of the assistance program is needed for residents with mobility issues. Bulky items (e. g., sofas, mattresses, electronics and sporting goods) will be collected curb-side at no extra charge and will go to the new durable goods recycling centers.

While the system will cost more for people who generate a lot of non-recyclable or noncompostable garbage, at least the polluter pays principle applies. And the system eliminates the need for green garbage bags in most instances (a savings of $15 to $20 per household each year on average).

According to Robert Orpin, Director of Collection Services for the City of Toronto,
about 300 Toronto households so far have been exempted from having to use the new wheeled recycling bins, because they don't have enough space to store them. Such households will be allowed to use transparent blue recycling bags. Storage is especially tight in neighborhoods like Cabbagetown that feature row houses and front doors that open directly onto the street.

By mid-June, 500,000 recycling bins will have been delivered. The city has set up a special hotline (416-392-BINS) for callers to ask about the bins. They can also search at

The hotline has received more than 100,000 calls and city staff have visited more than 1,500 homes to work with residents on storage issues. In most cases problems have been solved by changing the size of the bins or replacing one large bin with two smaller ones.

'The new system changes the way people manage their waste,' says Rathbone. 'There's a learning curve, but at least now people will see what their waste costs them, and may even be inspired to reduce the amount and type of packaging and disposable products they bring home in the first place.'

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