Here’s a photo of the rather photogenic insides of a Container blue bin I looked in on last night.
The shiny blue plastic bin really showcases the nice selection of recyclable containers. Seems a veritable advertisement for urban recycling—neat, clean, attractive, and effective.
So what's wrong with this picture?
Almost none of the containers are empty.
What the city wants and what it gets
Someone appears to have thrown out the contents of their fridge—someone is always throwing out the contents of their fridge.
Usually this stuff gets bagged and thrown in the Dumpster after which time Dumpster divers cherry-pick what they want.
But this particular someone has done what people only occasionally do: they have just dumped everything straight into their building’s Container bin.
This is, I think, the result of a pretty transparent thought process that ends with: “They’re containers. They shouldn’t go into the Dumpster, they should go in the Container bin.”
You and I both know—and I think they know also—that only empty containers are supposed to go in the Container bins. This what the City of Vancouver says about preparing mixed containers for recycling:
- Rinse all containers clean.
- Remove and put container lids in the garbage.
- Flatten all containers as much as possible.
- Leave labels on containers.
The first three rules have been in place since the beginning of Vancouver’s residential recycling program.
Rule number four was an early reversal of policy; originally the city asked for labels off.
I remember the arrival of apartment recycling some 18 years ago; how I dutifully followed the city’s instructions: peeling all the paper labels off my rinsed tin cans, which I then flattened before putting them gently in the blue bin.
The problem with rule four was probably that people wouldn’t be bothered but it also kind of screwed binners (excuse my French) by invalidating returnable containers.
A wine bottle has a refundable deposit value of 10 cents. A wine bottle with the label removed could be a balsamic vinegar bottle or home-brewed wine, neither of which have a deposit value.
Plastic milk jugs have no deposit value; however, the same kind of four-litre plastic jugs used to bottle water have a 20-cent deposit value—but only if the label is on so you can tell they aren’t milk jugs.
Once rule number four told residents to do nothing about labels, it became the only rule residents had no trouble following.
When no one follows a rule, often the rule is at fault
The complaints of binners may have caused rule four to be changed. If it was due to lack of compliance, a person has to wonder how rules two and three have survived so long.
I mean, what kind of idiot wastes their time flattening their cans…? Virtually no one does anymore.
And rule number two will come as a surprise to the majority of Vancouverites. It’s stupid, isn’t it?
The city accepts bimetal food cans. Why then do bimetal jar lids have to be removed and thrown in the garbage?
At Encorp Pacific Return-It bottle depots, why do the caps from plastic bottles have to be removed and discarded? Apparently cap plastic is different than bottle plastic and clogs the recycling machines—sounds just dumb enough to be true.
Mind you, the metal caps do not need to be removed from glass containers, but that’s just the bottle depots again. Remember, the city wants them off and in the regular garbage.
The number one rule of recycling is wasteful
Rule number one is generally followed. Containers are almost always empty.
I think the majority of residents do rinse out their empty containers, with a determined fraction actually appearing to run them through their dishwashers before putting them out in their blue bins.
A sizable number of containers are as empty as when you can’t easily get any more product out (see peak oil).
It’s understandable why the city doesn’t want container bins full of full containers or even containers with food residue in them.
Firstly, the cleaner the input into the recycling system, the less separation and hygienic issues during the throughput.
And secondly, this recycling system was designed around first-world assumptions that everything should and would be clean, tidy, and well-ordered.
Act local, think global? It's called immigration
It can’t last, though. Compliance with the rules has and will always been an issue.
More than that, I think immigration will increasing bring real-world thinking to bear on our first-world assumptions of perfection in all things.
The water that comes out of our taps has been systematically and expensively ensured to be clean and safe for human consumption.
We enjoy constant access to safe drinking water for all our needs—an estimated one billion people (one in seven people on Earth) do not.
Military planners around the world are bracing for the coming days when drought and water shortages become so dire they lead to wars.
What do we do with our perfect tap water? We use it to wash our garbage.
C'mon, that's funny!
People who emigrate here from any number of countries are right if they think we’re insanely wasteful.
The time will come when we have to get real
Real-world thinking says garbage is garbage and it’s either recyclable or it isn’t. If it is, then recycle it.
Quit being so squeamish and saying it’s only recyclable if it’s spotlessly clean. No matter what, recyclables shouldn’t go into the landfill.
Only in the West would we make recycling a kind of beauty pageant for garbage.
As for the rinsing, that should be done using grey water as part of the recycling process where economies of scale can come into play.
And properly speaking, the recycling system should, in the fullness of time, move to less and less pre-sorting. Ultimately little more division than Organic, Paper, and Everything Else.
It’s almost entirely a technological challenge. But isn’t technology what we first worlders are supposed to be good at?
So basically, what I’m getting at is, the resident who dumped the contents of their fridge straight into the container bin had the right idea after all.