Climate change, part two: Garbage

Climate Change: “What does St. John’s have do to help stop the planet from burning?” (A series of articles inspired by academic, environmental and political activist George Monbiot’s book Heat.)

Methane—it’s crappy for the environment.

And I’m not just saying that to be clever, I mean methane is 23 times as bad for the environment as carbon dioxide (the greenhouse gas that gets the majority of the climate change hype.) Each molecule of methane (CH4) in the atmosphere traps 23 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.

Methane is produced when organic material can’t get enough oxygen to decompose. In a landfill, where plastic trash bags are buried under thousands and thousands of other plastic trash bags, oxygen is hard to come by. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, waste accounts for a surprising 9 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of that comes from the more densly populated Avalon Peninsula.

One of the key reasons why it’s so bad here is we don’t have a municipal recycling and composting system.

Yet.

An ambitious and thorough waste management system is planned for the city of St. John’s, and is expected to roll out for the general public in …2009.

A pilot project has been on the go in two St. John’s neighbourhoods for a few months now. We decided to take a look at how it’s going.

by Emilie Bourque

Egg shells, shampoo bottles, milk cartons, tissues, and cereal boxes. All things I recycle and compost these days with joy. No, these aren’t your average recyclables around here, but I’ve had the pleasure of being part of the city’s “Waste Diversion Pilot Project” since May 15th. This is a fancy title for a program that turns average garbage producers like myself into recycling fiends. I am now known to steal things out of other people’s garbage and sneak them home to put safely with my own recyclables.

Karen Hickman, a Wabush Place resident who is part of the pilot in Cowan Heights, says, “it’s a voluntary thing, but I think it should be mandatory.” She says with this initiative, “residents of the city should do what they can to help…”

The pilot project area includes 1,400 homes and businesses in downtown St. John’s and Cowan Heights, which is a lot of people that could be recycling, however, history has taught us that it’s simply not enough to depend on the public’s social consciousness and desire to ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to saving the environment. Our world has gone into environmental crisis-mode, yet we’re still doing very little to turn things around.

With the City of St. John’s taking on the task of re-engineering Robin Hood Bay to include a recycling facility and a compost facility, you will one day – probably early 2009 — all have a chance to recycle and compost. The only sad news is, based on the current numbers from the pilot project, it seems residents might not be too keen on participating, especially if it’s voluntary.

As I write this, it is garbage/recycling day. It’s 9:00am and I am peering around my neighbourhood, proud of all the paper, plastics, and organics resting neatly on the sidewalk. It always seemed to me that nearly everyone in my neighbourhood was participating, but as I peer a little further up the street from my window, I realize maybe it’s just my own block that I’ve been observing, ‘cause other blocks don’t have any of the blue bags on the curb.

The statistics on participation with the pilot project are disheartening. In Cowan Heights there are approximately 65% of people are participating, and downtown, just 35%.

What’s even more depressing, when considering the low participation rates, is that a home is considered to be “participating” even if they are only putting out pop cans. Full participation would mean utilizing all four streams of the program: organics, paper, containers, as well as garbage.

“We’re mostly getting the things that you commonly think of as recyclables, like pop tins and water bottles,” says Jason Sinyard, the manager of the city’s Waste Management Division.

He explains that people haven’t yet changed their perception of what’s recyclable, like mixed plastics. “They’re not really sizing them up and saying ‘okay, my Javex jug, my butter container—they’re recyclable now.’”

A lot of this, of course, has to do with educating the public about what goes in and what stays out.

“You can’t fault people if you’re not educating them first,” says Jason.

He and his team take seriously the task of educating the public, and two employees with the project, Brian Molloy and Sharon Tucker, are out on the streets talking to people in the pilot, giving advice and pamphlets on what to recycle.

The pilot the city has designed is admirably ambitious and quite comprehensive. A period of six months, from May-November of this year, will be spent collecting data on what sort of recyclables are coming in, participation rates, and which bags and buckets are working best for residents (different types have been distributed), among other things. 2008 will be spent designing and actually constructing the facilities needed to recycle on the island, based on the data collected, and for designing and implementing an education program for residents about recycling.

Sinyard says they hope to go city-wide in early 2009, and until then, everyone who’s in the pilot will continue to be serviced with a recycling pick-up.

Making recycling mandatory would be a solution to the low participation rates.

Carol Goodman, a Bond Street resident who is part of the pilot downtown, thinks it should mandatory once it goes city-wide.

“Looking at the response rate, those ridiculously low numbers, it would suggest to me that people need to be forced to do it if they’re not going to do it on a volunteer basis.”

Karen Hickman points out that some people simply aren’t in touch what an important impact their actions have on the environment,

“People need to be aware of what they’re doing. It’s a little effort for a very worthwhile cause.”

One comment

  1. Michele O'Dea · February 2, 2011

    I would very much like to get involved. I recently found out that we are not doing near the recycling that I had assumed (making and ass out of “u” and “Me”)…having recently returned from a holiday in Chester, NS, I was surprised to see that they had such an extensive re-cycling program including all forms of paper, plastic, glass, metal as well as a community compost…All this to say, Please sign me up and I agree that it must be manditory in order for it to take off…it wasn’t that long ago that seat belts were made manditory and now it’s a matter of habit…Keep up the good work! Sincerely, Michele O’Dea