Bin There, Done That: The Future of Increased Diversion is in the “Clear” Bag - Waste Advantage Magazine (October 2013)

In April 2013, the City of Markham, Ontario launched an innovative full scale rollout of a clear bag garbage collection program to all 90K residents. Gone were ineffective bag limits and bag tags - the rules were made simple - put out as much garbage as you need to but make sure it is in a clear plastic bag. The program has proven evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary with diversion of recyclables and food organic material now topping 80%, making Markham's program one of the best municipal performers in North America. Key to the success of this program included the direct interaction with local retail establishments to ensure that the right product was on shelf at the right time. This article discusses the background preparation, launch experiences and progress to date.

 

There’s a new bag on the block and it sits at the curb without a tag waiting for the collection truck.

Well, it’s not actually new, as it’s already spent a good deal of time in various parts of Atlantic Canada and Ontario. It’s the most effective and cost efficient diversion tool available—a clear plastic garbage bag.

For years now, our trade magazines have been filled with articles by industry experts that attempt to bedazzle us with the panacea for the successful diversion of residential waste is to simply put it in a nice shiny cart with wheels and roll it to the curb. How’s that working out anyway? Higher diversion? Perhaps the approach to low diversion has been to require a “bag tag” and threaten to whack your residents financially if they fail to recycle. How did that work out? Or did it just make garbage a revenue stream for the municipality effectively putting the brakes on any further diversion efforts? The sooner that we all face reality and realize that garbage collection and diversion from landfill is not rocket science and does not require millions of taxpayer dollars for large garbage containers, the sooner sanity will prevail, not to mention cost efficiencies. The City of Markham, ON Program Rollout On April 30th, 2013, the City of Markham, ON (population 320,000) implemented a full scale rollout of a clear bag garbage collection program “ Small Change – Big Benefit” for all residents (approximately 90K hhlds). With the new clear bag program, gone were ineffective bag limits, and bag tags. In its place was a simple democratic clear garbage bag program. The rules were made simple—put out as much garbage as you need as long as it is in a clear plastic bag. A quick visual scan by collectors could confirm that the clear bags contained garbage—no recyclables or compostables. However, a limited number of smaller opaque kitchen catcher bags were allowed inside the large clear bag for unsightly or privacy items. This process was evolutionary.

Once the typical “start-up” resistance subsided, which took about four weeks, the mission was accomplished. The main issue from residents centered on what to do with their now redundant dark bags. Markham waste management staff promoted donating the dark bags to local charities and churches. In hind sight, a bag exchange program would have been helpful to ease the transition. A second unanticipated issue was the increased demand for more diversion tools. Blue boxes (curbside recycling) and green bins (organics diversion) flew out the door as the non recyclers realized the gig was up, they now had to separate their waste materials. We are all aware of social marketing and the power of persuasion. As the program progressed, an unexpected result occurred—those who wouldn’t have recycled before, started keeping up. Failure to place garbage at the curb in a clear plastic bag was like putting a billboard on their lawn proclaiming “We don’t care about our Earth”. The old dark bags stood out for all to see. Visibility of bag contents also improved collector safety substantially, now enabling the garbage collector to clearly see what he or she was about to pick up and minimize risk of injury. The City of Markham banned e-waste and household batteries from collection at the same time, in preparation for waste going to EFW.

Program Success

Within 12 weeks of launching the clear bag garbage program, the cornerstone of “The Best of the Best” Markham’s Road to 80 percent Diversion—the City Waste Management Plan as approved by Markham Council in October 2012— the City of Markham surpassed their diversion target. Prior to April 2013, the City had already achieved an overall municipal diversion rate of 72 percent, which was pretty good by most standards. However, with the new clear bag garbage program in place, the overall diversion rate rose to 81 percent with 100 percent participation. There was some major planning that went into this program including political and staff education, bylaw revisions and discussions with the waste collection contractor. Of significant importance and a major tactic that proved critical to achieving public acceptance included the need to interact with local retailers well in advance of the program launch to ensure that clear bags were available for residents in advance of the program launch. Early on, Markham officials recognized the importance of engaging a professional retail consultant, VisionQuest Environmental Strategies (Aurora, ON), who knew how to navigate the complexities of the retail industry and get to the right people to ensure that local retail shelf offering plan-o-grams were adjusted, and the bags were on the store shelves. Perhaps most importantly, attaining higher diversion in the City of Markham did not increase collection or residents costs. Clear bags are the same price as dark bags. Officials recognized that they may not be the first municipality in North America to launch a clear bag garbage collection program, however, through their experiences and diversion accomplishments they certainly don’t expect to be the last. Clearly, lessons have been learned. Sorry Binny, your better days may be behind you.

WA Claudia Marsales is Senior Manager of Solid Waste for the City of Markham. Claudia was worked on diversion programs since 1986 with both the public and private sectors. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Dave Douglas is President of VisionQuest Environmental Strategies Corp. Dave has worked in the North American solid waste management industry (public and private sector) since 1988 focusing on waste management/diversion strategies, e-waste diversion, centralized composting, green roof, zero waste and corporate stewardship/extended producer responsibility/stewardship compliance.