Zero Waste

Driving Diversion in the Multi-Rez Sector or How do you Eat an Elephant? 

By: Hélène St. Jacques

Diversion in the mult-rez sector across Canada regardless of building type and location is stunningly low – 14% is a fair average.  It contrasts sharply with curbside collection capture rates which can be as high as 65%, depending on the program.  The big question is what corrective actions need to be taken to close thishumungous gap.  Or look at it from the prospect of the old Chinese proverb is apt - how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  

Several big bites have been taken by municipalities in Canada and the United States.  Vancouver, Toronto, Hamilton and New York City are trying to figure out how to ‘eat the elephant’ – where should efforts be focused to create positive systemic changes?  Now, waste diversion program experts know that this is no easy goal.  It is not just another step in the continuous improvement model that has worked so well for many curbside collection programs. 

Unlike curbside where the interaction is directly between householders and program operators and their collection crews – one size can fit all or most situations given the conformity in the design of homes and streets and human interactions.  Householders control their own internal collection system; they participate in full view of their neighbours and in concert with collectors who have the option to give the proffered recyclables a passing or failing grade. The collector is the program’s teacher and the ambassador. 

Contrast this with MR recycling which is controlled by building owners and property managers who control the purse strings and consequently operations.  They in turn delegate waste management to superintendents, a high turnover, low/no training sector. Oftentimes recycling is plonked into a structure designed to capture and remove garbage fast.  Voila the advent of the handy garbage chute!  It comes as no surprise then to read the NYC study conclusion (based on 156 buildings): “having a refuse chute…greatly diminishes the building’s capture rates. If residents can simply toss materials into a chute, it seems as if they are much less likely to recycle everything they can.”  Okay, so we have this reality.  Short of retrofitting the thousands of MR buildings across the country with three handy chutes, what can be done?

Where do we start biting at the problem? Studies funded by Stewardship Ontario, the Ontario government and the City of Hamilton are looking for solutions.  Results are gradually emerging, pointing in some specific directions.  The overview of all this analysis indicates a three- pronged approach is required.  This elephant needs to be tackled from three different angles, simultaneously; one won’t work without the other parts, for sure.  And to make matters even more complex for burdened, cash constrained municipal operators, these elephants vary in size and design.  It is a heterogeneous herd with low, medium and highrise apartment and condominium towers, and lower density townhouses, so unlike the thriving detached and semi-detached curbside residential folks.  Looking at design for a moment – multi-rez structures are created to maximize revenues which translates into little or no tenant-friendly, accessible space for the add-on recycling and organic collection programs.  This is a new imperative (not nearly as sexy as the current drive to reduce energy consumption.) Alas, gone are the days of blithely collecting ‘trash’ and hauling the stuff, regardless of composition, to landfills. 

Okay, now to focus on the triad of bites needed to eat the elephant.

First step is to aim at the operational side of things.  This includes analyzing on a building by building basis where to conveniently locate the recycling area.  If residents are going to make this part of their turf it must be accessible 24/7, neatly maintained, well lit and have simple, easy to follow instructions.  It has to be as safe as the other public areas in the building.  This means that those recycling bins stashed out in the back of parking lots, which are covered with snow and ice for months just don’t cut it.  Ask yourself, would you bother schlepping your recyclables out to the ‘back 40’ if you could simply walk to your garbage chute in your slippers.  Focus groups and statistical surveys indicate that it is mainly the real ‘true believers’ will make this supreme effort, day after day, rain, shine or blizzard.  Multi-rez buildings with higher diversion got this part right – recycling is either indoors or if it is outdoors it is very close to the building, according to an analysis conducted by the Association of Municipal Coordinators, funded by Stewardship Ontario. 

Next, the focus must be on all important capacity.  Think curbside collection for a moment as municipalities are driving up diversion by equipping households with more blue boxes or big wheelie trash bins.  Toronto’s new blue bin program, for example, offers householders the opportunity to select the capacity they require with a choice of three different size bins on wheels.  The largest one holds the equivalent of six blue boxes.   Ah, now contrast this with the impotent multi-rez occupant who has no control – they must make do with what building management/superintendents provide.  So here is a typical scenario -  residents take the elevator down X stories, when they get to the recycling area are there clean, well signed carts awaiting their  precious recyclables or are they confronted with a hodgepodge of wee plastic bags, recyclables and things that don’t belong there?  Multi-rez buildings with winning programs uniformly provide adequate capacity.  The ratio is usually one cart for every eight to ten units, depending on household composition.  Bear in mind that the average household size of multi-rez is smaller than curbside and may skew older, hence less waste and recyclables per household.   

Dwelling on the capacity issue for a moment because this gets to the heart of part of the problem which revolves around investment in recycling infrastructure and the all-important bottom line.  Building manager/owners and proliferating REITs are driven by three common goals – profit, profit and profit.  In this context, recycling is below their radar. Make no mistake; their refusal to invest in additional recycling carts, accessible recycling areas and maintenance schedules essential in keeping the recycling area clean and welcoming are hobbling other efforts to drive residential commitment to diversion.  The only solution is to rework the economics of recycling so that it favours investment in infrastructure and staff support.  This includes educating and motivating superintendents to make recycling a priority and a touchstone of the building’s overall quality standards. It’s worth noting that high diversion alongside other maintenance factors can help differentiate buildings operating in competitive housing markets. 

Moving along in the elephant eating feast – promotion and education, taking a page from the successful curbside municipal programs.  Stewardship Ontario, CSR: Corporation Supporting Recycling and countless municipalities have proof positive that educating curbside recyclers and their children works. It is a critical part of achieving the Ontario provincial goal of 60% diversion.

Translated into the multi-rez sector this means that winning MR programs that have taken the time to distribute City-provided recycling lists; they have posted recycling signs in the elevators, lobbies and other public areas reinforcing the building’s recycling program.  Winning P&E has a regular flow of information to residents, reminding, encouraging and reinforcing good behaviour.  And, as focus groups and measurement surveys with residents indicate, it must include feedback.  It would be a report card a building’s recycling program which could look like this: ‘congratulations, so far you and your neighbours have collectively diverted X% of your waste, these are the recyclables that are ‘getting away’ and thus need to be added to your source separation efforts and this is the list of things that don’t belong in the recycling carts’.  Couple that periodic feedback with symbolic rewards for high diverting buildings and their management.  Together these responses can build a sense of ownership which is sadly lacking in most multi-rez recycling programs. 

Back to eating the elephant. More results of on the ground winning programs are surfacing and will be reported as they emerge.