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For the people of Guelph, garbage day is not unlike garbage days in other communities across Canada.

Every week they go through that all-too-familiar ritual of dragging their bags of waste curbside for someone to collect the next morning. But that’s where the similarities end. Rather than transporting their ‘garbage’ to the local landfill, CUPE members take their waste to a nearby recycling facility where it’s processed, sorted and resold as raw material.


This simple approach that diverts almost 60 per cent of collected waste from the city’s landfill is surprisingly unique – not only to Canada but all of North America. Most communities are still glued to Blue Box recycling programs that are not nearly as efficient or effective. They cost a bundle and they don’t come close to matching Guelph’s high rates of waste diversion.


Guelph’s common-sense approach to reducing waste shows what can be done when a community works together – and the advantages of keeping municipal services public. A workforce that includes 67 CUPE members plays a pivotal role in operating and maintaining Guelph’s highly respected recycling system.


Dumps are not the answer


Landfill sites are filling up all over the world and in Canada, federal, provincial and municipal governments have recognized the need to restrict the amount of garbage Canadians produce. In fact, all three levels of government have committed to reducing waste by 50 per cent by the year 2000.


Guelph was no stranger to these environmental concerns as this community of 100,000 faced its own landfill crisis in the early 1980s. With a landfill site nearing its capacity, Guelph was faced with paying exorbitant prices to ship its waste to another municipality or extend the life of its own facility by reducing the amount of waste that goes into it. Guelph chose the latter and for 10 years members of the community researched, planned and saved the money needed to put a system that diverts waste by more than 50 per cent in place.


In November 1996, the community’s hard work came to fruition and Guelph’s own Wet-Dry recycling program came to be.


According to Wayne Arndt, superintendent of the Wet-Dry Recycling Facility, the community pulled together out of concern for the environment. “The general public recognized their responsibility in stepping up their recycling efforts,” he says. “There was a sense that ‘We created this waste. Now we have to look after it.’”


These sentiments within the community have contributed to the program’s resounding success, as approximately 98 per cent of the houses in the community willingly participate in the program every week.


Innovative approach


Guelph’s Wet-Dry recycling program operates in the same manner as a conventional curbside garbage pickup system, except residents are asked to split their waste into wet and dry material. The list of wet material includes food wastes (including meat) and other compostable materials such as diapers, dryer lint and pet feces. The dry material consists of paper, cans, glass, plastics, clothes, shoes and Styrofoam.


Residents are asked to keep their waste separated, collecting the wet material in green-tinted bags and dry material in blue-tinted bags. CUPE members then bring the waste to a processing facility where wet waste is composted and dry waste is sorted and prepared for market. In 1997, almost 40,000 tonnes were processed for a total diversion rate of 58 per cent.


Every year, innovations have improved the service but Guelph’s recent commitment to keep the program public resulted in the greatest increase in efficiency. In the beginning, workers operated and maintained the facility on a day-to-day basis. They had no control over their workplace situation and no sense of how long their jobs would last. All that changed in March 1998, when the city decided to keep the program public and hired a permanent unionized workforce.


According to Brad Calloway, president of CUPE 241, the local representing the recycling facility workers, it was more than a coincidence that production improved after a permanent workforce was hired. “People really didn’t have any ownership of their jobs,” he says. “Being hired on full-time allows them to take an interest in the work they’re doing.”


Calloway added that as permanent employees get more familiar with their duties they can suggest ways of improving production.


Earlier this year, the program was given another boost. Because of the recycling facility’s excellent diversion rates, Subbor, a Canadian biotech subsidiary, is building a processing plant that will convert much of Guelph’s remaining waste into methane gas. The gas will then be used to fuel a hydro station and provide power to surrounding communities. The new plant, currently being built alongside the recycling facility, is expected to improve the program’s diversion rates to 85 per cent. If the plant proves a success, the city will take over its operation after five years.


Long-term savings


Like other government programs, cost is a major factor in determining the program’s success. But the uniqueness of Guelph’s Wet-Dry system complicates that process. It’s hard to compare the cost of recycling with simply dumping waste in a landfill. As well, costs vary depending on where the dump is, what the tipping fees are (what it costs to dump a tonne of waste in a landfill) and what the market’s like for recycled material. After taking all these factors into consideration, Arndt admits that taxpayers are on the hook for about 5 per cent more than the regular garbage pick-up and blue box recycling program the city used to operate. But he points out that for this marginal increase in costs Guelph has more than doubled the amount of diverted waste.


Eastview [the local landfill] should have closed a year-and-a-half ago,” says Arndt. “Because of the high diversion rate, the landfill is expected to last another four years.”


The city is also optimistic that the program will eventually break even. In 1998, processing wet waste cost $80.27 while dry waste cost $73.65. That’s down dramatically from $175.22 and $110.81 in 1996. Arndt also added that the recycling facility has cultivated expertise in waste management, and when other communities eventually adopt their own recycling systems they will look to Guelph for the expertise and the equipment.


As concern for our environment grows, there is no doubt that more and more communities will be looking at ways to reduce waste. Guelph’s Wet-Dry recycling system serves as an excellent example of what a community can do when it sets its collective mind to it. This publicly run facility with its unionized workforce can be considered world-class in innovation, efficiency and productivity.


Rich Janecky