Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends. I love them despite the fact that I often have trouble making plans with them, and even when they can’t see the truth; that Taylor Swift is a snake. I love them despite our differences but that doesn’t mean that they sometimes disappoint me (and surely I, them). A lot of my friends here in St. John’s (and I suspect many of the city’s residents) do not recycle and I do not get it.
For as long as I can remember, recycling has been a part of my life. Does anyone remember the sketch that used to air during Sesame Street on CBC back in the day? From what I remember it was a vignette about the Three R’s (that’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle). (Sadly I don’t remember enough of this video and couldn’t find anything resembling it on YouTube). I also grew up watching CBC’s The Racoons so taking care of the environment was something I have always held near and dear. Of course, in the late 80’s and early 90’s recycling only seemed like a thing they did on TV and not something we really practiced in the home, or seemingly in the province. (I remember a greater emphasis being placed on Reuse though as we would often make crafts and things out of household items thanks to Mr. Dressup).
Another TV show from the early 90’s that left a lasting mark on me was Captain Planet and not just because it has an awesome theme song that I can still sing. This show had it all. Superhero? Check. Kids who were also heroes and not that much older than me? Check. Evil gimmicky villains? Check. And then there’s the theme song that I mentioned. (Also to think about it, this show was very diverse, as each of the Planeteers came from a different continent. These kids were WOKE before being woke was even a thing.) In fact, Captain Planet left such a lasting impression on me that my friends call me this when I get anal about recycling and I’ve used it in my bio for Tint of Ink.
I can remember when we started recycling at home when I was around eleven or twelve. I was excited to learn that if we saved our cans and bottles that we could get money later. Talk about incentive! (I actually tried to keep a tally of every item recycled so that we knew how much we would get from the depot but quickly abandoned this endeavor).
Recycling for money seemed like a no brainer to me. Help save the environment and get P-A-I-D. By the time the noughties rolled around, I had started saving my papers and bringing them to the paper recycling bins at MUN. I wasn’t getting money out of this but if someone could break down that paper and find another use for it instead of cutting down trees, why not? Despite all of this, when St. John’s started their Curbside Recycling program in late 2010, I wasn’t all that enthused. My girlfriend at the time was all for it and I was apathetic. (A common reaction for me). I thought “Eh. I’ll do it if it doesn’t inconvenience me.” Perhaps I was just trying to antagonize her because fast forward seven years and I get called Captain Planet every now and then or someone takes a jab at me and says “Do you recycle this?”
I can’t explain what happened to me when this program started, but I too was all in. I was excited to finally be recycling milk cartons, which I had lamented since starting back at home all those years ago. Even though I wasn’t getting paid for it, I was happy to do it. I still kept my cans and bottles to bring to the depot because I’m so poor but everything else that could go into the blue bags went in. I was also impressed with the visible results I saw in terms of what was ending up in my garbage. At the time I lived alone, and I would have only about one-half to three-quarters of a bag of garbage a week. I even got my Mom in on this as she would bring in her papers every couple of weeks to add to my “collection”. (Markland’s garbage collection has since added a recycling program; what are you waiting for Whitbourne?)
I was so into recycling that I was mortified when I got a notice in the mail stating that something had been wrong with my bags and that I was provided with a Curbside “how to” pamphlet. (I swear there was a mix-up but I did get some free blue bags so it wasn’t all bad). When I moved into a “condo” (read glorified apartment) building, I continued recycling and brought the bags to my girlfriend’s until I got dumped and then I dumped the bags off with my parents, which made things come full circle from back when my mom would bring me her paper. I wasn’t always a recycling master though. I learned from a woman who has been deemed “The Recycling Queen of Mount Pearl” that you can recycle your beer caps as well.
I’ve even been known to fish out recyclables from precarious places as evidenced in this photo.
The Curbside Recycling program here in the city is fairly simple. Bi-weekly your recycling is collected. The process is a lot less confusing than it seems, and if you save your cans and bottles, it’s even easier. Basically, all papers go in one bag and everything else in the other. (“Everything else” includes things like milk cartons, shampoo bottles and other plastics, tin cans, and your beer stoppers.)
So if the recycling program in St. John’s is as simple as I’m saying it is, why do I feel like all my friends are wasters? My father, for example, was against the idea of recycling because I think he hates change even more than I do and he’s not as big on Captain Planet as I am. Some friends of mine have claimed that they simply don’t have the room to keep the bags while waiting for bi-weekly pickups. Yet others just throw paper and containers into the trash seemingly with no regard.
I reached out to the city of St. John’s and after going around in circles for a bit I was finally put in touch with current City Councillor, mayoral candidate and Chair of the Public Works Standing Committee, Danny Breen. I communicated with Councillor Breen via email and he was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about the Curbside program.
Councillor Breen said that the City is very pleased with the recycling program since its inception in 2010. “We have diverted over 20,000 tonnes of recyclable material away from the landfill,” he writes and states that 65% of households in the city are participating. Those participating residents seem to really know how to recycle because Councillor Breen reported that “[t]he finished bales of recyclable materials that we produce has a very low contamination rate (around 3%) which is the lowest in Canada. That makes our product highly desirable by end users, and is indicative of the quality of care that people put in sorting their recycling properly.”
So what about the other 35%? How does the City address residents who choose not to recycle? According to Councillor Breen, St. John’s has staff that goes door to door visiting residents who aren’t recycling. He says these visits provide an opportunity to have “one-on-one contact” with target residents. “Once engaged, we will provide residents with information on what can be recycled, describe the benefits of our waste app, and even give some free samples of blue recycling bags. We will listen to the residents as to what is preventing them from recycling and try to address those concerns.”
In terms of providing advice to those residents who might be confused as to how to start recycling, Councillor Breen suggests starting with paper and cardboard first. “Get used to the habit of recycling and then expand into other materials.” Breen notes that these interactions between city staff and non-recycling residents often yield positive results and that these visits are often followed up on.
For those residents who aren’t recycling and haven’t received a visit from the City but still think the program is too confusing or that recycling takes up too much space, the City also can help. They provide brochures, have a website, an app as well as YouTube videos to assist residents. Councillor Breen says that city staff is also available to offer support on how to set up a recycling system that will take up minimal space and brainstorm strategies to offer support on how to change waste habits. “Once in the habit, recycling becomes easier and easier. People are often surprised with how much they can divert from their garbage and can take pride in having fewer garbage bags to place at the curb every week.” Breen says that residents can reduce their garbage by up to 50% by recycling at the curb.
I was interested to see if the City has plans to increase the scope of the Curbside program with all the talk of climate change, the environment as well as tougher economic times dominating news headlines. Councillor Breen said that St. John’s is always interested in finding ways to improve waste diversion rates. He noted that this year, the City began accepting yard waste all year long as opposed to only in the fall. This collected yard waste is diverted from landfills and composted. Breen says that this program can be done using existing resources and “should provide a measurable decrease in the tonnage of wastes from St. John’s going to landfill”.
The City also uses social media to keep residents up to date and informed about the recycling program (follow them on Twitter, @curbitstjohns) as well as trying to get them engaged in seasonal initiatives. One such initiative was #deboxingdays which ran before and Christmas 2016 that reminded residents about the importance of recycling cardboard and encouraged them to do so while posting a picture on social media with the hashtag #deboxingdays. This campaign saw a 48% increase in cardboard recycling compared to the same time in 2015. The City also accepts real Christmas trees (with drop off points at Robin Hood Bay or Quidi Vidi Lake) at the end of the Holidays. These trees are chipped and used in composting and landscaping projects throughout green spaces in St. John’s. On average the number of recycled trees has been about 3,000.
St. John’s, like the rest of the province may have been a bit late to the recycling party but it seems that significant progress is being made in terms of reducing waste and keeping it out of landfills. I seriously encourage my friends and anyone who reads this post and doesn’t participate in Curbside Recycling to take a look at the resources I’ve mentioned in this article and at least heed Councillor Breen’s advice and start recycling paper and cardboard. Heck, you can even write me personally and I can give you some pointers. Why am I so adamant to help? Like the Captain Planet theme song says, “[c]cause saving our planet is the thing to do”. The song goes on to say that “looting and polluting is not the way,” and it isn’t. Plus I happen to really like this planet; all my stuff is here and I hate moving.