High Rise Recycling Rates Not So High


By: Isaac Thornley

Illustration/Max Parr

Illustration/Max ParrToronto’s apartment and condo residents—a demographic referred to as “multi-res” in the field of waste management—recycle at less than half the rate of those living in houses, a complicated issue that the City is working to change.

In December, the City of Toronto’s Solid Waste division launched an awareness campaign advertised throughout the TTC urging condo and apartment residents to “get with the program”—namely, recycling. The cause for low multi-res diversion rates seems to be based in practicality, convenience and infrastructure, but also in culture, a sense of anonymity and lack of community pressure.

Recycling is measured in diversion rates, i.e. the percentage of material that is reused and “diverted” from waste in landfills. The City of Toronto is almost as eager to divert waste from landfills as Trinity College is to divert fees from the UTSU. The current diversion projections for Toronto in 2014 are 68 per cent for single-family residential buildings, compared to only 30 per cent for multi-residential buildings.

To put these statistics in context, San Francisco has the best rates in America at around 80 per cent, and aims to produce zero waste by 2020. U of T posted an annual waste diversion rate of 71.5 per cent in 2012.

“In Ontario, Toronto is unique. We are a city where 50 per cent of our population now resides in multi-residential homes, if not over 50 per cent,” said Vince Sferrazza, Director of Policy and Planning for Solid Waste Toronto. A City report confirms that approximately 55 per cent of the City’s “dwelling units” are contained in multi-res buildings, meaning essentially that apartments and condos make up the majority of Toronto homes.

“Now that the city is growing up, rather than out, we must focus on improved participation and diversion in apartments and condominiums,” said Denzil Minnan-Wong, city councillor and chair of the public works and infrastructure committee, in a statement last December.

“Condo and apartment residents must stop treating their recycling like garbage, and understand their responsibility and role in reducing, reusing and recycling,” said Minnan-Wong.

Is it fair to point the finger at apartment and condo residents? Regardless of the answer, it certainly seems necessary to get people aware and talking about waste diversion and recycling, banal practices many people take for granted. The ads may seem a tad harsh, but they attempt to tap into a sort of community policing, raising awareness and perhaps a sense of guilt or responsibility.

Markham is leading the charge in Ontario with an 81 per cent diversion rate. One of their strategies has been allowing residents to put out as much trash as they want, as long as the garbage is in “see-through” bags so everyone can see who’s throwing out what. The strategy is twofold: it forces people to reflect on how they separate and manage their waste, and also forces them to put their waste on display for all their neighbours to see. The strategy works well in a city like Markham where, unlike Toronto, there is a far greater proportion of single-family homes relative to multi-residential buildings. There is a “neighbourhood watch” for recycling.

The problem of recycling in apartments and condos is tied to a larger problem of developing a sense of community and neighbourhood within high-rise buildings. Higher levels of individualism and anonymity are produced simply by the physical arrangement of the buildings. The resident is disconnected from their waste, but also from their sense of shared responsibility and community belonging.

“Recycling [in an apartment building] is an entirely individual pursuit. There is no visible effort from the landlord to encourage recycling. Since there is a garbage chute on each floor, you barely have to leave the apartment room to do the garbage,” said Ben Triolo, the Sustainability Commissioner for the UTSU.

Vince Sferrazza also highlighted the “transient nature” of apartment living, “Seeing that they are not going to be permanently at that location, [the tenant] may be less inclined to dedicate their time and resources into separating materials into streams, unlike say a single-residential family. They come and go.”

There are also linguistic and cultural factors that influence peoples’ recycling behaviours. Individuals from countries or cultures that do not practice recycling may not know to do so in Toronto. To combat this, explained Sferrazza, there is material and information on waste management offered in several languages, and there is a general emphasis of graphics over text, to instruct without language.

The infrastructural reasons are straightforward; many high-rise buildings, particularly those built in the 60s and 70s, have garbage chutes but no recycling chutes. Although by-laws have been passed in recent years to add certain recycling requirements to new developments, and to improve old developments, the biggest obstacle for multi-res residents is still the problem of inconvenience.

New buildings being constructed must now include one of four recycling systems: a chute system with a separator for waste, recyclables, and compost; two chutes, one for separated recyclables and compost, and one for waste; three chutes, one for each type of material; or finally, a waste management area on the main level.

Although the disparity between single and multi-res recycling rates is old and quite striking, things are slowly getting better. Between 2007 and 2012, diversion rates for multi-res buildings actually increased more than those for single-family buildings. Overall, however, the disparity is black and white; even with the 2014 projections, apartments and condos divert less than half as much.

There are also several initiatives being lead by Solid Waste in addition to the awareness campaign on the TTC. The Ambassador program, for example, looks for multi-res residents interested in environmental or sustainability leadership, provides them with information and resources, and facilitates their role as the recycling ambassador of their community.

High-rise recycling is the next great frontier of Toronto’s waste management landscape. Becoming a city of condos means more than concrete and glass dominating our skyline, it also invites a set of environmental issues. Everyone knows why recycling is good. It’s a no-brainer. What is not so straight-forward is figuring out how to pressure people, make them feel a part of something, to develop a certain responsibility, and then provide them with the resources to do the right thing.

This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/the-inside/high-rise-recycling-rates-not-so-high/.