The bane and benefit of Ottawa’ garbage scavengers,Steve Desroches is a former City Councillor and Deputy Mayor.
This terrible pandemic has many of us confined to our homes in exile from our workplaces and schools. This tedious situation has given us the unique opportunity to observe the landscape of everyday life on our neighborhood streets. Glancing out our windows we frequently see dog walkers, runners, cyclists, strollers and the busy legion of parcel delivery trucks. One of the highlights of the week for my kids is the weekly visit of the municipal garbage and recycling truck. Not surprisingly, the City of Ottawa recently reported that the crews were collecting more waste and recycling material than usual given the higher number of homebodies. Pent up at home we are hauling more garbage and recycling to the curb. Given the higher quantity of weekly garbage, the price tag for waste collection is on the rise. The increase in cost can be attributed to the fact the city pays the waste collection contractors for their service by the weight of material they haul to the dump. It is a fair pricing method given the varying quantities of waste left at the curbside. Walk down your street on any given garbage day to see the range of large and small quantities of household garbage. The assorted trash heaps includes all kinds of items such as old mattresses, toys, bikes and furniture – you name it! Although the city collects some revenue from the recycled material like aluminum cans, it is not enough to off-set the cost of refuse materials destined for the landfill. There is also some revenue for the city coffers from the scrap medal that can be collected once it reaches the dump. Scrap metal can take the form of old appliances, BBQs and metal parts in all shapes and forms. In any one year the City of Ottawa collects a modest amount of revenue from the scrap metal collected. The financial windfall varies based on the market value for metals. During my time at City Hall I asked City officials if we could maximize the scrap metal revenue to help give the ratepayers a break on their tax bill. I was told that the city had some stiff competition for the discarded items left at the curb. You may have seen scavengers on your street with their pick-up trucks. Or you may have noticed that a re-usable item left at the curb was gone by the next morning. Technically, the city’s by-laws prohibit curbside scavenging. However, the removal of loose and uncontained items such as “bulky items, furniture and similar items” is permitted. The provisions are consistent with the objective of reducing the amount of waste going to landfill. Like it or not, these scavenging entrepreneurs help expand the life of our growing landfills. No-one wants a new dump in their backyard. The scavengers are effectively the silent and stealthy partners in our city’s waste diversion strategy. If someone will pick up an old couch for free then taxpayers are better off and it is one less item destined for the landfill. If the scavenger can resell the item for re-use there are green benefits. The second-hand thrift market also helps low-income families who may rely on affordable used goods. The downside is that the scavengers take away some of the treasures that could be scrapped for cash by the city. With all the city’s priorities and pressures, it would be hard to justify the resources to enforce a ban on scavenging and the mobilization of a “garbage police” force. It is a dirty job and one of those cases where you take the good with the bad.
Steve Desroches is a former City Councillor and Deputy Mayor. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDesroches