Clear As Mud

Back when I was a young teenager growing up I didn’t pay much attention to politicians unless they became the subject for comedians and entertainers. That’s when I began to associate U.S. President Richard Nixon with the line “Let me be perfectly clear” after seeing Rich Little and others begin to use it as a tagline. It became a way to set up the audience for a laugh with the punchline that always followed it.


More recently lots of people (including President Obama and Prime Minister Harper) have fallen into the habit of using the line “Let’s be clear”. I always took that in a different way, thinking they were trying to be serious and emphatic. It almost felt like a challenge or a threat depending on how it was delivered. No laughs there for sure. So when I saw that HRM had chosen the line “Let’s Be Clear” as the tag for its publicity campaign around changes to garbage rules in our town, I immediately detected the subtext that went beyond the obvious reference to using clear garbage bags. They weren’t fooling around, and that became obvious when their detailed messaging started to appear. Residents were being told in no uncertain terms that they were expected to comply, or be sent to bed without their supper – or in this case, without their garbage pickup.

I bought my house in 1997, and a year later, a truck dropped a green bin at the end of my driveway. Like a lot of people, I suspect, at first I eyed it warily. But soon I found it useful, especially for yard waste. Food waste took a bit longer for me to figure out, since the countertop green bin took up too much space and was instantly relegated to a dark corner of the basement, but once I discovered the double-barrel strategy of using an empty cereal or cracker box on the counter each day for that purpose, I started to feed it that too. I was never sure where all this compost HRM was apparently generating was actually going at the end of the process, since I never saw HRM fertilizing their properties very much and I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually buy the stuff, but whatever.

The same held true for recycling. It was actually easy to keep a blue bag in a can out on the deck for bottles, jars and cans. Over time I discovered that plastics could go in there too, and so I was making use of all the streams as I understood them. Was I perfect? No. Part of that was due to my understanding of the HRM rules, which were communicated spottily at best and often seemed counterproductive, like only taking certain kinds of plastic but not others. Why? That is like saying they will take clear bottles but not brown ones. If you are trying to change people’s behavior, you should make it as easy for them as you can. That is lost on the technocrats far too often, unfortunately.

When the idea of clear bags was floated to “bring people into line” with the rules, as some councillors termed it, my back went up. I didn’t want my garbage on display, nor did I want to see that of my neighbors, and I didn’t like the idea that I needed to be shamed into following the rules. Nor did I like the idea that a contracted garbage collector who wasn’t a HRM employee had the power to refuse me pickup because of what he perceived my clear bag contained. I did understand that some people were not following the rules. I had an example up the street from me, in the form of a neighbor who always had 3 or 4 dark bags on the curb every 2 weeks, never had a blue bag that I remembered seeing, and rarely put out the green bin. This despite living alone, being retired, and probably having the time to figure it all out. It was hardly a secret that he wasn’t following the rules, and it probably wouldn’t have been that hard to identify him and others like him and target him for some help and persuasion. But like a lot of bureaucracies, HRM isn’t good at solving individual problems, preferring to use the large blunt instrument approach. And so we are now saddled with clear bags and revised rules for how to deal with your garbage.

I watched the HRM Council session the night these rules were passed and knew right away I had a problem. The original proposal, you may recall, was for some number of clear bags each pickup day, with a “privacy bag” allowed inside each for your unmentionables. That immediately started being debated – what if the privacy bag was as big as the clear bag, what if people used it to circumvent the rules, what if what if, all sorts of hypotheticals. Now, what staff originally thought on this subject, I do not know. I suspect they conceived that the nested bag would be a plastic grocery bag or kitchen catcher, and that people would understand the spirit and intent of the rules. But no, that quickly got dismissed because Council seemed to think that we were all a bunch of miscreants who would use the provision to break the rules. So instead, on the fly during the meeting they came up with the concept of one dark “privacy” bag – I call it a cheat bag – per pickup, with every other bag needing to be clear, and with no bags containing anything inside those unless they were also clear. Seems to defeat the purpose, but OK. Sounds easy, right?

Right away I could see I was going to have a problem. I have 4 cats and 5 litter boxes. Yeah, I’m crazy, but they keep me from being even more crazy. Every morning, I make the rounds with a grocery bag and a scoop and clean those boxes. So every two weeks I have 14 tied-off grocery bags that go inside garbage bags for pickup. The stuff is heavy, so I split it between two garbage bags and even at that there are times when it probably should be split 3 ways simply because of the weight of it. It makes up probably 95% or more of the weight of my garbage and probably 90% of the volume. The rest is just like everyone else’s trash. But now this would be verboten. I could use my one cheat bag for some of it but not all. What to do with the rest?

While watching the meeting that night I saw that HRM’s City Solicitor, John Traves, was taking part in the discussion. I know John from having worked with him at the Province, so I made a guess at his email address and sent him a description of my problem. To his great credit, he responded quite quickly and undertook to get an answer for me. Unfortunately the answer, when it came, was not very good. The cheat bag could be used for it as always, but that would not be able to fully solve my problem given my volume. HRM Solid Waste was going to change their guidelines from not wanting cat litter to arrive loose in a large garbage bag, and instead would now require it to be loose, if it wasn’t in a smaller clear bag. Having as yet failed to find a source for suitably-sized clear bags, which I would obviously have to buy, this is bad on a number of levels. If the large bag breaks you have a huge, stinky mess on your hands instead of just a pile of smaller bags, and I can only imagine what will happen at the HRM garbage facilities. But that was the official HRM position.

As the date drew closer and HRM went into full campaign blitz mode, I discovered some other bizarre parts to the rules. Dog owners, it turned out, were in a similar position as me when it came to their dog poop bags. These come in various colors, but not in clear. HRM was insisting on clear, but nobody makes them. Now, how a government can mandate that people use something that does not exist escapes me, but there it is. Instead, HRM suggested people use sandwich bags – the term “shit sandwich” immediately comes to mind – and expressed hope that the industry would produce the doggy product in a clear format real soon. Amazing.

Aside from pet waste, there are a bunch of other complexities that boggle my mind. Things like used paper towels still go into the green bin as always, but tissues are garbage. Huh? I was baffled when I discovered this as I had never made a distinction. It turns out that HRM decrees that tissues contain “bodily fluids” and therefore are hazardous and go into the garbage. I mean, really? If I cut myself in the kitchen the first thing I grab is a paper towel since it is right there. If I take a bite of something and discover it has red onions in it, I grab a paper napkin and spit out the contents, which includes some saliva. If the cat barfs on the floor, it gets wiped up with paper towels. Conversely, if I have a tissue nearby I might wipe up a spilled drink with it. I can understand how the subject matter experts come up with things like this, but from a consumer point of view it is senseless.

The same holds true for plastic wrap and aluminum foil. The rules make a distinction between these items being clean or soiled. I suppose it is possible to be in a situation where you would have some clean examples of these kicking around, but the vast majority have touched food and are therefore “soiled” and become garbage in HRM’s terms. Why complicate the rules by making a distinction? I can guess that someone’s solid waste best practice list has this on it, but really – why bother? What difference does it actually make? Wouldn’t making it simpler result in better compliance overall, and less risk of running afoul of the rules?

My ultimate mind-blower came on the Halifax Recycles Facebook page, where someone was answering questions about the rules. Someone asked why plastic disposable cup lids weren’t recyclable, since they had the symbol on them that was the same as a lot of other plastic items that do go in the blue bag. The answer that was given boggled me, so I’m quoting it here for clarity:

Halifax Recycles The lids as well. The recycle symbol doesn’t mean a product is accepted as recycling. It is a symbol the plastic manufacturing industry chose to identify different types of plastic.
Like • 1 • July 27 at 7:07am

And then this got posted as a follow-up:

Halifax Recycles We recycle all plastic CONTAINERS and plastic bags. We don’t look at the number on the plastic, but whether it’s a container (tub, bottle, clamshell for example) or a bag.
Like • 1 • July 27 at 7:33am

This was all news to me. I’m certainly no expert, so I have no idea of why this is the case, but I had no clue that containers and bags were so valuable while other items made of the same material were worthless. In fact I remember my surprise a few years ago when HRM announced they were now accepting #5 plastic in the blue bag, as I had always put it in there anyway. Even at that I had no idea it was just containers made of the stuff. I have a broken plastic part here from my refrigerator stamped with the #5 symbol that I was going to throw in the blue bag, but not now. Surely this makes sense to someone, but not to me. Why such a distinction? Again, make it simple for people to use, and they will comply. Deal with any variances at HRM’s end.

Most recently, there was a communications kerfuffle regarding bags. Someone on Twitter noticed a Council member’s post showing a picture of a family’s first curbside deposit under the new rules and the declaration of how easy it was. They noticed that the recycling was in a clear bag and questioned that. The answer was that it was OK to do that. This caused much consternation, since HRM Communications has been quite clear (ahem) that blue bags only were acceptable for recycling. HRM was brought into the loop and originally contradicted the Council member, then later said that no, it was OK, as long as it was an arm’s length away from the trash bag. Talk about mixed messages. Now they were contradicting everything they had said on the subject previously, including their much-touted app, along with this . As Vince Lombardi once famously said, “What the hell’s going on out there?”

The reaction of people to the rules seems all over the map. Some just seem totally confused. Some are very upset. On the other side, there have been a bunch of people saying, “No problem, works for me, the rest of you must be just a bunch of complainers” or words to that effect. Well, no. If it works for you, I’m glad. Great. But if you think for even a short time, it shouldn’t be too difficult to realize that not everyone’s situation is the same as yours, and maybe the rules don’t work for them quite so well. To some extent the same holds true for those who say “The number of complaints just shows how many people weren’t recycling before”. To that I say it has nothing to do with recycling. It has to do with the risk of getting a sticker on your trash and having it left behind if you run afoul of the rules, which as you can see from the examples I’ve given are not at all straightforward on even sensible in some cases.

I really don’t think this needs to be as hard as HRM has made it. It seems as though they expect residents to be expert trash sorters in order to meet every variation of the rules. What if they just said something like this:

1. Green bins take all organic materials – food waste, plant waste, garden waste (including grass clippings, which while not affecting me, I know some people are worked up about), and any absorbent paper. Boxboard or kraft bags can be used as a container.

2. Blue bags take all bottles, jars, cans, and plastic items containing a recycle symbol. Waste paper, shredded paper, newspaper, boxboard, and magazines go in a separate bag. Cardboard is bundled.

3. Garbage is everything else.

Forget the foolishness about worrying about what is in grocery bags or kitchen catchers, and see how it actually goes. If your kid throws the crust of his sandwich in the trash instead of the green bin, the world isn’t coming to an end. I will even concede on the clear bag issue, although I think it is foolishness, if you give me some slack on what are obviously dog poop or kitty litter bags, or a bathroom garbage can liner. As it is, I will come up with a solution to the kitty litter foolishness we have now, but it won’t be as easy or as elegant as what I’ve always done. My suggestion to HRM is to try working with people instead of hitting them over the head with a blunt instrument. Identify the areas where there are issues and deal with them, rather than starting from the position that everyone will cheat. I’m afraid what we have now is something that will blow up in Council’s collective faces if the collectors and their masters at HRM solid waste decide to get hard-nosed about compliance. Time will tell. It all depends on how HRM chooses to execute this, and whether they realize that demanding perfection from their clients – namely, us – isn’t always the right approach.

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