Garbage| Less is more

By Robert Leaker

The City of Hamilton recently published their municipal performance scorecard. Since this is where all of our precious tax dollars go, I highly recommend that you read it – there are some interesting insights.

When I see how the millions in City revenue are spent, it raises questions in my mind as to what the role of government is. Does the City exist to build public infrastructure or set policy that encourages efficient use of tax dollars? If we could be more efficient with essential services, we could invest more in public infrastructure such as public transit, parks, library and perhaps even tax cuts.

Obviously, there are essential services the city must provide such as road maintenance, potable and waste water management, and waste collection. But what about the government’s role to create and set policies that maximize the efficiency of our tax dollar spend?

For example, let’s talk about garbage.

I have a family of six and I’m happily complying with the weekly one bag waste limit. In fact, I could probably get this down to one bag every other week without too much trouble. What this garbage limit has done however, is make me realize just how much other stuff gets diverted for recycling. I thought the order was Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

It would seem the consumer packaging industry has put society under environmental and economic siege.

Picking through my weekly recycling makes me realize just how much useless consumer packaging exists for the sake of marketing alone. And now after reading the municipal performance report, I can see not only the societal costs (to the environment), but also the real dollar costs.

The numbers
Over the past five years, Hamilton has done a reasonable job of diverting more recycling from landfill. Our diversion rates have progressed from 41% in 2006 to 48% in 2010. This is likely due to the recycling programs and has a net positive effect on the environment. However, the total tonnage of stuff being hauled from our driveways was only modestly impacted over the same period. With the same amount of stuff being collected and the total cost of disposal (including diversion) increasing over time, this area of municipal management will continue to chew through $45 million of our tax dollars at an continuously increasing rate.

Is there anything the municipal government can do to decrease the total tonnage collected? If 80% of the stuff I haul out is unnecessary consumer packaging that I don’t want in the first place, is there not a role the municipal, provincial and possibly federal governments could play to restrict its creation in the first place? Real savings of tens of millions of dollars could be allocated to better infrastructure, or better yet, to tax reductions.

Similar arguments could be made on other areas of spending as well. Are we throwing tax dollars at the underlying problems of our community or at the management of the outcomes? Do we need more police or more early intervention with at-risk youth?

Should we be increasing waste water management infrastructure or using less water? Building more roads or funding public transport? If our government really looked at the numbers, they might be coming up with better solutions.

ROBERT LEAKER is the Vice-President of Emerging Markets and Innovation at Meridian Credit Union.

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