I have appreciated the crisp and dry fall mornings this year. They have given me an opportunity to walk to work rather than having to ride transit or drive.
But it is usually within the first minute of the walk that I encounter it: the remnants of a fast-food meal consumed overnight by some anonymous stoner and tossed from a car window or left on the curb. Or the green bag of dog feces, lovingly scooped up, tied and tossed next to a utility pole or worse, hung from a fence.
If I cut through the lane behind my favourite coffee shop, I am likely to encounter a few mattresses and other household junk. In fact, two mattresses have been propped against a building for so long they have graffiti spray-painted on them.
I have a visceral reaction to litter. It makes me angry. It makes me judge people, because the sort of litter you find says much about the lowlifes who dropped it there – they are people who enjoy fast food, smoke cigarettes, drink pop or terrible beer, and are probably inconsiderate in all other aspects of their lives. They do not live in my neighbourhood, they are just passing through. They couldn’t care less.
That the City of Vancouver has gone ahead with a cigarette-butt recycling program this week is a good thing. Now that smokers have an alternative to squashing the things out on the ground, or flicking them into the street, they can be publicly shamed when they do not drop their butts into one of the “Butt Bins” strapped to utility poles in the downtown area as part of the pilot project.
If the pilot is successful, the plan is to install more than 2,000 bins across the city.
The city probably will not put them where they are most needed – next to park benches – because people are not allowed to smoke in parks anymore. Yeah, right.
But this is one case where taking care of the little things (regardless of how toxic they may be) does nothing to help the big things take care of themselves.
The cigarette-butt recycling initiative is part of a larger report going to Vancouver City Council next week entitled “Strategic Options for Improving Litter Management.” Clearly, no one considered the acronym SOIL’M.
The report is 18 months in the making and outlines how the problem has grown, and what can be done to fix it. It also compares Vancouver with other major cities in categories such as “waste receptacles per 10,000 people” and “illegal dumping.” It’s a great read.
Turns out, the city spends about $8-million a year on street cleaning, with about half of it for emptying receptacles on the streets and in parks, and picking up litter in general.
About 8 per cent of the total budget goes to dealing with abandoned waste – big stuff like mattresses and appliances. According to the report, the number of mattresses discarded on public property between 2006 and 2012 jumped from 2,700 to 7,700. No surprise that part of that increase coincides with a $15 mattress recycling fee Metro Vancouver began charging two years ago.
The dumping of other “large housewares” such as furniture and appliances has more than tripled since 2006, with the city picking up 21,500 items in 2012. Once again, a newly introduced recycling program can be linked to the increase.
The report also says that reducing the frequency of residential garbage collection in the city has some residents dumping their trash into park bins, which might explain why the things fill up and overflow so fast. According to the report, “green bin inspection teams” – garbage sleuths – are tasked with tracking down the culprits who would put their domestic refuse into park receptacles. I have never seen such a team, but I call dibs on the reality-TV treatment.
But with all of those efforts, and all of that money spent, the city is still largely leaving it to us with community-based initiatives, Keep Vancouver Spectacular events and vigilant volunteers.
I for one will take this on with gusto. Give me a reflective vest. I will scream into the ear of anyone who jams their coffee cup into the gap between two parking meters and walks away. Heck, I do it now without the vest.
But if shame is what will motivate people to change their behaviour, you need to offer them an alternative. It is easier to toss away a pop can when no garbage can is in sight.
So it will be interesting to see whether the butt bins work, whether, when presented with an option, people will do the right thing.
In the meantime, let the shaming begin.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn