Getting Ottawans to recycle in public is harder than it sounds

Waste management staff plan to spend the summer picking through the garbage people leave at city parks for clues to solve the deceptively difficult problem of getting people to recycle in public.

Recycle bin pilot project coming to 50 parks this summer

This recycling bin, photographed in Ottawa in 2017, contains items such as a big hard plastic tray or lid on the right that isn't recyclable. It's a problem in city parks as well, and city staff are trying to figure out what to do about it. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Waste management staff plan to spend the summer picking through the garbage people leave at Ottawa's parks for clues to solve the deceptively difficult problem of getting people to recycle in public.

The solution seems so simple: if you want people to recycle at city parks, just put out blue and black bins.

But it's actually a lot more complicated to get picnicers to dump their pizza boxes, food, pet waste and other garbage in the right place, city staff told the environment and climate protection committee Tuesday.

"Our homeowners do a very good job of putting the appropriate materials in the right bin but that has not been our experience in parks," said Marilyn Journeaux, Ottawa's director of solid waste services.

A single bag of dog poop in a recycling bin could divert everything inside straight to landfills. (CBC)

Even a single bag of dog poop in the wrong place can send an entire recycle bin to the landfill, she said.

The city will launch a pilot project by placing recycle bins at 50 parks this summer, but the goal isn't so much to get people to recycle as it is to figure out what kind of bins, locations and signs people respond to.

By next summer, staff hope to have a working system for park recycling to pitch to city council.

2017 pilot didn't work out

The city plans to pilot green bins in parks in 2019, which could change the game again. That's why part of the plan involves figuring out exactly what people throw out when they're in parks.

A better understanding of how much dog poop is being thrown out compared to plastic bottles might help crews figure out what kind of bins are needed most.

"I don't understand why garbage cans are more prevalent than recycling if the majority of what is being thrown out is recyclable," said Coun. Riley Brockington, who said he often sees recyclables in the garbage cans at Mooney's Bay Park.
Coun. Riley Brockington said he's not satisfied with the job Ottawa is doing to promote recycling. (Chloé Fedio/CBC)

The city tried a pilot project last year that staff and councillors described as less than successful. One problem was the location of the bins, according to Kevin Wylie, general manager of public works and environmental services.

The plan involved putting recycling bins along the perimeter of parks so curbside garbage trucks could pick up the waste more easily. But it quickly became clear most people wouldn't make the walk to do it.

This year the city will add an insert to the same trucks that pick up garbage in parks so people don't have to walk very far.

Festivals to be targeted next

While city staff try to get a handle on parks, committee chair Coun. David Chernushenko said he plans to focus on recycling at festivals and special events.

The city doesn't ask festivals to come up with a recycling plan as part of the permit process, though some events like Bluesfest are doing that kind of work already.

"I think it is very much time to do that now," Chernushenko said.
Mallards and gulls were seen picking through garbage left on the ground in Confederation Park after Ottawa Race Weekend 2014. (CBC)

He doesn't expect adding recycling to special events would cost much, but he wants to give organizations until next summer to figure out how to tackle the issue.

Some events, like the professional sports events hosted at Lansdowne, already do a good job of diverting recyclables from landfills, he said.

Brockington and Chernushenko plan to table a motion in June asking city staff to work on a plan to make recycling mandatory for events.