Do plastic bags in green bins defeat the purpose

For nearly a decade, Ottawa has had a green bin program in place to deal with compostable items. Green bins are in our homes, our schools, and in businesses across the city. The purpose for their use has been to help reduce the amount of waste going into landfills, and to help the environment. Composting, we have been told, time and again, is the way to help out the earth if we truly care about it. But a new law that went into effect on July 2, 2019, means that some items, which have been a no-no, are now allowed by the city, which may leave residents wondering if this defeats the purpose of the green bin program.

While the federal and provincial governments are trying to develop a Canada-wide, zero plastic waste policy (try finding plastic straws in any restaurant in town), the city of Ottawa has decided it needs to cater to the people who do not use their green bins because they find them “smelly and gross”. Last year, the city conducted a study on residents’ use of green bins, and found that about 30% of those who can use the bins (many apartment buildings do not allow or have the use of compost bins) do not do so because of the “ick factor”. In an attempt to ensure that more people start using the program, Ottawa city council decided in March to allow residents to add items like plastic bags, dog feces, and cat litter to green bins.

The city says that the organic waste facility it uses has been retrofitted, and plastic bags, upon arrival, will be torn apart, with the organic waste being turned into compost, while the remaining plastic bags are sent to a landfill. Ottawa is encouraging people to re-use plastic bags (like milk bags and bread bags) that might otherwise be thrown out. That statement sounds like the city is trying to mollify those worried about the environment, but it doesn’t make much sense if the plastic bags in question are still going to end up in a landfill, where they won’t break down for decades. Dog feces, which have not been allowed in landfills or green bins because it produces methane, a non-toxic, but extremely flammable greenhouse gas, has also been given the green light for green boxes.

While the city seems optimistic about the changes to the green bin program, and are hopeful that allowing people to dispose of previously prohibited items will make them more willing to use their green bins, it may take years before we see actual results, either positive or negative. In the meantime, those who already use the program will most likely continue to do so, and are hopeful that their neighbours will join them in helping out the environment.