To Serve and Collect
An ode to the army who enables our green conscience and takes out the trash.
Welcome to a humid, sunny, 33°C mid-July day in northwest Orangeville. On this day I’m embedded with a top-notch force committed to a battle all Headwaters residents can identify with. Armed with nothing more than a big honkin’ truck, a high-vis vest, and a firmly suppressed gag reflex, we’re frontline in the war on waste. Or to put it another way, getting rid of your stinking, rotten leftovers.
Our commander in the theatre of war is Brandon Muir, a Green for Life operations manager who oversees the northwest Greater Toronto Area. GFL has a seven-year contract to collect Dufferin’s garbage, recycling and compost. It’s set to expire in 2020 with an option for a three-year extension. The contract cost Dufferin about $4.1 million in 2015, or about $3.10 per average property per week.
Dufferin has a two-stream system, so one truck picks up garbage while another, with a dual-bin system, picks up recycling and compost. GFL has 15 trucks assigned to Dufferin’s waste, seven to each stream and one for yard waste. Muir says, “Garbage trucks hold 10 to 12 tonnes, so they only empty once a day. But the recycling trucks only hold three and a half to four tonnes, so they usually empty twice. Recycling is lighter, but doesn’t compress like garbage.”
Each truck costs between $250,000 and $300,000, and lasts about ten years. The entire fleet runs on compressed natural gas. Muir says, “They’re cheaper than diesel. And although there’s more maintenance, they have much cleaner emissions.”
The recycling component goes to GFL’s Dufferin Transfer Station in Amaranth, and from there it’s shipped to one of three sorting facilities located in Guelph, Peel and Vaughan. Organic waste goes to the composting facility at Caledon’s old landfill site west of Caledon Village. Garbage, meanwhile, takes an international road trip. The vast majority goes directly from the transfer station to a landfill in Michigan.
All the recycling trucks are known as one-man side loaders, meaning the operator gets off at each stop and manually dumps each container. “It’s tough, physically demanding work,” Muir says. And unlike other critical community services like police, fire or paramedics, pay scales are modest. On average, drivers last four or five years before moving on to some other line of work.
Then there’s that other special perk of the job: the funky stench. Muir says, “Some new hires will come to me after a couple of hours and say, ‘I can’t do this,’ and they’re gone.”
Though there are shortages of drivers in some jurisdictions, in Dufferin GFL has had no problem thanks to a partnership with Taylor Truck Training Services in Mono. It supplies a steady crop of recent graduates with the required DZ licence. There are very few women doing the job, though Muir has heard of identical twins who worked together in Hamilton.
Now let’s meet the true hero of this piece, Kevin Botting. He’s the 31-year-old GFL driver/loader who drew the short straw and had to put up with an idiot journalist tagging along. More important, he’s the foot soldier who comes face to face – sometimes, as you’re about to see, quite literally – with whatever filthy, repulsive thing you’ve left festering in your green bin.
Botting has been working for GFL for about a year and is one of those graduates from Taylor Truck Training.
On in-town routes, Botting and each of his coworkers do an average of 800 to 1,000 stops a day, four days a week. Read that again. Can you imagine? The number is lower on rural routes, simply because of the greater distance between stops.
Botting is quick and nimble, an affable, well-spoken guy possessed of a surprisingly upbeat attitude despite his, well, aromatic undertaking.
For many of us, the people who handle waste are invisible. They come while we’re away at work and we never see them. That’s not true for everyone however, and Botting says the best part of the job is the relationships he has developed with people on his routes. “When I started this job,” he says, “I expected to get the cold shoulder, but instead I’ve got to meet lots of interesting people.”
There are even kind souls who wait by the window for his arrival, coming out to offer bottled water.
Just as he’s telling me this, we pull up to a stop where he affords some special consideration. “This lady is bee phobic,” he says, “so she asked that I move her bins well away from the neighbours’.”
On we go. Zoom. Stop. Dump. Dump. Zoom. Stop. Dump. Dump. Every so many beats there’s the triple-squish hum of the compactor.
A few doors later, there’s a momentary pause in the almost staccato rhythm. Botting jumps back into the cab and grabs a dreaded green sticker, used to inform residents their blue box contents have been rejected. “There’s a box here filled with lumber,” he says. “Who puts lumber in the blue box?”
Botting averages one or two rejected boxes a day. Occasionally there will be repeat offenders who, as Muir says, “just use the blue box as another garbage bin.” In those cases, there are a series of steps which ultimately lead to a Dufferin County waste employee knocking at the door and offering a lesson in how to use your blue box. If that happened to me, I’d blush like a kid caught doing something bad in Grade 2.
Drivers always do the same routes, “so you get to know the hazards,” Botting says. “Like the steep hills on my route in Mulmur in the winter.” People generally understand though. “If the recycling isn’t picked up, most residents know why.”
Botting’s story most likely to trigger your gag reflex? There are lots of hunters in the area. Sometimes they dispose of the waste from their kills by slopping it, unbagged, into the green bin, where it sits in the warmth, or out in the sun, and turns rancid.
Unaware of the contents, Botting comes along one day, grabs the mostly liquid-filled bin, and it slops down the front of his shirt. “Imagine what it’s like to have to wear that for the rest of the day,” he says.
But it gets worse. A few minutes later he discovers the tickling on his arm is squirming maggots.
I mean, really, people? For heaven’s sake, think of Kevin! Use the compostable bags!
Another less-than-charming scenario for driver/loaders: all those turkey holidays – thousands upon thousands of other people’s rotting bird carcasses, furry Brussels sprouts and mouldy mashed potatoes.
While Botting slops it out in the trenches, the muckety-mucks are also up to their armpits in it.
In June 2016, the province passed the Waste-Free Ontario Act and Strategy, which will overhaul the more than 20-year-old regulations that govern recycling in Ontario.
You see, the province has a problem. While we humble householders pat ourselves on the back for reducing our garbage output, in fact overall waste diversion rates in Ontario flatlined more than a decade ago, stubbornly remaining at about 25 per cent.
That percentage contrasts rather starkly with the sorts of diversion rates municipal programs in Headwaters claim. In a June press release, Dufferin trumpeted the county had achieved a 55.1 per cent diversion rate in 2014, one of the highest in the province. In that same year, Peel Region was at 45.1 per cent and Wellington County at 40.1. Provincially, municipal programs average about 50 per cent.
The thing is, on a provincial level about 60 per cent of the overall waste stream comes from the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sector. Everything from the box your car parts were shipped to the dealer in, which you never saw, to the massive volumes of food thrown out by supermarkets and restaurants. And those streams usually aren’t part of municipal collection programs.
While recycling was embraced by the public, the residential stream only contributes a relatively small fraction of the total volume. And it’s a lot of waste – all combined about a tonne for every Ontario resident per year.
According to a Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change backgrounder, the new legislation seeks to:
- foster innovation in product and packaging design that encourages businesses to design long-lasting, reusable and easily recyclable products
- boost recycling across all sectors, especially in the industrial, commercial and institutional sectors, which will reduce waste and lower greenhouse gas emissions
- provide incentives for companies to look for ways to make their recycling processes more economical while staying competitive
- shift the costs of the blue box from municipal taxpayers to producers while continuing to provide convenient collection services for Ontarians
- develop an action plan to reduce the amount of organic materials going to landfills.
You can find the full Act and Strategy online. In short, residents will continue to put their blue box out at the curb, but there will be some momentous changes behind the scenes.
Municipalities will likely continue to run the curbside collection show. Shifting more responsibility for ICI waste onto producers may raise diversion rates there, but there is little in the legislation to directly boost residential diversion, where recycling burnout may be becoming a factor.
While there are those who fastidiously rinse and sort and research what goes where, many others feel they’re already doing as much as they’re willing to. They want their stuff taken away; they don’t really want to know how, where, or even why, and they don’t want to work too hard at figuring it all out.
Nevertheless, the Act, which the Toronto Star called “visionary,” enjoys support from many in the waste sector, though there are concerns it will get lost in the 2018 election cycle.
Four hours after my ride-along with Botting, my laundry-fresh-that-morning clothing still reeks, and I didn’t even touch the stuff. I changed my shirt, but the stink was still there. “Honestly,” he says, “You get used to it. I found the first week pretty tough, but I hardly notice it anymore.”
Not all heroes wear capes. Botting would wear his backwards anyway, because what he really needs is a bib.
Wearing another hat, GFL manager Brandon Muir has also been an occasional contributor to this magazine. See his 2006 story on driving a snowplow, “Riders on the Storm,” and his 2011 story, “A Day in the Life of a Volunteer Firefighter” .