Pointing fingers over new recycling program

First published: December 16, 2006

While Northumberland County’s new recycling program created a stir among some residents, the problems it uncovered are not the ones getting all the attention. In fact, the current public discussions need to be more carefully considered before any action is taken.

On Nov. 21, the county launched its Recycle Clean program aimed at generating more efficient and cost effective system by placing more responsibility with the public around pre-sorting material and reducing the amount of lost time at the recycling plant in Grafton. Employees were sorting of all kinds of non-recyclables and shipping them to the landfill. The county stood to save up to $300,000, if it could do stop this practice. Plus, there were a number of items that were not cost effective to recycle anymore.

In short, people were too lazy to recycle properly, so it was costing taxpayers a lot of money. Also, the plant needed some new equipment, about $800,00 worth of retrofits and new machines, to make its operation run more smoothly.

When the first round of household pick-ups began, the collectors took a hard line, leaving bags on the curbside, about one in 50 to 75 bags, according to reports. A flurry of public outrage ensued, along with angry letters to the editor and finger-wagging editorials and radio commentary. There were 300 calls from Port Hope residents alone on a single day.

But, the finger pointing did not end there. Last week, Port Hope Deputy Mayor Jeff Lees capitalized on the public outrage in a shameless act of political opportunism calling on county transportation and waste director Pam Russell to come to the next council meeting to explain herself and the program. Notable, it was former mayor, Rick Austin, who was a chief supporter of the new program. Maybe Mr. Lees ignorance about the program reflects more on his own council’s lack of communication than the county’s.

And maybe this is the point. Citizens of Northumberland must take a portion of the responsibility here. It is not the county’s fault entirely. In fact, it anticipated resistance. The report presented to the county about these changes said between 15 to 30 per cent of residents surveyed would need to be convinced. And, some of the changes, like a return to a traditional blue box system, would not be supported by at least 50 per cent of those surveyed. So, no one at the county is too surprised by the outrage.

Think about it: 1,500 people called out of 35,000 homes served by the recycling program. That is not that many. There will always be people who don’t like change. Some residents bucked at the blue box program when it was introduced decades ago. Others moaned when the county started charging for garbage pick up. The recent increase in bag tag fees also created a stir. Politicians and bureaucrats know this and accept it as part of any meaningful transition when introducing new policies.

More importantly, it is our own apathy to blame. When people are not engaged in civic life, this is the result. Public meetings were offered (more about this later), but only 30 people showed up in Brighton and 20 in Cobourg. There was a survey. It is difficult to sympathized when people just won’t show up. Many people threw the education package out with their junk mail. So, we can’t get all that angry is we don’t take the time to be involved in the public process.

But, local government must rethink how it connects with the public. This is a blazing example of why old methods of engaging citizens no longer work. After a municipal election where public accountability and transparency was an issue, there needs to be a fundamental shift. The old public meetings, process-driven consultations don’t work. Citizens must be re-engaged on new levels with new strategies that meet the modern demands of the community and people’s lifestyles. Also, taxpayers need to be educated on how to be better citizens. Many don’t understand or appreciate the importance of how to be effective. The recycling program is an excellent example of how the old ways really don’t work.

But, the county must also take responsibility. The public consultation process was abysmal. Two meeting, one in Brighton and the other in Cobourg, does not constitute effective public engagement. There was nothing in Port Hope or Campbellford, two major urban centres in the county. The survey is a joke. An online component is limited to those with technology and is riddle with problems. Expecting people to come and get a copy from the county buildings is ludicrous. Shame on the consultants. This only adds to the cynicism of citizens who feel disenfranchised by government. Considering former county employee Mary Little was one of the people working for the firm, she knows better and should have more respect for Northumberland taxpayers.

What is worse, the consultant’s report said a one-year education plan must be done before any equipment modifications. Instead, the program was put in place in six month. Politicians failed to ensure the program was done properly and county staff rushed. (It is also notable the program was introduced after the municipal election rather than before to avoid it becoming big problem for incumbents.)

Sadly, the county is caught in a bind. If it hired a communications firm to handle the education process, it would be incredibly expensive, creating only more criticism. And, it probably did not budget enough money for the public consultations, so corners were cut.

It is wrong to chastise the county as the sole architect of the current problems facing the introduction of the new recycling program. Citizens must also wear a portion of blame. Until we are more engaged in public life and become involved on an continuous basis, we are likely to see more rather than less of these kinds of problems. But politicians and bureaucrats must also reflect heavily on this if they hope to govern effectively. Otherwise, both sides will only be left with anger and cynicism: a deadly combination for any democracy.

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