“You can’t teach some people,” is a phrase I’ve heard more than a few times since moving from a house to an apartment building a year ago. I used to think it was condescending to assume some people were too negligent to pay attention to important details of their daily lives, but after a year, let’s just say maybe it was that attitude of mine that was condescending.
The building where I live is very nice. Only 60 units. It was originally intended to be condos but got converted into apartments. It’s brand-new, not even two years old. When I moved into my unit, nobody before me had used the bathrooms. All the appliances were new, the walls were pristine, etc.
I was surprised at first to realize we wouldn’t be composting here. I was used to composting in my house. My green bin was always busy. I kept it clean by using liners, and in the summer I would keep one small container in the freezer for meat and other smelly organic garbage. I would only take this frozen stuff out when it was time to put the bin at the curb, on Wednesday nights. That way I saved myself the smells of putrid bones and the grossness of maggots. I didn’t have to fight raccoons so hard either. It was great.
In my new building we have a chute for garbage, and in the ground-floor garbage room there are two huge blue bins and one enormous yellow bin for paper and cardboard. When you have recycling, you bring it down and put it in the appropriate containers.
Organic waste goes in the garbage.
Would you believe how wrong it felt to toss my avocado pits, eggshells and banana peels in the trash? Very. It felt very wrong. I wondered aloud if we couldn’t maybe start collecting compost and was told, by people who know better — it turns out, rightly — that this would never work because you can’t count of tenants to deal with it right and that would cause a lot more problems including awful smells and possibly rodents.
I didn’t believe it. Surely this far into the 21st century we can count on people being able to compost?
I’ll tell you what: They were right and I was wrong. Turns out we have awful smell problems already, even though garbage gets picked up twice a week. Some days I think someone threw a dead moose in that bin for a lark. The other day someone tossed a raw chicken — a complete, naked, raw chicken, not wrapped in any way — in the blue bin where the plastic bottles and cans are supposed to go.
Every day people throw recyclable plastics in the trash, trash in the recycling bin, furniture in the cardboard box, and half-empty soda containers down the chute. Yes of course they open and spill their sticky content onto everything. Because it’s a lot easier than taking a minute to dump the unwanted rest of that Coke down the sink first.
How long have we had recycling in Ottawa, roughly? Forever and a week, right? And yet.
This building is nice. Rent isn’t cheap. The place is kept well; we have flowers outside, the grass gets cut, common areas gleam. But the garbage room is a mess because some people — it only takes a few — and I don’t know which people among the hundred or so who live here, can’t be bothered to follow simple rules that have been around for decades.
[Question: when you start fantasizing about mandatory education camps for the stubbornly recalcitrant, are you turning into a communist or a tyrant?]
When you chat with people who live in apartment buildings and/or manage them, you quickly realize the problem is more widespread than you’d have thought. It’s head-bending how much of this there is. In a nice city like Ottawa, where people claim to care about the environment but throw naked dead birds in with their recycling. I worry they’d throw styrofoam from their take-out meals in with my eggshells if we had a green bin down there.
So when City Council muses about mandating some kind of green-bin program for multi-residential buildings, I quake in my boots. I want to support the idea, but I have my doubts. I’m sure it can be done. It shouldn’t be that complicated, right? Some buildings manage it fine. This should be doable, right? Not done perfectly, because nothing ever is perfect, but well enough?
Or do we need to turn into composting tyrants first?