#9. To Tip or Not to Tip

There is no doubt that good service demands a tip. Even in those situations when we’re not sure if the tip is included or if we should go 10%, 15%, 18% or even higher, there’s wisdom in tipping and tipping fairly, if not well. Even if we get it wrong, it’s good karma. This kind of tip is positive energy, for something done well.

But in the landfill world, the tipping fee is not an incentive. It’s not for something done well. It’s to discourage something that prevailing attitudes deem undesirable. We pay at landfills to dump materials. This is meant to both raise money to help manage the landfill as well as discourage people from dumping – and by extension – producing too much garbage. Some characterize it as a tax. Is it a good tax?

This is the opposite approach to the deposit program. We receive benefits for returning beverage containers. It’s true that the fee was imposed at purchase and is only returned later, but the action of returning (and the whole point of the program in the first place) comes with our action. We might even return ones we did not buy or retrieve litter. It’s a motivating reward.

Is it better in the long run to penalize people for undesirable behavior or reward them for desirable behavior?

So, with a tipping fee, does the nip at the pocketbook at the landfill actually translate into a philosophical look at one’s own garbage production? Does it engage that thinking? Is it better in the long run to penalize people for undesirable behavior or reward them for desirable behavior? This is a good question.

One of the challenges at the TS is the increasing volume of material coming through the gate. It has risen inordinately – both recyclables and garbage. There has not been a sudden increase of population or activity in Mount Lorne to explain this. It seems that much of the increase is from people outside of Mount Lorne bringing their material to the TS. Why does this happen?

The growing Whitehorse population and the rate of consumption triggered a realization that its landfill was approaching full capacity. Public support and good governance have ensured that the landfill stays organized and the City recycles what it can. Increased education about minimizing garbage through sorting and diverting has helped to extend the life of the landfill. Raven Recycling, Zero-Waste Yukon, P&M Recycling, and Whitehorse Blue Bin Recycling are among the partners in this formula along with the City’s compost pick-up program. They help divert materials from the landfill, thus extending its life.

For a number of years, there have been tipping fees at the City of Whitehorse landfill. This is a common strategy to try to reduce garbage. The fees are charged at the landfill gate and target wastes that are not easily processed. The fee serves as revenue but also sends a message: “It will cost you to get rid of that”. Maybe that would make me think twice about my garbage; perhaps I’d work on reducing more. Or maybe it would frustrate me because I feel penalized for disposing of something that I only purchased. I don’t feel ultimately responsible for the nature of the thing or whether it is easily recyclable.

In our society, we are mostly dealing with waste at the back-end after consumer use. That’s when it shows up as a problem. It’s in the hands of millions of people whose individual actions have to get it back into another system. It’s a bit of a strange set-up. All that effort into encouraging consumption and so little effort around closing the end loop even as we can often ‘see it coming’ with design, distribution, advertising, and retail. Since I have no say in how items are produced, how does my individual purchase result in the responsibility to dispose of it ethically or environmentally? In fact, why do cities and towns have to figure this out? Perhaps the role of the producer cannot be overlooked any longer.

Fees that are deterrents make a fine point on what not to do, but unfortunately, are not too specific on what to do.

But for now, as it is mostly in individual hands, there are different value systems and motives in play. People faced with a tipping fee might pay the fee and make their contribution to the current system. Great. Oddly though, a tipping fee is not just a deterrent to garbage output, but also kind of a deterrent to buy again, thus confusing the consumer role in the economic model. The tendency of passing the responsibility of materials disposal to the consumer might not actually be in many corporations’ best interests.

Fees that are deterrents make a fine point on what not to do, but unfortunately, are not too specific on what to do. Faced with a fee in their city, it is understandable that some people would rather drive 30 or 40 minutes to the Mount Lorne TS (and back) to dispose of garbage and recyclables. They might not count their time or their fuel in the transaction. Maybe they return with some choice items from the free store. From their view it can feel like a win-win situation.

But for the local materials system, it is not. The TS is a Transfer Station, not a landfill. Everything (except wood and organics) is transferred (driven back) to Whitehorse for processing. So, from the materials processing viewpoint, the drive out is redundant and a waste of energy. The extra volume coming to the TS isn’t just getting buried like in a landfill; it is processed, sorted and handled by the TS staff. It taxes their time and ability to handle the volume.

With fees or no fees, the take-home message calls for greater awareness about physical waste types and volumes. Whether we build it, sell it, buy it, or recycle it, the solid waste road-map is shared.

Tipping fees at the Whitehorse landfill may encourage some people to think about their garbage but as the out-lying community transfer stations become inundated, like the Whitehorse landfill once was, the problems mount once more.

Do tipping fees signal more awareness around garbage and recycling volumes, or do they encourage avoidance and foster a negative feeling around waste solutions? Maybe some of both. It just doesn’t feel like an ideal system yet.

I’m playing at more than one angle but good solutions call for taking a hard look at many views. Pollution penetrates plants, water, animals, and us. We need to get a much better handle on it. With fees or no fees, the take-home message calls for greater awareness about physical waste types and volumes. Whether we build it, sell it, buy it, or recycle it, the solid waste road-map is shared.

The volumes have to be reduced but I’m not clear whether the tipping fee is necessary or effective. I’m hopeful that producers and agencies find more ways to develop easily recyclable products and packaging or introduce incentives and rewards to influence desirable behavior rather than deter undesirable behavior. More seems to get done when we feel positive about what we’re doing rather than feeling negative. But both ways do draw attention to the materials. That’s what we need.

~ Ross Burnet ~
rbmountlorne(at)northwestel(point)net