OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
June 5, 1972
If you were to do a word search for “recycling” in North American newspapers, you would find very little prior to about 1970.
Before then the word simply did not exist in our everyday lexicon. But that dramatically changed with the growing awareness of the consequences of pollution. In 1965, U.S. President Johnson warned Congress that the burning of fossil fuels was leading to “a steady increase in carbon dioxide” in the atmosphere. He added that “pollution destroys beauty and menaces health,” and “the longer we wait to act the greater the dangers and the larger the problem.” Four years later, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire (again). Startling images of flames shooting up from the surface of the river to engulf ships and bridges seared our collective consciousness. People began asking what they could personally do to help; recycling provided a partial answer.
This is not to say people didn't care about pollution before then. People certainly did. In 1897, the editor of Ottawa’s Evening Journal complained about Ottawa’s high death rate and how it was affected by the lack of a system for disposing of the city’s refuse.
“[T]here still remains the unsolved problem of disposing of house refuse, ashes, waste paper and an endless variety of more or less odorous and ornamental material which still disgraces our streets, pollutes our backyards, and in undergoing fermentative processes certainly endangers the health of the community,” it read.
But most viewed pollution as the unavoidable, albeit regrettable, consequence of industry, jobs and prosperity.
Recycling is nothing new either. Think of the traditional rag and bones man who scavenged for old clothes, bones, scrap metal, paper and other items.
But the motivation was profit not pollution. Here in Canada, by 1900 the federal government was putting out the collection of its waste paper to tender to raise extra revenue. The first big city-wide paper recycling campaign in Canada was launched in Ottawa by the Laurentian chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.).
In September 1915, the Chapter asked Ottawa’s Board of Control for permission to place bins on Ottawa’s streets to collect bundles of old newspapers, magazines, catalogues, and writing paper for collection. Within weeks, red waste paper bins sprouted on Ottawa street corners. The collected paper was taken to a warehouse where it was weighed and sold. The proceeds were used to supply “comforts” to Canadian troops in the trenches in France.
The Chapter also asked car owners to volunteer their vehicles to pick up paper bundles that were too heavy to bring to the collection bins. A depot on Kent Street was also open every Thursday for anyone to drop off their waste paper. Later, one could call “Queen 631” for a truck to come and pick up bundles of unwanted paper.
The program was a huge success. During the war, the waste paper scheme collected more than 1,500 tons of waste paper, raising some $20,000 for Canadian troops. In 1920, the I.O.D.E. scheme was merged with a similar but newer paper pick-up organized by the Y.W.C.A. The merged program was named The Amalgamated Paper Schemes.
But the joint enterprise folded the following year owing to a decline in waste paper prices that made paper collection unprofitable. Subsequently, other organizations, including the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army, and church groups, organized paper drives when waste paper prices rose to profitable levels.
In 1939, the Journal reported that 3,000 tons of paper were being collected annually in Ottawa worth more than $25,000. The prevailing price at that time was about $8 a ton, but reportedly had been as high as $30 a ton in 1932. Prices varied according to the quality of the paper collected. Old writing paper was twice as valuable as waste newspaper.
World War II saw a revival of regular waste paper collection in Ottawa. Within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities, Mrs Anna. W. Margosches organized a regular paper drive under the auspices of the United War Services, with the proceeds going to fund entertainment for troops stationed in the capital. Residents were asked to telephone “Paper Collections” at 3-4097 for a truck to come by and pick up bundles of waste paper. Bags were handed out in which to collect the paper. People tagged them “For the Soldiers Entertainment Committee.” The organization later expanded its collections to cover good scrap metals (iron, brass, copper, steel, aluminum) and glass jars and bottles. Tin cans were also accepted for a time but their collection was discontinued owing to low tin prices.
After the war, service organizations and church groups persevered with scrap collections. One particularly successful waste paper collection was organized by L’Association Missionnaire de Marie Immaculée that operated from the 1940s until well into the 1970s. It collected 125-185 tons of waste paper annually, netting $1,000-1,500 for charity and mission work each year. The Boy Scouts were also very active.
Large-scale, regular collections of waste paper resumed in the Ottawa area in 1970 in Kanata, then part of March Township. This time pollution control rather than profit was the prime motivation, though earning money rather than spending money on waste was a great additional incentive. At the beginning of November of that year, the March Township Council in partnership with Pollution Probe organized a three-month trial collection of waste paper.
The “Save-A-Tree” program was later extended to twelve months before it was made permanent. Instead of putting paper out for regular garbage pick-up, a private contractor collected the waste paper twice monthly and sold it to the Florence Paper Company for $8-10 per ton.
This was a recycling first in Ontario. In its first year of operation, the collection brought in 162 tons of paper, realizing a small profit which in 1972 the township and Pollution Probe put towards bottle recycling—another first in the province. The Village of Rockcliffe followed Kanata’s lead and introduced regular paper collection in September 1971.
In Ottawa, encouraged by the success of the Kanata program, the Glebe Community Association spearheaded by Mrs Luke and Mrs A. C. Holden organized a successful paper drive in late April 1971. In June, a similar paper collection was jointly organized by a number of Ottawa community associations. That same month, Pollution Probe in co-operation with the University of Ottawa and supported by a grant from the government’s Opportunities for Youth program, opened depots across the city for residents to drop of their waste newspapers through the summer.
The City of Ottawa finally got into the act with trial waste-paper collection scheme at the end of October 1971. Each week for four weeks, a different quarter of the city was targeted for waste paper pick-up. The first zone to be serviced was the area north of the Queensway, between Fisher Avenue and the Rideau River, to the city limits in the south. Controller Lorry Greenberg, who led the project, expected the project to be economically viable once residents became aware of the new scheme. In the interim the city was willing to bear a loss.
Participation was lower than expected. The Journal said Ottawa residents suffered from “ecological apathy.” To boost participation, the city enlisted the help of clowns, some of whom were kids from Canterbury High School, to stir up excitement in neighbourhoods and boost paper collection. But during the four-week period, the city collected a much lower than expected 428 tons of waste paper, and incurred a net loss of $6,294 although it did save an estimated 4,488 trees.
For a while it looked like a permanent scheme was going to be still-born. The pilot project had been greeted with ennui by the majority of Ottawa citizens, and had lost a considerable amount of money.
However, the outlook radically improved when Ottawa’s garbage contractor, H.O. Sanitation, offered to pick up the paper at no extra cost to the city. To reduce labour costs, the contractor modified its trucks so that paper could be placed in segregated containers.
This allowed garbage collectors to pick up waste paper at the same time as regular garbage. The City also received petitions, and hundreds of telephone calls from citizens urging it to introduce a permanent recycling program. Citizens that attended a public meeting on recycling were also encouraging. Thus, starting on Monday, 5 June 1972, Ottawa homeowners began to put out bundles of paper for curbside collection on their regular garbage days.
To break even, H. O. Sanitation needed to collect at least 40 tons of paper per day. That first Monday’s pick-up was a success. Some 70 tons of paper were collected. By the end of the first week, 350 tons of paper were sent to E.B. Eddy for recycling. There were problems, however. Some apartment superintendents were not co-operating in the separation of garbage. And only half of the garbage trucks had been modified.
More seriously, daily collection amounts began to drop. It seems that the early success was due to some homeowners storing their waste paper in anticipation of the start of the program. Once that backlog had been picked up, the day-to-day collections fell. Also, many households were not recycling their waste paper, finding it easier to throw it out with the rest of their garbage. Still, Ottawa’s recycling program was deemed a sufficient success for John Turner, the then federal Finance Minister, to “plant” a tree behind City Hall on Green Island in recognition of Ottawa being the first Canadian city to launch a city-wide waste paper recycling program.
In fact, the tree had been planted a month earlier, and Turner just moved a couple of spadesful of soil around its base.
In December 1974, paper recycling screeched to a halt when the City suspended the program. One thing the city hadn’t counted on was a fall in waste paper prices brought about by the increased supply. E.B. Eddy had foreshadowed this possibility back in 1971 when it cautioned people that they were already getting all the used paper they could use to produce cardboard. The City did, however, start to recycle bottles and tin cans at three drop-off depots. An experimental monthly pick-up was also established in Manor Park. The glass, separated by colour, was crushed and sent to Montreal to be converted into new glass products. Tin cans that had been washed and flattened with their bottoms and tops cut out were stored until sufficient stocks warranted being shipped to Hamilton for reprocessing.
Despite early setbacks, the three cities of Ottawa, Nepean and Gloucester jointly introduced in 1987 the curbside Blue Bin program to recover recyclable household waste. The program was operated under contract with Laidlaw Waste Systems.
In 1991, the City distributed backyard composers to Ottawa households in an effort to divert kitchen waste from city landfills. In 2010, Ottawa began the curb-side collection of organic wastes. Through its current black bin (paper), blue bin (metals and plastics) and green bin (organics) program, the City earned $10 million in 2016, and diverted tens of thousands of tons of waste from the Trail Road Waste Facility, thereby extending its life. According to City figures, 93 per cent of newspaper and 90 per cent of cardboard are recycled. Concurrently, 71 per cent of steel and tin cans, 64 per cent of aluminum cans, and roughly 75 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled.
Despite this success, Ottawa only diverted 44 per cent of its waste from landfills in 2016, a smaller percentage than the Ontario average, and far lower than Toronto’s diversion rate. Only 51 per cent of Ottawa households use their green bins for recycling kitchen scraps into compost owing to what has been called “the yuck factor.”
A quarter of Ottawa citizens don’t recycle at all. According to Waste Watch Ottawa, the City could take a number of measures to improve its diversion rate through better education of its citizens, targeting multi-residential buildings, and the provision of larger blue and black recycling bins. The organization also recommends that the City consider the adoption of a user pay system for garbage, the mandatory use of clear plastic bags (bags containing recyclable items would not be picked up), and a reduction in the number of bags of garbage that would be picked up from a household each week.