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2008 04 09
Salvage Season

The scrap truck cruised along the street, stopping at a pile of bicycles placed at curbside for pickup. Moments later the driver paused in front of our home, glanced at the wooden table we'd set out, drove off. Metal guy. Mixed scrap isn't worth so much, but sorted aluminum will bring in up to a dollar a pound, depending on the salvage yard and the yard boss's mood.

Last night we set out by bike on our own salvaging run. Not looking for anything in particular, just cruising. Peter collects bike parts; I like vintage appliances: an old sewing machine; a 1950s portable record player. We both brake for many-paned windows, usable lumber, and, once, a box of discarded crystal. Last night we passed on myriad chesterfields and unmatching chairs, wooden cupboards lacking doors, a set of Barbie vehicles: hopefully she's now driving a hybrid. We didn't bring home anything last night, except the pleasure of looking and the night song of robins returned to the city.

Later this year the City of Toronto plans to implement a new fee-based garbage program. Residents will order city-supplied standardized garbage bins and will be charged according to the size ordered. The smallest bin, which holds the equivalent of a single garbage bag, is planned to net the homeowner a $10 annual credit. The largest bin, which accommodates the equivalent of four and a half bags, will cost $190 per year. The new program is part of the City's strategy to achieve 70% waste diversion by 2010, and coincides with the new recycling program already being phased in through the distribution of behemoth blue bins. Scarborough residents are already being asked to select their new garbage bins; the program will be rolled out westward across the city during the summer, and the new collection system is scheduled to be implemented by November 1, 2008.

After living and working for years in one of the first Ontario municipalities to implement fee-based garbage pick-up, I greeted news of Toronto's fee-based system with cautious enthusiasm. Then, while reading the materials provided to date by the City, it occurred to me that the new regime might put a crimp in urban salvage activities. If all waste must be crammed into the bins, what will happen to the objects currently salvaged, especially small appliances, toys, electronics, books, bicycles, building materials and metal scrap? The City suggests that these objects might be donated to charity or taken to City-run drop-off centres, but it seems to me that this overlooks a vital curbside step in waste diversion: the local economy of salvage.

In our neighbourhood, residents tend to place useful but unwanted objects at curbside a day or two ahead of pickup, in hopes that they will find a new home instead of ending up in a landfill. While it would be difficult to quantify the volume of waste diverted this way, it's been our experience that the majority of reusable objects and saleable scrap are picked up long before the City's trucks come grinding along. And while scavengers cruising the streets on bikes, in rusted-out pickup trucks or pushing shopping trolleys may not conform so neatly to the Clean and Beautiful City sublime, they support themselves and a local informal economy while diverting waste at the same time.

Want to help the City achieve its ambitious waste diversion targets? In addition to everything else you're doing to reduce, reuse and recycle waste, set useful objects aside -- especially unbroken toys, old bikes, working appliances, books, scrap metal, and other household objects -- and make them visible to local salvagers. If you are shocked to see your dog-walking neighbour grab a dinged-up dresser, you'll be even more surprised to see how well she'll repurpose it. Glance into the pick-up truck stopped beside you at a red light on your way to work, and you might recognise the skeleton of your old barbecue there in the back, piled against a load of aluminum storm windows from a renovation down the street.

Doubtful about how much salvage gets diverted from landfills? You should see my study. Diffusing light in the window is a row of old bottles dug out of someone's back yard. My desk, filing cabinet, shelving, computer monitor, plants, and banker's lamp were all salvaged. My long-ago scavenged office chair is starting to wobble, but that's okay. I'm looking for a new one.

[Amy Lavender Harris and Peter Fruchter are the authors of "Acts of Salvage", an essay on the political economy and ecology of salvage published in GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto (Coach House, 2007).]

[Dumpster image by Steven H and used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]

[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 04/09 at 09:37 AM

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