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Money: A Powerful Incentive to Change Behaviour

By Émilie Campbell-Renaud, Climate Reality Leader trained in 2010

· Advocacy Stories

"Close the door! It's hot outside!"

"Choose what you want to eat BEFORE you open the fridge door!"

"Why is the TV on? You're not even watching it."

"Wait till the washer's full before you turn it on!"

When I think back to the orders I was given the most in my youth, I find that almost all of them had to do with wasting money.

Several years have passed since then. Today, it is well known that pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change are threatening the sustainability of our species. Yet human nature and the capitalist system ensure that financial concerns remain out of control as a priority issue.

Fortunately, there are countless initiatives that successfully marry financial interests with the good of the planet, such as refundable containers, numerous grants for green renovations, and taxes on certain consumer goods, such as tires and televisions.

With innovations in technology and approaches to sustainable development, it is becoming increasingly clear that going green has the potential to be very lucrative. Restaurant owners are realizing this - and are increasingly offering vegan options on their menus. Car producers are realizing it - and are eager to claim a share of the burgeoning electric vehicle market. Business owners are realizing this - and are opting for environmentally responsible and efficient lighting and heating systems to reduce their operating costs. Municipalities are realizing this too - and more and more are opting for a polluter pays system for waste.

This system, better known as Pay as You Throw, is based on the principle of charging citizens according to the amount of waste they send to landfills. The concept can take many forms. Some municipalities sell distinguishable garbage bags and only accept them in garbage trucks. Similarly, some sell stickers or labels that must be affixed to garbage bags, otherwise they will not be picked up. Other municipalities offer several sizes of bins to citizens and charge a rate depending on the size chosen. Some, budget permitting, use microchip technology to determine the contents of the bins and automatically charge citizens accordingly. Some municipalities even opt for a mix of these options. Regardless of the recipe chosen, the overall operation remains the same: rather than covering waste management costs using a portion of municipal taxes, cities charge households according to the waste they generate.

There are several advantages to this system. First, by creating an incentive to reduce waste, these municipalities are able to extend the life of their landfills and postpone the creation of new ones. In addition, the landfills in these municipalities contain fewer hazardous materials and therefore require less management. Citizens are separating their residual materials more carefully in order to save money, which translates into a potential increase in recycling revenues for municipalities. For citizens, this is a fairer system, since those who generate less waste do not bear the burden of the costs associated with managing the waste of their fellow citizens who generate more. At the same time, the Pay as you Throw system leaves room for a tax reduction, which citizens generally invite with open arms.

Beaconsfield is the first city in Canada to implement such a system, and it is a real success. Previously, 86% of citizens took their bins out every week; once the system was implemented, this figure dropped to 55%. By reducing the number of trucks needed (they used to have 8 and now have only 3) and the time they spend on the road, the municipality saves approximately $200,000 annually in operating costs. Waste sent to landfill has decreased by almost 50%. Green waste collection in Beaconsfield has gone from 75 tonnes in 2013 to 934 tonnes in 2015 - a 1750% jump! From being the second largest generator of garbage per person, the city now ranks second to last in the country.

These figures show the impact that a green initiative can have on citizens' ability to save money. Although financial considerations are the primary incentive at the beginning, awareness is created by default when citizens realize that sound waste management is as good for the economy as it is for the environment. Beaconsfield now enjoys a community that is aware of environmental issues and proud of its position as the country's leader in protecting the planet.

Garbage collection is a service that is unfortunately taken for granted by the vast majority of Canadians. When it makes our garbage disappear - as if by magic - the garbage truck takes with it the opportunity to really grasp the extent of our consumption and the impact of the resulting residual materials. To preserve our planet, it is essential to change our consumption habits; and the necessary transition will only take place if everyone recognizes their contribution to the environmental problem. The polluter pays concept is a powerful and effective tool because it forces consumers to face their role in the destruction of the planet and forces them to assume the costs proportionally related to their choices.

Money is a powerful incentive to change behaviour. Given the urgency to act and the success of the Pay as You Go system, it would come as little surprise to see it spread across the country. I look forward to the typical discipline discourse of parents evolving to include:

"We're not throwing this in the garbage! It's expensive!"

This article was originally published on Léveillé conseil.