by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D., Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

Preface: For the purposes of full disclosure, York University and Diabetes Canada have partnered to form Canada’s first municipal textile diversion strategy. I am enormously proud of the work that has been done and what we have achieved over the past two years. The tireless efforts of Diabetes Canada, other charities, municipalities, and external stakeholders has been instrumental in diverting more than 15 million pounds of textiles from landfills and generating millions of dollars in life saving Diabetes Research. 

The university does not receive any financial re-numeration for our partnership with Diabetes Canada.

With that being said, the opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone – I feel compelled to comment on the issue given the recent incidents involving clothing bins in British Columbia and Ontario.

First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge the tragic loss of two lives. The questions surrounding bin safety and how to prevent this moving forward are valid and need to be answered.

However, banning bins is an extremely short cited measure – one that is driven by emotion and media furor instead of identifying practical solutions. If were are to believe some of the recent news stories, it would make you think that bin related injuries are an epidemic and pose a safety risk to the broader community.

The truth however is that bin related injuries/death are extremely rare. To provide context, fatalities attributable to falling signage are more than 5 times greater than bin related accidents. I don’t say this to discount the severity of what has occurred – truthfully, one bin injury/fatality is one too many. This necessitates that we should be exploring options that make bins safer, instead of calling for an outright ban.

Banning bins addresses a symptom (scavenging and temporary shelter), but does nothing to address the root cause (poverty). Greater emphasis should be placed on providing marginal communities with access to adequate resources and shelter. There may even be opportunities to curtail scavenging by engaging directly with poverty advocacy groups and providing textile donations to communities in need.  

Another concern is that banning bins has a significant economic, environmental and social impact. From an environmental perspective, a bin ban would result in thousands of tonnes of textiles going to landfill. Unlike other waste streams, textiles are not part of residential waste programs. Clothing bins play a critical role in diverting textiles, and their elimination would be a significant blow to an already limited textile collection infrastructure. Every tonne of textiles that ends up going to a landfill, will directly result in increased costs for municipalities through increased tipping fees.

The economic implications of a ban also adversely affects charitable organizations (Salvation Army, Diabetes Canada, Make a Wish foundation, STEPS etc.), by cutting off a valuable revenue source. These are organizations that serve millions of Canadians – even the smallest drop in revenue can compromise their ability to provide programming, services and conduct research.

It is important to remember that not all bins and not all service providers are created equal (both with respect to the actual bin and the organizations that service them). At present, charitable organizations operate in parallel with for profit operators (who often masquerade as charities). This not only makes it difficult for the public to identify where their donation is going, but potentially comprises public safety due to a lack of standardization and service.

Instances of scavenging and bin related injury tend to be higher with bins operated by for profit organizations (some, not all). Unlike charitable bins, there is no standard bin design, resulting in bins that vary widely with respect to both their safety and ease of access. 

See figures below for bin examples.

This tragedy represents an opportunity to improve upon our existing textile diversion strategy, identifying best practices in both bin design and program implementation. Standardization with respect to how bins are designed and how those bins should be placed and serviced will be critical in mitigating against future incidents. 

Instead of an instinctive knee jerk reaction on the part of the public to the recent high profile deaths, we should look at this as opportunity to map out what is needed to create effective, sustainable and safe textile diversion solutions. 

A bin ban will ultimately hurt more Canadians than it helps. Now is the time to define how we want our textile diversion programs to run. Safety and used textile collection do not have to be mutually incompatible pursuits. 

This article is republished with the permission of the author.


About the Author

Calvin LAKHAN, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.