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Cornwall switching to clear plastic garbage bags, despite privacy worries

City councillors in Cornwall, Ont., have voted to switch to clear plastic garbage bags in a bid to improve the city's comparatively low waste diversion rate. Pictured: Garbage and recyclables left at the curb on Wellington Street in Cornwall.  (Submitted by Kim Ciavaglia-McGillivray - image credit)
City councillors in Cornwall, Ont., have voted to switch to clear plastic garbage bags in a bid to improve the city's comparatively low waste diversion rate. Pictured: Garbage and recyclables left at the curb on Wellington Street in Cornwall. (Submitted by Kim Ciavaglia-McGillivray - image credit)

City council in Cornwall, Ont., has greenlit a switch to clear plastic garbage bags, despite worries from some residents about privacy.

Earlier this month, councillors voted for the new bags to complement the provincially-mandated launch of a mandatory green bin system for food waste. Both changes will take effect in early 2025.

Cornwall is trying to improve its waste diversion rate — 36 per cent as of October, which is low compared to other Ontario municipalities — in order to preserve the life of its aging landfill.

City officials recommended a clear plastic bag system, instead of other options including a pay-as-you-throw regime, as it promotes mandatory recycling of blue box material and can be enforced "with no additional resources and minimal behavioural changes."

"In this manner, collection staff can visually inspect the waste contents. Clear bags or garbage cans containing more than 10 percent of recyclables and/or organics would not be collected," said the report by city staff.

"Simply put, the only difference is the colour of the garbage bag."

But in an online survey, 1,333 of the 1,789 returned forms cited concerns that intimate or sensitive material — financial documents, sanitary products and other personal items — could be out for all to see.

The amount of feedback was "huge" for a city like Cornwall, said Coun. Carilyne Hébert.

"It's likely the issue I've seen the most negativity about across the community in the nine years that I've been on council," Hébert said before the vote.

comparative waste diversion rates in Cornwall and other Ontario communities
comparative waste diversion rates in Cornwall and other Ontario communities

A comparison of how Cornwall's waste diversion rate compares to those of other Ontario municipalities. (City of Cornwall)

Most councillors supported the switch, however, with some pointing out that residents will be allowed two smaller opaque bags inside their clear bags to mask private items.

"I understand the privacy concerns. I do," said Mayor Justin Towndale. "Personally, I don't care what's in people's garbage. I don't care if people see what's in my garbage. Have at it."

As the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario pointed out to CBC, a 2009 Supreme Court of Canada decision held that residents do not have "a reasonable expectation of privacy" in items taken from their garbage.

People do become much more transparent, no pun intended.- Lesley Parnell on clear garbage bags

Peterborough, Ont., made a similar move to clear bags and green bins last October and has seen its waste diversion rate skyrocket, according to Lesley Parnell, a councillor there.

The diversion rate went from 53 per cent pre-launch to over 90 per cent now, she said.

"When you have a clear bag ... people do become much more transparent, no pun intended ... because we can see what is in there," Parnell said.

Peterborough heard the same privacy concerns as Cornwall, she said, but now "the complaints I get are from condo owners who are not yet part of [the green bin system]."

"People should not be putting any personal information in the garbage anyway," Parnell added. "That should be shredded."

Cornwall, Ont., Mayor Justin Towndale poses for a photo in his office on March 23, 2023.
Cornwall, Ont., Mayor Justin Towndale poses for a photo in his office on March 23, 2023.

'I don't care if people see what's in my garbage,' said Cornwall, Ont., Mayor Justin Towndale, who voted in favour of the switch to transparent trash bags. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Concurrent increase to bag limit 'counterproductive' 

Cornwall residents are currently allowed two garbage bags at the curb. Additional bags require a $1.50 bag tag.

Councillors also voted to up the number of allowed bags to four, though that proved more divisive. Hébert called the move "counterproductive" and three other councillors also voted against the increase.

"We're told 14 per cent of our residential homes don't recycle, but we're going to increase their bag limit to four, and they can get creative in hiding their recycling," Hébert said.

Coun. Sarah Good countered that the increase offers "wiggle room" for "people who are facing circumstances that are difficult."

Garbage collectors will monitor what's in people's clear bags, according to the staff report. If they find improperly prepared waste, the city's waste management department will first educate the owners.

"Following an allotment of time to remedy any issues," the city will hire a third party to collect waste abandoned at the curb "due to non-compliance," the report said.

The owner will then be billed to cover the costs, it said.