It happens across Ottawa: donation boxes are plunked down on private property without permission, surrounded by garbage and left to overflow.
After years of struggling to tackle the problem that's ballooned to include hundreds of clothing bins — some legitimate, some not — across Ottawa, staff believe they've found a way to bring accountability to what some councillors describe as a Wild West.
But at least one charity says the new system has a major flaw.
"I do believe that the regime that's being put forth in terms of the fees would actually be the highest in Canada," said Simon Langer, the manager of government and strategic partnerships for Diabetes Canada.
The changes approved by the emergency preparedness and protective services committee on Thursday would require any group operating a bin in the city to pay $500 for a permit and another $150 per container.
Diabetes Canada says it generally supports the new permitting and enforcement program, but fears the financial impacts could be severe. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)
Langer told councillors that would end up costing Diabetes Canada about $7,350 per year, not counting the $4,000 it already pays to haul away trash that accumulates outside bins.
He argued that groups that don't follow the rules will likely never pay.
"To a certain extent it's the good actors that are subsidizing the bad," said Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Sean Devine.
A long-standing 'blight'
The new bylaw would also limit the city facilities that host the boxes and require the bin operators to provide annual data on how much material is collected, how it's used and how much is sent overseas.
The issues related to the clothing donation bins have been manifold, including some operated by groups without any ties to charities, others blocking traffic, and many more becoming ensconced in trash — an issue staff say grew throughout the pandemic.
Bylaw has found in the past that clothing donation bins from legitimate charities are stolen, repainted and then placed on private property. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)
"I do acknowledge that this is a revenue generator for charity. This is an important part of their revenue stream. But what we have in Ottawa and what I've seen is what I call the Wild West," said chair Riley Brockington.
"I have seen countless bins where contents are all over the parking lot, where the garbage is dropped off, where reports of rats are in place.… It becomes a blight on the community."
Outside Ottawa, there have even been deaths associated with these containers from people crawling into the bins to stay warm and becoming trapped.
But current regulations seem to have hardly put a dent in the problem.
Fees could be reviewed
While councillors were sympathetic to Langer's fee concerns, they agreed with the staff explanation that bylaws should be designed to ensure fees fully pay for the cost of enforcement.
Valérie Bietlot, Ottawa's policy manager for emergency protective services, says it may be possible to re-evaluate the cost of permits once the program has launched. (Elyse Skura/CBC)
Valérie Bietlot, policy manager for the city's emergency protective services department, said staff will revisit the cost of fees after the program is established.
"We don't want to create a barrier for anyone to participate in this," said Bietlot.
"What we're hoping to achieve is actually a more nimble and responsive regulatory system. Charities have a big part in that. So we look forward to working with them going forward."
For rule breakers, program manager Tania Mccumber said there will be a progressive style of enforcement beginning with warnings and eventually leading to bin seizures or court.
If approved by council members next week, the new clothing donation box bylaw would come into effect on Jan. 31, 2024.