Waste not, want not: Recycling and reusing in Kawartha Lakes
It’s a grey Thursday afternoon in late April as I sit down to write this column, a few hours after Miller Waste’s chocolate brown and caramel-coloured garbage trucks have made their rounds through Lindsay and other communities across the municipality.
Stopping at the foot of driveways and laneways, the orange-clad garbage collectors remove not only clear bags of refuse, but also the contents of our blue boxes.
These familiar plastic containers — distinguished by three white arrows arranged to look like they are in perpetual motion — brim over with our aluminum cans, our glass bottles and any number of plastic packaging materials. On alternate weeks, the Miller trucks collect fibrous materials — cardboard and newspaper — from similarly-sized green boxes. Once the boxes have been emptied, we return them to our garages or apartments and let them fill up again, knowing that we will be repeating the same ritual next week.
We call this process recycling, and while we may have a vague awareness of how it works and why it is important, we seldom think about how it came to be and just how significant the blue box was when first introduced to this community a little over 30 years ago.
The intervening years, of course, have taught us that recycling is far from being a solution to our waste problem—a problem that’s entirely of our own modern creation.”
Of course, the concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle” has been around for generations.
University of Toronto emeritus professor Thomas McIlwraithe, in his study Looking for Old Ontario, notes that “In the farm-making era Ontarians recycled everything. Every brick, skillet, spoon, pickle crock, millstone and drive shaft was a treasure coveted and used over and over … Unwanted field stones were piled up into useful walls; unmerchantable tree brush was burned to produce saleable potash. Ontario started without refuse, and with barely the concept of it.” (Entire buildings could be recycled: in 1888, red bricks previously used in the Grand Trunk Railway’s Port Hope roundhouse were brought to Lindsay and used to build the engine sheds between Durham and Albert Streets.)
The “reduce, reuse, recycle” concept persisted, even though nobody used the word recycling. “Hand-me-downs, pronounced to sound like one word, was a more common term,” observes historian Rae Fleming, who grew up in the Argyle general store. “Sweaters went from one child to the next, and so on, until worn out, but not thrown out. The yarn could be used to knot socks, or for filling in quilts and so on. ‘Waste not, want not,’ was a common expression well into the second half of the 20th century.”
A quarter of a century after the end of the Second World War, circumstances had changed and a great deal of glass, metal, paper, and plastic was simply thrown out. Landfills were filling up, leading to widespread public conversation about the need for recycling by the 1980s.
That’s where Allen Hussey’s family enters the picture. “My stepfather, John Villeneuve, started John’s Cartage in 1963,” says Hussey, today the proprietor of The Bike Garage. “I started working for him in 1973, when I was 16.” They collected many loads of garbage from some of Lindsay’s larger industrial concerns, namely Uniroyal and Abex Industries, and hauled it all to the old landfill at the northernmost end of William Street.
Hussey purchased the company in 1988, and shortly thereafter heard rumours about the burgeoning recycling movement. Working with Trevor Lewis, then the engineer for Lindsay, and Don Barkey, Hussey’s business began a pilot project in which the town’s citizens were encouraged to leave their newspapers at the Lindsay fire hall where they would be picked up and taken to be recycled in the area’s first recycling plant on Hwy 35 south. “We had to build our own equipment back then to separate the co-mingled material (cans and plastics),” Hussey says. Cleats from rubber snowmobile tracks were used to perforate plastic pop bottles, thus making them easier to bale in preparation for shipment to processing facilities elsewhere in the province.
A grassroots movement was developing. John’s Cartage worked with Judy Currins and Emily township reeve Ken Logan to establish the Victoria Recycling Association, and a blue box recycling program was launched in 1989 — the first in Lindsay and the fourth in Ontario. “The public was really excited about it,” Hussey remembers. Local citizens had been eagerly saving recyclable material for a couple of months beforehand, well aware that they were making history by filling their blue boxes. Within a year, the program had expanded to include the villages of Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls, and Omemee, along with the townships of Eldon, Emily, Fenelon, Manvers, Ops and Verulam.
Said Hussey in a 1990 interview with the Lindsay Daily Post, “The blue box recycling program has made everyone aware of the serious problem we face with landfills.” He went on the speaking circuit, addressing local students in school assemblies about the importance of doing their bit. “I was the preacher of recycling back then,” he says. Two dozen schools across the Victoria County Board of Education formed Student Action for Recycling programs in 1990, and then-mayor Lorne Chester urged students to take the message of recycling home to their parents.
Over 30 years later, it is clear that the Victoria Recycling Association’s message transformed a community. Yet much remains to be done, and innovative solutions to our waste management challenges will no doubt continue to surprise and inspire us.
*In the print version of this story, Judy Currins’ last name was spelled incorrectly. The Advocate had relied on local newspaper clippings for this information which seemed to be in error.