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Making a mess of a bad deal - NOW

July 15, 2004
Adria Vasil
NOW Magazine

Think that just because you don’t live at Dundas Square or Yonge and Bloor you’re safe from the onslaught of super-sized advertising? Think again. If council’s works committee has its way, streets in all 44 wards will be filled with "monster" 7-and-a-half-foot-tall garbage cans called EcoMupis that will dwarf pedestrians with their giant illuminated billboards.

Sure, the committee just announced that it’s going to slow the EcoMupi invasion – it’s calling for a three-month pilot project to get people used to the idea before fanning them out across the city. But as Torontonians squabble and gasp over the imposing new design, the question arises: Why is Toronto endorsing jumbo "Buy, buy, buy" messages on recycling bins that should, if anything, push "Reduce, reuse, recycle"? And aren’t there smarter ways to profit from our trash?

Advertising’s infiltration of public space isn’t new to T.O.’s garbage cans. We’ve had the shoddy ad-covered OMG bins on our streets since 99, though the troubled company has since been taken over by EuCan, the Canadian division of a Mexico-based multinational, EuMex, that specializes in ad-based "street furniture."

Activists and businesses are rallying against the receptacles-on-’roids, but surprisingly our progressive, visionary mayor is enamoured of the new design, calling it "brilliant" and "modern-looking."

He does confess we’re just making the most of a bad deal, one that Mel Lastman’s council locked us into in ’99 for a solid ten years. But while we may be stuck, we’re not committed to the nearly 8-foot design supposedly crafted to blend in with, of all things, Toronto’s bus shelters. Though they’re really built to facilitate the sale of standard international billboard-sized ads.

"We’re trying to find a way to make it work better for recycling pickup and the look of the city,’ says Miller, explaining that the revised contract under consideration will actually reduce the number of ad-laden cans on the streets. Turns out half the bins will be billboard-free versions. "I think you do want to minimize the amount of advertising in the street -- and that’s actually one of the goals of this program.’

Miller fails to mention that the new jumbotron bins happen to be twice the size of the current silver variety.

With the public so cranky about the receptacle incursion, councillor Jane Pitfield, chair of the works committee, has announced that instead of going full hog, it is now only pushing for a trial run of the billboard -- three bins in each ward.

Dave Meslin of the Toronto Public Space Committee isn’t impressed by the softer pitch. "Its just slowing it down," he says. The company will likely put the pilot bins in the least intrusive locations, to avoid scaring off the public, posits Meslin, who insists the bottom line is "you don’t need to try out a bad idea."

It’s a bad idea that media observers like Meslin say is spreading around the globe like wildfire. "Advertising companies are shifting away from advertising in the private media and they’ve been assaulting city halls everywhere, trying to get the rules changed so they can advertise in public space."

Eumex alone is in 1o countries, and now, by swallowing OMG’s contracts in Canada, the company already has its fingers in four Canadian cities.

But the movement against advertising in public space is growing, too. Oakville has banned billboards. Vancouver is passing bylaws against mobile billboards on trucks. And that’s not to mention similar efforts in the U.S. and Europe.

The makers of the bins have been trying to leverage eco brownie points by trumpeting the EcoMupis’ slightly greater capacity for recycling and the addition of slots for dead batteries and compostables. But environmentalists aren’t biting. Shelley Petrie of the Toronto Environmental Alliance asks, "Is this particular design appropriate for Toronto’s sidewalks, or is it a form of pollution? That’s the question." And is 7 and a half feet of advertising going to help people recycle better, or does the mega-sized consumer messaging undermine all the good work the city has been doing in terms of meeting new waste diversion targets, not to mention efforts on the nutrition front to get Canadians to eat less junk? "There’s irony there," says Petrie.

EuCan declined to comment.

If the city must advertise because of contractual obligations, Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, says, "They should create some positive messaging rather than just opening it up to Pepsi or Coke. What they should do is go to the companies that have taken some (environmental) initiatives we can brag about, instead of ’Buy McDonald’s."

And why not go even further? Why not impose levies on landfillable packaging, the type that crams our public garbage cans with fast-food wrappers? After all, Ontario has just made producers of the kind of packaging that gets bluebinned cough up fifty percent of recycling costs.

Yes, it’s a provincial matter, but, adds Godard, "the city of Toronto has enormous power in the province, so of course it always has leverage. I would say it’s weak not to exercise that, especially when we’re paying to (send our garbage) to Michigan."

The mayor says the city has pushed for a deposit return system and other reforms in the past but its efforts have been largely ignored. Ontario Ministry of the Environment spokesperson John Steeles gives the impression that the province is busy patting itself on the back for its new producer-pays system for recyclables and isn’t about to legislate a cutback or levy on the landfillables clogging our street-side bins anytime soon. "We’re looking for 60 per cent diversion from landfill,’ he says. And "if someone wishes to send in suggestions, we’re open (to it.)’ making a mess of a bad deal

• NOW | July 15-22, 2004 | VOL 23 NO 46

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