In the days of early settlement, towns like mine tried to deal with household waste by passing a bylaw demanding people remove garbage from their properties at least twice a year. The law was impossible to enforce and a flat failure. The authorities gave up and nothing more was done to regulate garbage for another 150 years. Every farm had its own dump and mother kept an eternal flame going in an oil barrel 50 feet from the kitchen door. There was a township dump you could take stuff to if you had a truck. It looked like the set for a Mad Max movie, an evil-smelling place of twisted metal and flocks of seagulls.
Then suddenly, in 1990, our reeve announced garbage pickup would occur every Thursday. It was all part of a high-pitched campaign to Clean Up the Environment and it included a search for a mega-garbage dump site somewhere in the county. Millions of dollars went into the quest, but the swamp they selected turned out to host a trifecta of disqualifying features, including, the most pristine source of ground water in the Western Hemisphere, several acres of Class III farmland and habitat for some kind of endangered skink.
After a decade, the county abandoned the mega-dump idea in favour of a plan to revive the old township dumps with new engineering and a new campaign to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. They gave us blue, grey and green plastic bins, set a one-bag limit and introduced four Toxic Tuesdays a year for dropping off paint cans and household cleaners. They mailed us a five-pound recycling manual that read like the fine print of a travel insurance policy. Then they allocated all the money earmarked for the mega-dump to bring the old dumps up to a new provincial standard. Not surprisingly, a lot of people (like the reeve’s mother and my own wife) resisted all the new fees and charges, and fired up their burn barrels again in the front yard.
But, lo and behold, the 3-Rs campaign worked. After a few years county staff informed us that the old township dumpsites would now last us for a long time to come and no mega-dump would be required after all. It looked as if I would have to revise my theory that governments inevitably achieve the exact opposite of what they set out to do. I found this deeply disturbing, because I don’t like changing my mind any more than anyone else does. I was getting to the age when an adult male who is proved wrong goes into a sulk and starts thinking of running for office.
But I had to admit that a trip to the dump had become a pleasure. I know many of the staff by their first names and not that long ago I was informally voted Customer of the Month, for sorting a load of stale bread free of all plastic bags and getting it piled into the compost bin. The dump smells better, looks better than ever before. Even the seagulls are complaining they have to fly elsewhere to scavenge productively.
There was some talk in the middle of this campaign about appointing a waste control officer to patrol the sideroads and issue citations. But a garbage police force was already in place in every household with school-age children, who have been drilled in recycling and endangered species since kindergarten. They are unpaid, eternally vigilant and overwhelmingly effective. They may not be able to spell or count past their own fingers, but they have a university-level understanding of environmental issues.
I once attended a lecture in a Toronto hotel ballroom given by the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who had been an advisor to John F. Kennedy and was now a fervent opponent of the Vietnam War. I remember being a little alarmed when I realized the great man was no fan of the free market and believed that most people need a governing class and higher minds to make decisions for them. I came away from the evening confused and conflicted.
Some people blame Galbraith’s brand of meddling for the broken state of government today. Nothing seems to work and no one answers the phone. But a trip to the dump in early spring never fails to lift my spirits and give me hope about the public sector. If the dump can be made to work, why not the passport office?