montrealers trash montreal garbage

Montrealers, we’re living in the 21st century — let’s learn to pick up our own trash

“What is up with some people’s complete disrespect for our public spaces? It doesn’t require a huge amount of effort and discipline to keep our streets, sidewalks, parks and shorelines clean. Yet some of us appear incapable.”

Can we talk about spring cleaning for a minute? Not the kind we undertake in our own individual homes once the weather warms up and we crack open the windows, but the kind we need for our entire city. What is up with some people’s complete disrespect for our public spaces? It doesn’t require a huge amount of effort and discipline to pick up our trash, and ensure we keep our streets, sidewalks, parks and shorelines clean. Yet some of us appear incapable.

And our own administrations and government agencies sometimes seem keen on putting a spoke in our wheel. Two weeks after Parks Canada announced that it was removing garbage bins along the Lachine Canal, to force Montrealers to pick up after themselves, the federal agency has placed them back where they found them. 

Well-intentioned but questionable approach

“This initiative was designed to remedy the overflowing garbage bins resulting from the deposit of household and construction waste associated with the growing riverside population,” Parks Canada explained in a press release. So, let me see if I understand that right. The remedy for overflowing garbage bins was to remove the… garbage bins? Seems rather counterproductive. Why not simply empty the bins more frequently or add a few more?

The pilot project basically aimed to “encourage visitors to be aware of the amount of waste generated that is destined for landfill sites.” While I appreciate encouraging people to be more conscious of their daily habits, when it comes to public cleanliness, I’m a big fan of common sense. If Parks Canada folks believed that removing the bins would encourage people to take their garbage home with them, they are sorely mistaken. 

Let’s be real: Those disinclined to walk a few measly steps to throw their dog poop or empty beer cans into a nearby garbage bin are certainly not going to lug it home with them. They’re just going to leave it on the ground, hoping a city worker eventually cleans it up. We’ve all encountered those little mounds of plastic bags containing dog poop piling up around the city. Dog-waste bags, no matter how biodegradable or vanilla-scented or eco-friendly, are an unpleasant sight and, thanks to irresponsible owners who somehow managed to pick up after their pets yet couldn’t be bothered to take it one step further, they’re ubiquitous.

I was one of many who publicly questioned the initial decision to remove the bins. As a long-time resident of Saint-Henri, the Lachine Canal is practically my backyard — a place where I’ve spent years paddling, walking, cycling, reading and enjoying picnics. Having witnessed first-hand the disrespect some people have for our green spaces, I didn’t think the idea was a good one. Many agreed. In the end, the backlash persuaded Parks Canada to return the bins.

The federal agency says their pilot project “built on the success of similar initiatives outside the national historic site and was based on recent trends in waste management in urban parks.” That’s fancy way of saying that it worked elsewhere, but they don’t know Montrealers. We’re a wonderful bunch of rule-breaking kooks who like to jaywalk and don shorts the minute temps hits above zero. I love the way this city often defies authority or common sense, but when it comes to cleanliness, we could stand to do better. 

Where is our civic pride?

Last weekend I was in New York City, and it pains me to say this, but for a huge metropolis of roughly 8 million people, it often looked cleaner than our city. Sure, there were garbage bags waiting to be picked up and littering here and there, but I saw far less graffiti and far less overflowing garbage cans than I sometimes do on a typical walk around Montreal. 

I know municipal budgets are tight and it’s been a rough few years. I also know that we’re dealing with a sharp increase in the unhoused population, which has also contributed to a certain increase in urban messiness in and near metro stations. I know the challenges are many. But city and borough administrations could stand to do better. Some Montreal boroughs and suburbs, as well as the city of Westmount have reduced garbage collection to once every two weeks to cut their carbon footprint, but I sometimes wonder if that’s necessarily the best decision. Ensemble Montreal has been particularly vocal about this issue. Wishful thinking isn’t always enough. Such moves need to be followed closely by awareness campaigns and education. 

Now that I’ve called out public administrators, let me call us out. That’s right. You and me. Us, collectively. Everyday Montrealers… Where the hell is our civic pride? Why do I still see people flicking their cigarette butts out their car window in 2024 like the world is their ashtray? Why do so many men still insist on spitting on sidewalks? No one needs to step on your phlegm. This isn’t acceptable behaviour. Why are perfectly able-bodied teens and young adults partying in city parks leaving behind their empty boxes of pizza and cans of White Claw? Is your mom going to pick up after you? Gather up your hard seltzer and take it to the nearest garbage container, my Gen Zs! 

And since Moving Day is just around the corner, I implore you, please don’t just dump everything — from your entire couch to your water-tank — on the sidewalk when you leave. Sure, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure, but make some effort to keep it tidy and have some respect for your neighbours. The same goes for those who leave out garbage when it’s not pickup day, only for it to be torn apart by wild animals, racoons and Ratatouille, looking for quick sources of food, spilling eggshells and coffee grounds all over the sidewalk for us to step all over and dogs to be inexplicably pulled to. It’s gross, it’s unbecoming, it undermines the hard work of blue-collar workers and frankly we all deserve better. 

A little effort goes a long way

I’m fully aware that I’m sounding a little sanctimonious and preachy, and as a general rule I don’t find Montreal any dirtier or less taken care of than most large urban centres. It’s a lovely metropolis and, while some areas could afford to get a bit more love, most neighbourhoods are well maintained and clean. But as someone who walks and bikes around our city a lot, I believe we can all develop a greater sense of ownership to keep our public spaces clean. A tiny bit more effort wouldn’t kill us. 

This city belongs to all of us. It’s also a reflection of who we are. Its cleanliness communicates something both to those who live here and to those who visit us. Sure, the city administration has a major spring clean-up budget and maintenance crews, and local boroughs, neighbourhoods, and even green alleyways routinely organize clean-up events — especially in spring when everything looks grimy and dirty and dusty — but more people need to get into the habit of being accountable for our own surroundings. 

When I walk around Montreal and see litter, coffee cups or food wrappers on the ground or blowing in the wind, it frustrates me. All urban centres face challenges and there are some issues that are complex and far more difficult to solve. But garbage? All it takes is for everyone to just do their little part and pick up after themselves. 

About a month ago, when the city of Montreal launched its spring-cleaning operations, city spokesperson Philippe Sabourin urged residents to join volunteer citizen cleanup brigades by calling their local ecoquartiers either to organize a new brigade, or to join one in a local alleyway or park. “It’s usually a big party and a great way to meet your neighbours,” he said. He’s right. In my neighbourhood of Saint-Henri, many do this annually. The more you get involved, the more you want to, and the more your area and the people who live in it feel like home. 

Sociologists have coined a term for the spaces where people spend most of their time between home and work that strengthen their place of belonging: third places. Montreal has an incredible number of third places in its public parks and public squares and green spaces. The current city administration has done an admirable job of increasing such places available to us, like this summer’s pedestrian-only streets

But we can’t rely solely on city workers. Keeping these places clean and accessible to all of is a fundamental way of contributing to our communal well-being and enjoyment of our city. It’s an easy commitment that allows all of us to delight in this place just a little bit more. 

Sermon over. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.