— Feature —

trash talk

YEG garbage cans


Upon moving to Western Canada, I was impressed by how clean the cities are. I theorized that our closeness to nature compelled Canadians to care more for the environment. However, upon closer inspection of Edmonton it would appear that nature is one of the worst litterers.

In the core my closest neighbour is the magpie. They often swoop past my head to greet me as I walk my dog. Like me, the magpie does not seem to be a fan of musicals. Instead, they would rather chatter endlessly as I walk to the Peace Park or the 124 Street Grand Market. While the magpies are not friendly with my dog, she loves the fruits of their labour, such as a discarded chicken bone. See, our community garbage cans are not actually for waste disposal, but are fine dining restaurants for the magpies.

After a hard day of keeping pigeons and seagulls out of the city and shouting at people to stay off the lawn, the unofficial mascot of Edmonton needs some carbs and there is no better place than the trash cans of our city, but what containers are the best in the core?

(Honourable Mention)
The Explore Edmonton Barrel

These containers are typically found in the trails and in some parks. They are simple barrels with a brightly coloured wrap around them and some have a yellow lid with a small opening in the middle. Now the lid can be challenging for the magpie, but there is a higher chance of finding a delicious chicken bone. These barrels are chosen by Park Services because of their large capacity. This means they do not have to be emptied as often. Barrels that have had the lid removed by entrepreneurs seeking bottle depot cash, or barrels that never had a lid to begin with are an open delicatessen for the intelligent relative of the crow, the magpie.

Jenny Hong, Director of Corporate Waste Transformation shared that one advantage of high-capacity barrels means less disruption of the turf and park lands by vehicles servicing the cans. “Receptacles with inviting openings are so much easier for picnickers and dog walkers to use.” Perhaps the magpies are just having a picnic? Hong reported, “A lid or restrictive opening is less likely to allow animals and birds to get in, but the trade-off is the human interface. Sometimes with a restrictive opening people end up disposing of their waste beside the can. Or, they find that they cannot fit everything in there from their child’s birthday party very easily.”

(Honourable Mention)
The Black Steel Bars Basket

As far as my creative corvid neighbour is concerned, a garbage can is a garbage can. Technically, these baskets are maintained by businesses and retailers and are not the responsibility of the city. Some have an ashtray on the top, others have an inner ring great for perching magpies in search of dinner. The vertical steel bars that are designed to deter graffiti allow the birds that are flightless to make their way up from the ground. Since these cans are located in high traffic areas, they attract the rougher, more fearless magpies. Plus, the cans in the retail areas have a higher percentage of uneaten convenience store hotdogs, leftover Timbits, or day-old baked goods.

Hong reminds us, “The cans reflect the buildings we’ve built or parks we’ve developed at a specific time.” For example, the recently renamed Unity Square likely has these large capacity, black steel bar baskets so that they do not have to empty them more than once a week. The recent Brewery District has cans that reflect the thinking of today where they have prioritized sorting garbage and recycling.

Blue or Black Plastic Can

The city has been using these familiar large cans on our sidewalks and LRT stations. Blue cans are maintained by Transit Services and the black by Waste Services. The large opening makes them an excellent restaurant for our feathered friends. The cans are open 24/7, always have a table, and seemingly never run out of chicken wings. However it can be a gamble for the magpie. ETS and Waste Services regularly empty these receptacles.

In the last decade, these plastic cans brought some cohesion for Waste Services. Consistency made the containers easy to recognize and the important inviting openings encouraged their use. The larger capacity meant it was less likely to overflow like the concrete artifacts they replaced. However, change is around the corner.

Runner-up! Silver Cans of Revitalized Jasper Avenue

The small footprint of these cans mean they may fill quickly, so the birds will have to make reservations for a meal before the cans are serviced. The intelligent, impish magpie that prefers to hop can also use the grooved design to climb the side. The top of the can has a smooth, wide ring for surveying the menu and enjoying appetizers.

These new cans are a departure from the familiar black and blue plastic cans. Neighbourhood revivals and other special projects like Imagine Jasper Avenue are creating beneficial, inviting public spaces. There is an effort being made to match the benches, planters, and the trash receptacles. Hong shared, “Now in the downtown we have a new streetscape manual that is emphasizing consistency, but also trying to balance it with the character of that stretch of Jasper Avenue or The Quarters.”

Our best in the core magpie lunchbox is an 80’s brutalist landmark in the city, the old aggregate concrete garbage cans. While the slender metal insert of these receptacles allow for easy and frequent servicing, they still overflow quickly. The mix of concrete and pebbles give an excellent perching option for grip and comfort as the ravenous, raven- adjacent rooster looks for that discarded french fry.

Why are we feeding the magpies?

Why is there no lid or flap to seal away the waste?

Hong put it this way: “Part of the reason the city does not have cans with lids and flaps is the yuck factor. Knowing that there is debris and gunk coating the flap, even more so during COVID, people do not want to touch the flaps.” Hong went on to explain that some may have physical limitations to push a flap open and that isn’t an inclusive design. Hong added that many inquire about the lack of bear bins in our city. Again, with the pandemic, accessibility issues, and a less-inviting opening, these receptacles are not practical. The City of Calgary has told Hong they have replaced most of their bear bins.

The city is enhancing public recycling opportunities by introducing the three stream system to places like Fort Edmonton, Churchill Square, public pools, and the City Hall fountain area.

Created with research and engagement with municipalities in Ontario and BC, Hong stated the new cans, made locally, include recycling, food scraps, and garbage. The city wants to evaluate the performance of this system and continue to improve it. Unfortunately for the magpies, the new cans have a canopy over the top to protect the contents from rain and snow.

The next time the fretful feathered foe swoops from tree to signpost stalking your morning walk, tell the magpie many of their favourite restaurants are about to close. Park Services will continue to use some barrels, but they will be wrapped in coloured designs matching the new cans and grouped in threes. Hong’s final take on our unofficial city mascot is worth repeating.

“Yes, there may be some troublesome birds that pick some bones off and throw them onto the ground, but the fact that there are these readily acceptable receptacles that keep our streets clean, that keep pet waste off yards and parks spaces. That is a great way to mitigate environmental and human and animal health risks.”