Muskoka water-access cottagers concerned about new waste removal system

Driver throwing out a garbage bag from their car into a receptacle. Environmental conservation Photo by Nitikan T/Shutterstock

The District of Muskoka is slowly phasing out waste bins at marinas, and island-based property owners in Gravenhurst are the latest to face issues with the new collection system.

Muskoka’s “Bin Site Transition Plan” began in 2019 after the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks found over 90 unapproved bin sites operating at marinas in the region. The MECP ordered Muskoka officials to make a plan that would replace all marina bins with alternative transfer sites over the next few years.

The district removed its most recent bins from Rockhaven and Denne’s Marina on Kahshe Lake in May 2022, according to Gravenhurst deputy mayor Randy Jorgensen. The bins were not being monitored before the removal, so people were throwing out garbage that may have posed environmental hazards—the main reason the MECP made the initial order.

“People dropped off things they shouldn’t have: old furniture, batteries, paint cans, and who knows what else,” Jorgensen says.

Residents at more than 250 island properties on Kahshe Lake can now visit Rockhaven’s marina during a three-hour block on Sunday afternoons to throw their waste in a truck. Staff monitoring the truck record address information for anyone throwing out garbage. This program also runs for one-and-a-half hours on Wednesday afternoons in June and July.

Alternatively, water-access residents can drive 10 minutes from the marinas to drop off their garbage at the transfer station on Beiers Road.

Gravenhurst mayor Heidi Lorenz believes the change is a good step forward for environmental protection. She says Muskoka has one of the lowest rates of recycling and composting in the province: where some municipalities divert up to 60 per cent of waste away from landfills, Muskoka only diverts 36 per cent.

She adds, however, that it will take locals time to adjust. “Nobody likes change,” Lorenz says. “There hasn’t been a lot of positive feedback.”

Doug Pennock has been staying at a cottage on Kahshe Lake’s Boyd Island since the mid-2000s. He used to get rid of his garbage at a bin on Nagaya Road, just up the street from the Denne’s Marina. Now that the bin has been removed, instead of being able to take out the garbage any time, he has to plan his Sunday afternoons around the additional waste-disposal trips.

“There’s also increased boat traffic from every cottage because you have to go during the window provided. You can’t combine it with other errands at whatever time,” he says. If he decides to use the landfill instead, he feels like he’s “using more fuel to take things away” and undoing some of the district’s environmental conservation. When he can’t be at the marina on time, he pays a local resident to take his garbage out.

Of all the cottagers Pennock has spoken to on the lake, almost all have disagreed with the current system. He says providing access to the truck overnight on Friday until Saturday evening would remove the need for a special trip.

Kahshe Lake cottager Fred Hughes says he’s glad people aren’t abusing the lax disposal guidelines from the previous system, but he’s upset that their high taxes don’t pay for more convenient services. “This new system seems to be the best alternative,” Hughes told Cottage Life in an email.

Jorgensen says they’re currently looking for a location that’s district-owned and near a parking lot so they can install a closer transfer station. They’re also looking for more staff, which may mean contracting out to a waste management company. “We might hire someone who lives in the neighbourhood and who wants to work part-time hours,” he says.

In the meantime, he recommends that residents separate their organics and their garbage. Lorenz suggests that seasonal cottagers limit the kind of packaging they bring into the house.

“You may take your fruit and put it in a tupperware,” she says. “Maybe take the cereal out of the box and just take the bag over. You have to be creative.”

Gravenhurst is also considering other methods to reduce waste disposal. In August, Lorenz passed a motion requiring township council staff to create a plan that would reduce waste in event spaces. Some changes could include requiring vendors to use recyclable or compostable utensils, banning the use of styrofoam at events, and requiring the installation of recycling and composting bins in public spaces.

“We have to make changes everywhere,” she says. “This will move the needle a little bit, but ultimately we have to change peoples’ behaviours.”

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