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The happy-go-lucky, cycle-commuting councillor

Glenn De Baeremaeker is unfailingly one of the happiest and most ebullient members of city council. I hadn’t met him up close until just last week, but even at the press gallery’s hundred-foot distance to the council chamber floor you can feel the positive energy he radiates. This has bugged me for months now. The guy seemed to me too bloody happy in his job, which is kind of grating. But now that I’ve met him I understand why he carries such a spring in his step: it’s the high endorphin levels that he gets from cycling to work every day. De Baeremaeker is the councillor for Scarborough Centre, and his home is more than 20 kilometres from city hall, or a full hour each way. I accompanied him on his morning commute last Thursday, and believe me, that’s a load of endorphins. (I took a couple of photos on the rare occasions when we paused, including once to call an assistant and once to pet a puppy.)

De Baeremaeker is not the only member of this council who cycles to work, but his is probably the longest commute, winding though some eight city wards. What’s more, he chairs the city’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, which is the heaviest, coolest, and most crucial dossier on council. As the politician responsible for the state of the city’s watermains, sewers, trash collection and—most importantly—roads, there’s a symbolic dimension to his cycling commitment. It’s also quite clever of him, since every day he gets a close-up look at the city and its dysfunctions that he would never get from the driver’s seat of a car.

The day I rode with him was trash day in one area of Scarborough, and even without stopping to inspect anyone’s trash he could tell which homes were throwing green-bin compostables into their trash—they were the homes whose trash bags had been ripped open by raccoons looking for scraps. “The raccoons are the best trash cops I could ever ask for,” he said to me. “If you don’t put organics in your trash, they won’t rip your bags open.” The widespread presence of organics in the trash, he said, was one of the main reasons the city will move to pay-per-use trash: there is currently insufficient incentive for Torontonians to sort their waste properly. “If people are being charged for the garbage they produce, they’ll have an incentive to generate less of it, and to fill their green bin.”

Of course, the law of unintended consequences suggests that if you charge people for their trash but not for their compost, they will start sneaking non-biodegradables into the green bin to avoid the charges. Detecting those problems will be a job for human trash inspectors, which De Baeremaeker intends to hire more of. But, being a happy guy, he prefers to focus on carrots over sticks, and he is genuinely excited about how the pricing scheme will transform of the city’s waste management division into something more closely resembling a traditional utility company. The soon-to-be-distributed new trash bins (four different sizes, four different prices) will all be equipped with computer chips, and the trucks outfitted with scanners to read them, so the city will know how often you’ve put out your trash. In the future they’ll do the same with green bins and blue boxes. “Eventually we will be able to give people an annual statement telling them how often they put out each type of waste, how many trees they saved each year by recycling, and how they can save even more trees,” he says. “We will hire students to go door to door every summer and explain to people how much waste they generated and how they could save money by switching to a smaller trash container—the same way Bell might call you and encourage you to switch to a different long-distance plan.”

In time, I am sure that we will all come to despise De Baeremaeker army of tickety-boo trash minions much as we already despise Bell’s telemarketers. What’s more, for many people trash is a highly personal matter (how many exposes have been written by going through the trash of the famous?), and those of us who have until now cherished the relative anonymity of their local garbageman is in for a big surprise, because the trash man is about to stick his nose in your, uh, trash. But based on the commute, there’s no denying the problem: while Toronto households have enthusiastically adopted the green bin, they don’t use it as well as they could.

Epilogue: we arrived at city hall about an hour and fifteen minutes after we’d left his home. I was exhausted; he’d barely broken a sweat. Since he cannot wear his work clothes on his commute, he purchased a wardrobe at Ikea for his office. Once a month, he drives in and stocks it with a load of clean shirts and suits; at the end of every day, he shoves the dirty laundry in his bicycle pannier and brings it home. Toronto City Hall also affords him the luxury of a change room with showers and lockers. “If I worked somewhere else, it might be more difficult,” he admits. “I might have to purchase a fitness club membership so I could shower.” Which of course would be redundant, given how much exercise he gets from cycling.

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