TORONTO - When officials with the Township of Archipelago heard about the recent release of provincial recycling rates they figured their small municipality of around 550 would rank pretty well.
Programs to divert trash from landfill sites had been recently improved and citizens seemed dedicated to protecting their unspoiled piece of central Ontario cottage country.
It turns out Archipelago's ability to divert 25 per cent of its waste for recycling put the community no higher than the middle of the pack of 206 municipalities - not good and below the provincial average, but not uncommonly bad for a tiny community with limited resources.
But to local officials' shock and disbelief, Archipelago ranked dead last in per capita waste creation, with an annual generation rate of almost one and a half tonnes per person - more than what a compact car weighs.
Coun. Ian Mead disputes the figures compiled by Waste Diversion Ontario and said another study suggests the municipality created about 60 per cent less total waste than what's been reported.
He's looking further into which figures are actually correct, but said being labelled the province's worst garbage offenders was a painful blow to residents who thought they were doing their best for the environment.
"For a township such as ours who are just so bent on being right on the environment this is just a slap in the face," Mead said.
"We're trying to struggle with (waste) and beef up the recycling and all of that, and then we hear we're the worst in the world."
Rural, northern and cottage communities clogged the bottom of Waste Diversion Ontario's rankings; the 17 worst municipalities in terms of waste generation per capita had populations under 10,000, as did 25 of the 26 lowest-ranked municipalities in recycling.
Experts say you can't entirely blame those residents for not keeping up with Ontario's best recyclers, since population density and distance from major centres have a huge impact on how well a municipality can collect and deal with waste.
Curbside collections are more inefficient and costly in rural areas, and some municipalities count on residents to haul their own waste to a depot.
It's also often difficult for rural municipalities to sell recycled materials because they need to be trucked too far to a buyer, or because the volumes aren't significant enough to be viable.
And while many cottage communities happily welcome huge crowds of tourists in the summer, visitors are often less than model citizens when it comes to conservation and recycling.
"What do you do when you're on vacation? You consume. Your lifestyle changes when you're in a vacation setting," said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario.
"You may forget yourself and consume more, consume more packaged goods, more single-serving foods and cook less."
Mead said he definitely sees that in his community. Waste Diversion Ontario reported Archipelago has an estimated seasonal population about three times larger than the year-round population. But there are also other factors that boost the township's trash rate.
Separate collections of organics are helping homeowners greatly reduce the waste that goes into garbage bags but green bins simply wouldn't fly in Archipelago, Mead said.
"We don't have the green box and the reason we don't is because we have bears," he said.
Bears have been known to blithely find their way through electric fences at the municipality's transfer station where garbage and recyclables are stored, so residents aren't about to feed them on their properties, Mead added.
"If you have a green box in your back porch you're going to have a bear or raccoons. Period."
He admits his township could be doing better at recycling and waste reduction, but worries about the consequences of adding fees or placing restrictions on how much garbage can be thrown away.
"I dread putting any more restrictions on people. We have to make it as easy as possible for them to get rid of their waste, otherwise they're just going to put it in the bush like they did 50 years ago," he said.
"What I think we need to do in our little township is concentrate on getting people to recycle more, because we had a (low) diversion rate, it was not good and we need to deal with that."
As for the accuracy of Archipelago's reported numbers, Waste Diversion Ontario's executive director Glenda Gies admits there could some inaccuracies in the data since it's just the second year that provincial statistics have been compiled.
But she said the figures are overall "reasonably accurate" and the numbers that stood out for being well above average were double checked with municipalities for potential errors.
Mead said he's still convinced the reported numbers can't be right, but if they are, they municipality will have to act on it.
"We have to make sure the numbers are right," he said. "We'll make good decisions on the right information."