Downstream/Unintended Consequences of Risk Minimisation Decisions

In January two Canadians lost their lives after mishaps with charity clothing bins. This brought the total deaths from misuse of clothing bins to four in the last five years which prompted the City of Vancouver to ban the use of the bins on private land.

As reported in the Vancouver Sun:

[The] decision came a day after Delta city council declared donation bins as “creating unsafe conditions and posing significant risks to human health and safety” and ordered all bins removed by Jan. 29 or the city would remove them at the owner’s expense.

Richmond, West Vancouver and Burnaby issued similar orders earlier this month, while the City of Surrey is reviewing the safety of clothing bins and Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are considering bans. Several charities have already voluntarily removed their bins.

These incidents are absolutely tragic, however, I believe that the actions taken by those Councils have perhaps been made in haste given the widespread publicity surrounding the incidents and they may not have fully comprehended the potential downstream/unintended consequences of their decision.

Clothing/charity bins are available 24 hours per day, 365 days a year and if Canada is similar to Australia (and I have no reason to believe it wouldn’t be), the actual charities only accept donations at their premises during set times.

So, what could this lead to?

Firstly, let’s start with the obvious. Charities will no longer receive the same level of clothing donations which means fewer people will benefit from receiving the clothing.  In addition, fewer clothes for sale reduces revenue from charity shops resulting in fewer people being supported.  Who then will be required to address the shortfall? Governments at all levels?

Some of the charitable services provided through the donation scheme can literally be the difference between life and death for those in desperate need, particularly in the harsh Canadian winters. There is a distinct possibility, therefore, that a reduction in these services could lead directly or indirectly to an increase in deaths from other conditions (illnesses, exposure, domestic abuse. etc).  Once again, who will be required to address the shortfall? Governments at all levels?

With the absence of charity bins, another factor not considered is the potential for the donated items that usually head for the bins, instead going straight to landfill.  Increased waste into landfill increases cost.  Alternatively, it could lead to an increase in illegal dumping of items that may have been placed in these bins, which then needs to be cleaned up – at a cost.  So, who will be responsible for these additional costs? In this case, probably the same local Government entity/ies that made the decision.

What we need to recognise as decision makers is that, when making such decisions the downstream/unintended consequences need to also be considered, regardless of the level of publicity.  Too often, governments at all levels feel they need to be seen to be doing something, but that something ends up being far worse than the consequences of the original incident/s.

In this case, there are technical solutions available when manufacturing the bins that could be incorporated. Yes, the bins may cost more, however, that small cost, in my opinion, will pale in comparison to the additional costs that are likely to arise as a result of this decision.

Are we truly solving a problem if it creates many more?

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