Tips to reduce your trash footprint – and why it’s important
By Jennifer Humphries
Garbage may not be a riveting topic, but as Ottawa’s population grows – we reached one million in June and the new Official Plan documents project that we’ll hit two million within a few decades – our city’s waste footprint is of growing concern.
Canada is second only to the United States in the developed world in terms of per capita garbage production, according to a Canadian Geographic article titled “Canada’s Dirty Secret.” It says Canadians produce an average of 720 kilograms of waste each year. That’s not a pretty picture, so we have work to do to avert what one commentator has called “suicide by garbage.”
With Black Friday behind us and the holidays just ahead, it seems timely to look at how Ottawa deals with waste and to consider ways to limit our own trash footprint.
First, how does Ottawa manage waste?
I recently took part in a “trash tour” organized by councillors Scott Moffatt and Shawn Menard, chair and co-chair of the city’s environment committee respectively, and by city waste management staff. Along with 11 councillors, the tour included colleagues from Waste Watch Ottawa (WWO), Ecology Ottawa and Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES). We had the chance to see one of the two Cascades recycling facilities contracted to handle our blue and black boxes, as well as the Trail Road landfill. In the near future, we also hope to visit the Renewi organics composting site.
The overarching context is the current city project to develop a new 30-year solid waste master plan (you can find information on the city website, including the roadmap approved by city council in July).
Cascades Recovery Ottawa runs two operations – one for plastics, metal and glass; the other for paper and fibreboard. We visited the plastics, metal and glass facility. It’s an impressive operation where contents of our blue bins are sorted and compressed into large bales to be trucked to Cascades Recovery Montreal which turns them into material for sale to manufacturers. Three types of plastic bottles and containers are the most valuable for recycling – number 1 PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate), number 2 HDPE (high density polyethylene) and number 5 PP (polypropylene). Those marked 3, 6 and 7 have the least value and some may be diverted to landfill, though Cascades does try to use and sell as much as possible. The most valuable materials are aluminum and tin cans, which can easily be marketed and recycled. Glass is a different story. Because it breaks and contaminates other materials, it isn’t actually recycled; instead, much of it is crushed and used in asphalt for road construction at the Trail Road landfill.
Diversion to recycling is critical to extending the life of the Trail Road landfill. Based on current garbage production, the city projects it will be “landfull” by 2042. In 2018, 50 per cent of curbside materials and 85 per cent of multi-residential (apartment and condominium buildings) materials went to Trail Road. But WWO says that if we change our habits and increase the diversion of waste from landfill disposal, we could extend Trail Road’s life to 2065 or even 2075, meaning we wouldn’t need to convert more land to this unproductive purpose for a couple of generations.
Thanks to good management and an optimization and expansion project in the 2000s, Trail Road has been able to handle Ottawa’s waste since 1980. The landfill includes a methane gas capture system which runs generators. The electricity it produces is fed into the Hydro Ottawa grid and is enough to power 6,000 homes.
In many respects, the city’s landfill works well, but managers need our help to sustain it to avoid the need for expansion and to avert the vast financial and environmental costs of developing a new landfill site. Finding a new site could take upwards of a decade and developing it could cost at least $300 million.
The problem is much bigger than individual citizens. Household garbage only accounts for a third to half of the refuse generated in Canada. The rest comes from industry, commerce and institutions (ICI), including restaurants, schools, malls, factories, office buildings and construction sites. Small businesses can participate in the city’s yellow bag program (see the city website for details). Some manage their own waste or use private contractors, operating under provincial regulations, which may not always yield good results for our community. To date, most waste diversion has come from the residential sector. Improving residential waste diversion and getting the ICI sector to do more are priorities, and we need to press governments at all levels for strong legislation and enforcement.
Our actions as individuals, households and businesses can make a significant difference. Many of you are already on board, but I hope these tips will help us all to find more ways to shrink our trash footprint.
Trash Reduction Tips
Use the Waste Explorer on the city’s website. It’s easy to use and will help you effectively sort items into your blue, black and green recycling bins. All of these divert material from landfill, and that material can then be recycled into useful products.
Green bin changes. Changes to what can go in green bins were made in July; for example, plastic bags can now be used for organics. However, it’s still better to use paper bags, newsprint or old cereal boxes, because plastic has to be screened out. For details: ottawa.ca/en/garbage-and-recycling/green-bin-and-leaf-and-yard-waste#changes-green-bin-program
And there’s an App for that. Look for the city’s “Garbage and recycling collection calendar.” It will cue you to regular and special collection dates.
Partners! Take your plastic bags to partners such as McKeen Metro which will send them to commercial recyclers. Check the guide on page 15 to see what’s recyclable or check the list on the big blue bin at the front of McKeen’s.
Choose “gable” containers of milk, plant milk, juice, etc., instead of TetraPaks whenever possible. Gable containers (they look like house gables) are recyclable and are much less energy intensive to recycle.
Blue bin blues. Avoid the wishful thinking trap that leads many to put garden hoses and toys in the blue box. These items and many others that we think should be recyclable are not. There’s a cost to removing them and redirecting them to landfill, so best to check Waste Explorer before discarding.
Bathrooms have recyclables too. City staff note that residents do a good job with their kitchen recycling, but bathroom items such as shampoo bottles, toilet tissue rolls and facial tissue boxes aren’t making it to the bins in expected volumes. Don’t neglect these items.
Avoid heavily packaged products. Egregious examples include double-wrapped produce and baked goods. Avoid bananas in plastic bags!
Buy at markets and shops that welcome and even help you fill your own produce bags and containers.
Buy at stores where you can refill your containers. An array of products is now available this way. Using and reusing containers means less in the garbage and less in recycling bins. That’s a good thing. Recycling isn’t a panacea – it’s energy intensive and supports the continued production of short-lived “stuff” which increases the carbon footprint.
Most of us carry travel mugs for coffee. Why not use them at places that only offer disposable cups even if you’re “drinking in?” Paper and compostable cups may seem like a good option but despite the claims, they are not always recyclable or compostable. Reusable is still best by far.
Get your own cutlery kit to carry around. Some restaurants only provide disposable dishes, even if you are eating or drinking in. Plastic spoons, knives and forks aren’t recycled in Ottawa and have a big carbon footprint from resource extraction through production to disposal.
Wrap gifts in reusable cloth bags or last week’s newspapers instead of using throwaway wrapping paper, bows and ribbons.
Buy to last. Many people are deciding to invest in a few items of quality that are likely to have a long lifespan. For example, they choose a few classic wardrobe pieces rather than fast fashion, items that look great for a while but will quickly fade, fray or fall out of style, then wind up in landfill. Textile recycling is possible but has a significant energy cost.
Take your good used stuff to second-hand shops rather than tossing it in the trashcan.
Buy more used products yourself.
Repair, reupholster or redesign items you already own or find at vintage shops.
Aim for thoughtful, minimal consumption – the polar opposite of conspicuous consumption or status consumption.
All of us need to trim our waste production. As Red Green used to say, we’re all in this together. Judging by efforts in the Glebe, we’re already making a difference.
Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Environment Committee of the Glebe Community Association and a member of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES). You can reach her at:email@example.com.
Metro’s Plastics Blue Bin
Your guide to what’s recyclable
- Dry cleaning bags
- Produce bags
- Grocery and retail bags
- Plastic wrappers (like those from toilet paper, diapers and paper towels)
- Cereal box liners Note: If it tears like paper, it’s not recyclable.
- Bubble wrap and air pillows Note: Pop the bubbles and pouches first. It’s not only required, it’s fun.
- Plastic shipping envelopes
- Zip-top bags and sandwich bags
- Bread bags
- Newspaper bags
- Food wrap (cling wrap)
- Cellophane (like from flowers or gift baskets)
- Frozen food bags
- Pretzel and potato chip bags Note: Some manufacturers are taking strides to minimize packaging and reduce landfill waste – Teracycle has a program to collect snack bags and turn them into 3D printer filament.
- Biodegradable produce bags, often recognizable by their greenish tint. Note: These bags are better suited for compost collection.
- Salad and greens bags, food packages
- Candy bar wrappers
- Zipper bedding packaging Note: They might be accepted by your curbside program – check with your hauler.