words tanushree pillai
images ryan judd

Here I am standing before a bank of colour-coded waste bins at the BCIT campus, struggling to figure out which one should receive my coffee cup. And what about the lid? And the brown paper bag that my bagel came in? Just then, another student passes by and mindlessly dumps a whole tray of mixed garbage into a single bin marked ‘Waste.’ It’s the perfect analogy for the state of waste in our society and it got me thinking much more about why we generate so much of it, what we’re doing to manage it all, how other countries treat their waste, and if it’s really possible to live in a zero-waste society.

I grew up in India, where waste is an everyday part of life. We generate it as individuals, as big families, as businesses, and there is simply one kind of garbage. Until moving here I, like the other 1.2 billion people in India, had never sorted my waste. Some households keep their washroom and kitchen waste separate for hygienic purposes, but every morning, when the ‘kachra wala’ (garbage man in Mumbai slang) rings your doorbell to collect your trash, everything is dumped into one big bin that he lugs around and finally dumps in the garbage truck parked outside the apartment building. The truck rolls away, packed to the hilt with all kinds of open trash, and takes it to a city dumping ground where it is incinerated. You can see the fumes from miles away. This story is repeated in every neighbourhood, in every city. So imagine my shock when I moved to Canada and discovered that not only was I expected to separate my trash, I actually had to take it to the bin myself! No sooner had I grown accustomed to this philosophy, when news broke this year that China was banning import trash from developed nations. Import trash? I think most of us would’ve assumed that countries typically only import items they can’t produce themselves, like food or electronics. I certainly didn’t know that waste is an importable item, or that waste can be contaminated, and that there are different grades of waste depending on how it’s managed... I had so many questions.

So let’s start at the beginning — or is it the end?

Waste. It’s an all-encompassing term that can refer to many forms of the unwanted. Waste can be solid, liquid or gas. It comes from households, industries, even our bodies. It’s not even objectively obvious what counts as waste or garbage (think: one person’s trash is another person’s treasure). Recycling counts as waste too, and used clothing. For the sake of simplicity, and the scope of my research, let’s just define waste as: materials that we no longer have use for, and want to get rid of. In the context of the many bins at BCIT, I’m talking about stuff like: packaging, food scraps and recyclables.

I’ve never been the type of person to just ‘set it & forget it,’ and I’m a naturally curious person. Clearly these colour-coded bins are demanding us on some level to consider the lifecycle of waste once it leaves our hands. Clearly there are separate ways to manage all the different kinds of waste, and not all waste is treated the same. I realized that while I’m asked to participate in this lifecycle, I don’t know much about it. So here goes: Waste Management 101; Tanu-style.

How much are we talkin’?

In BC alone, approximately 2.3-million tonnes of municipal solid waste was disposed of in 2015. In Metro Vancouver itself, 212 kgs of waste were generated per person per year1. Urbanization, increasing household income, and a rapidly changing millennial lifestyle combine together to drive Canadians’ consumption, thereby leading to a marked increase in the waste generated per capita.

Globally, a whopping 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste were generated by the world’s cities per year as of 20122. This means each one of us had a waste footprint of 1.2 kgs per day. The World Bank says that municipal waste generation is expected to rise to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025.

New York ranks number one when it comes to “creating” waste. The city generates 14 million tonnes of trash each year, followed by Mexico City, which wastes 12 million tonnes per year, then Tokyo, Los Angeles and Mumbai. After that: Istanbul, Jakarta, and Cairo. Nationally, India generates 100,000 metric tonnes of waste per day.

"Most of that waste you dumped in the bin arrives at the local landfill where it is dumped into piles, pushed around using big burping machinery, and ultimately buried in the ground alongside all the other household trash, even concrete and construction waste."

Where does it all go?

Once that tray of scraps, and wrappers, and cups, and lids leaves your hand and tumbles into that black plastic bag, it begins a long and complicated journey. Since sorting really needs to happen at the consumer level (more on that later), most of that waste you dumped in the bin arrives at the local landfill (the closest one is in Ladner) where it is dumped into piles, pushed around using big burping machinery, and ultimately buried in the ground alongside all the other household trash, even concrete and construction waste. Some waste heads to the incinerator, typically organic waste (fruit and vegetable waste, lawn trimmings, even animal poop – all of which is biodegradable and could be turned into compost), but also some types of hazardous waste (anything that is inflammable, reactive, corrosive, or toxic, including batteries and lamps). In the incinerator, waste is burned and transformed from solid to gas. It might seem like a nice tidy little magic trick – poof it’s gone – but rest assured, it’s still here.

At this point, I don’t imagine I need to explain to you why waste is bad for the environment. Here in BC, the level of public education is pretty high (bus shelters, radio ads, news stories, local organizations, demonstrations, etc.). But here’s a quick crash course. Our ecosystems are severely impacted by the waste we generate and, furthermore, the ways we manage it. Nevermind the bigger problem that we can’t seem to slow down our production of waste, we can’t even seem to sort it properly and it can end up in places that I think we can all agree is a bad place for waste. Take our oceans for example. Research conducted by Plymouth University3, found that nearly 700 marine species are in danger from waste, and there were 44,000 different sea creatures that were found entangled in waste. Most of that is plastic, especially plastic bags. In 2017 alone, the world produced at least 275-billion plastic bags4. Every second, 160,000 plastic bags are made5. Plastic bags blow away on their way to the landfill, and plastic litter on the streets becomes a risk even before collection. Natural forces like rain and wind, help transport this litter and the fly-away plastic to our drains and sewage, where they then find their way to our rivers and, ultimately, our oceans.

What is waste management?

Waste management as a concept started somewhere around the 18th Century.  Industrialization led to a sudden increase in waste generated and it wasn’t until 1751 that London, England took the first step to establish a waste collection system. To this day, waste management is still an unknown concept in developing and underdeveloped economies6. The practice of waste separation is mostly only followed in the developed world, but even Canada didn’t adopt waste management until after the Second World War For the longest of time, waste either went to the landfill or the incinerator. Today however, waste management in Canada is an
$8 billion industry7.

New York manages its waste through two separate systems, one public and one private. The public one handles waste from households and government buildings. This “public waste,” which accounts for about a quarter of the city’s total, is collected by New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Waste generated by private companies/businesses are collected by contracted companies that are paid for by those generating waste.

In Mumbai, a city with 7 “mini-cities” within itself, waste segregation is a foreign concept. While the city has a rule that says residents must segregate waste, there are no treatment centres and everything eventually is dumped into the three landfills that cater to its nearly 10,000 metric tonnes of waste per day.

The economy of waste

Waste and consumerism go hand-in-hand. The more we consume, the more we waste. The more waste we make, the more that cities and countries need our taxes to treat it. Essentially, for every coffee cup I buy, I’m also spending money to dispose of it. Now imagine the millions of coffee cups overflowing from bins around this city alone, and how much money we spend in getting rid of those cups so that they don’t threaten the environment. At the end of the day, waste management is a business. In Canada, municipal solid waste is regulated by the provinces and territories and managed by the waste management industry under contract to municipal or regional authorities, or managed by municipal authorities directly. On an average, a staggering $3 billion is spent annually by local governments to dispose off this waste.8

Which brings me to the China crisis.

In July of last year, the Chinese government announced that it was banning 24 categories of imported waste products including mixed paper, textiles and different kinds of plastic. This waste comes from developed countries, because China uses it to make millions of different plastic products, the kind that arrive daily on ships like those we see here in English Bay carrying products that line the shelves of almost every country around the world. Given the position China holds in global manufacturing, in 2016 local manufacturers there imported over 163 million metric tonnes of waste materials from developed countries — making for an industry worth nearly $90 billion (USD).

"Canada now faces the reality that it must find new ways to manage its waste."

If you’re like me, I bet you didn’t even know that we were selling waste to China then buying it back in a different form. China’s move to ban certain kinds of  ‘yang laji’ (foreign garbage) is two-fold: it forces their manufactures to use local waste/by-products, because the imported plastic was found to be the leading cause of dangerous levels of toxins in its soil, water and air. This ban will also act as a major stimulus to kick China’s own waste management and recycling program into more action. This ban has obviously given rise to a lot of concern for the developed countries, like Canada and the US, who must now take a hard look at what to do with all their recycled waste. Canada now faces the reality that it must find new ways to manage its waste. Indonesia, Thailand and India are among the countries still accepting foreign recyclables, but there is stiff competition when it comes to product quality.

Here in BC, the effect isn’t believed to be so damaging. Other provinces like Nova Scotia and Alberta are struggling with this decision because they depend on China to take nearly 80% of their plastic. Halifax is considering going back to burying plastic bags in landfills while Calgary already has 5,000 tonnes of paper and plastics stored in shipping containers and warehouses until there is a sustainable solution. Halifax recently debated a ban on plastic bags but has put the decision on hold until further review.

BC’s waste is managed by the industry-operated non-profit organization RecycleBC. They have said that BC produces high-quality recycled materials, which means China will likely still accept what the province exports. Here in BC, we recycle a lot of our own waste and there is more of a push to get households and industries to separate their trash, leading to less contamination and a higher quality of recycled waste. Of course this model puts a lot of onus on the consumer to sort their waste properly, when some would argue that manufactures should take more responsibility in producing less packaging, release fewer iterations of the latest gadget, and rethink the marketing message that goes into driving our consumption. Until then though, the responsibility is mostly on us to make choices.

"...[the] model puts a lot of onus on the consumer to sort their waste properly, when some would argue that manufactures should take more responsibility in producing less packaging, release fewer iterations of the latest gadget, and rethink the marketing message"

Do you ever wonder what happens if you make the wrong choice when you’re standing in front of those bins, and toss that dirty coffee cup into the recycling? Every municipality treats coffee cups differently. Some say it’s okay to recycle it in the blue bin (as a ‘mixed container’ and not ‘paper recycling’), but only after you’ve rinsed it. The lid is also accepted as long as they are separated from the cup. Some municipalities reject coffee cups outright, saying they should go to the bottle return depot instead. Coffee cups contaminate the rest of the recycling materials and can result in the entire lot being rejected. You might have thought you were doing the right thing, or simply got confused by the many signs, but that cup (if you bought it from a major franchise) is typically lined with plastic inside to help keep your drink warm. That plastic makes it unrecyclable, and if enough of these cups end up in one lot of recyclables, then countries like China can reject the entire lot because of contamination. With more than 2 million cups trashed every week, that’s a lot of potential for contamination. Your best bet? Avoid the confusion: buy a reusable coffee cup (they sell them on campus at Geared Up, The Stand and the bookstore) and get into the habit of keeping it in your backpack or locker.

How are we managing?

In 2013, the Conference Board of Canada gave Canada a ‘D’ ranking in its review of partnering countries’ waste management on a municipal level. The report said that Canadians produce 777 kgs per capita of municipal waste, twice as much as number one-ranked Japan. The province of BC has since set provincial waste disposal targets with a long-term goal of lowering the municipal solid waste disposal rate to 350 kgs per person by 20209.

Nationally, Canadians diverted 255 kgs of waste per person from landfills in 2014. Among the provinces, residents of Prince Edward Island diverted the most waste per capita at 429 kgs per person, followed by residents of British Columbia, who diverted 358 kgs per person.10

Canada has also now dedicated Waste Reduction Week, to be followed this year from October 15-21, encouraging Canadians to focus on reducing food waste and reusing products before discarding them as waste. Take your morning coffee for example. Did you know that Canadians use nearly 3 million coffee pods every day that ultimately end up in the landfill?

"Did you know that Canadians use nearly 3 million coffee pods every day that ultimately end up in the landfill?"

In our current model, the focus is on a circular economy where ownership comes second to access.  What does this mean? Let’s take clothes for example. As individuals, we focus more on owning/buying new clothes than being satisfied with the outfits we already own. Now apply this same concept to every item we own and imagine the decrease in waste we could see if we swapped, shared and repurposed those items instead of buying new ones.

Recycling alone is not enough though. The issue with recycling is that it requires time, resources and money that many taxpayers aren’t thrilled to spend. The answer lies in zero-waste, wherein we reduce our consumption, design and distribute fewer products, and eliminate by-products that need to be burned or buried. There is an ethical way to look at the lifecycle of a product, starting with rethinking the way we buy and consume. Recycling is often confused with zero-waste. While recycling is one way of waste management, zero-waste does not involve any management, rather, a systematic way of reducing what we consume.

What does zero-waste look like?
It means we stop consuming coffee in disposable cups. It means we repair what we have, instead of tossing it and replacing it with something new. It means we refurbish old items to reuse them. Zero-waste is as much an individual way of living as it is an industrial one. Recently, the Super Bowl made news when it was announced the event would be zero-waste. The initiative is called Rush2Recycle involved around 200 employees and volunteers there to educate visitors about what can be recycled, composted, or thrown away. Every year, more than 50,000 fans attend the event and generate nearly 40 tonnes of trash which eventually makes its way to landfills and incinerators.

"Zero-waste is as much an individual way of living as it is an industrial one."

Closer to home, BCIT is also looking at ways to make its campuses zero-waste by employing: composting and recycling programs, initiatives to reduce toxics, plastic waste, and paper usage, initiatives to use local sustainable low-packaging foods, and a stormdrain marking program to reduce toxins in wastewater at the Burnaby campus.

As individuals, we can all make small contributions that are sustainable in the long run. Zero-waste may seem like a pipe dream, but it is attainable. It takes time and thought, but our collective efforts as society would ensure our ecosystems are protected.

So the next time you stand in front of those coloured bins, think: did you really have to generate that trash in the first place? Would reusing a container and coffee tumbler have helped reduce your waste? And remember, don’t just dump all your trash into the waste bin. Together we can make a difference.

1 Tetra Tech. 2017. “2017 Multi-Family Residential Waste Composition Study.” MetroVancouver. http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/solid-waste/SolidWastePublications/2017MetroVancouverMulti-familyWasteCompositionStudy.pdf
2 World Bank. 2017. “Solid Waste Management.” http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/brief/solid-waste-management
3 Merrington, Andrew. 2015. “New Study Reveals the Global Impact of Debris on Marine Life.” Plymouth University. February 19 2015. https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/news/new-study-reveals-the-global-impact-of-debris-on-marine-life

4 Ocean. 2017. “How Much Trash is in Our Ocean?” https://4ocean.com/blogs/blog/how-much-trash-is-in-our-ocean

5 The World Counts. N.D.  http://www.theworldcounts.com/counters/waste_pollution_facts/plastic_bags_used_per_year

6 Encyclopedia. 2017. “Waste Disposal.” https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/united-states-and-canada/us-history/waste-disposal

7 Statistics Canada. 2017. “Waste Management Industry: Business and Government Sectors 2017.” http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/170324/dq170324c-eng.pdf

8 Statistics Canada. 2017. “Waste management industry: Business and government sectors, 2014.” http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/170324/dq170324c-eng.htm

9 Conference Board of Canada. 2013. “Municipal Waste Generation.” http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/Details/Environment/municipal-waste-generation.aspx

10 Giroux, Laurie. 2014. “State of Waste Management in Canada.” Giroux Environmental Consulting. https://www.ccme.ca/files/Resources/waste/wst_mgmt State_Waste_Mgmt_in_Canada%20April%202015%20revised.pdf