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Canadians Can Stop Being The World's Worst Waste Generators

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Two very different stories about garbage showed up in my news feed recently -- presenting starkly different pictures of the trash habits of Canadians.

Record trash
"Canadians piling up more garbage than ever" read the first headline.

The story beneath it was that Canadian households generated seven per cent more trash in 2012 than they did in 2004. In fact, we produce more trash per capita than anyone else in the world -- about 780 kilograms per year for every man, woman and child. Yuck.

The reason? It seems we can't get enough of convenient, disposable products that are either unrecyclable or uncompostable in the first place, or are such a mix of materials that they are impossible to separate and therefore impossible to recycle or compost.

Two major culprits:

  • Single-serving coffee containers: they make great coffee, but they produce so much impossible-to-separate trash that the man who invented the K-cup now regrets having created it
  • Those new types of resealable plastic bags that stand up in supermarket display cases; impossible to recycle because they are an inseparable mish-mash of materials

And another harsh reality is that we're not very committed recyclers. Sadly, a quick peek into almost any garbage bag or trash bin will confirm that. And a quick tally I recently did on recycling day around my own community was disheartening: less than half the households had blue boxes out.

No trash
The second story was much more inspiring. It profiled two B.C. women, Katelin Leblond and Tara Smith-Arnsdorf, who are on a mission to reduce their families' trash.

They diligently recycle and compost; avoid single-use products like plastic grocery bags and paper towels; and don't purchase things that come with excessive or wasteful packaging.

And how are they doing? Both households have gotten rid of their garbage cans and use a 1.5-litre jar to hold what little waste they produce -- and they haven't had to empty their jars in six months. They're sharing their tips and experiences on their website, Pare Down.

A happy middle
Admittedly, Katelin and Tara are pretty hardcore: they even make their own cleaning materials (saving a lot of money); shop at used goods stores and keep a set of utensils in their car glovebox so they don't need to use disposables when eating out. It's safe to guess that not everyone is ready for that kind of commitment.

But here are a few simple strategies that could help most of us do better:
  • Think waste minimization when you shop: rethink whether you really need a product before you put it into your shopping cart; choose products that have the least packaging and whose packaging is 100 per cent recyclable; consider buying bulk when that's an option; keep cloth grocery bags in your trunk and commit to using them every time. (Do a quick survey the next time you're at a checkout and you'll see how terribly we've backslid on this one simple thing.)
  • Become a committed recycler: not just of beverage containers and paper, but of metals, hard plastic, soft plastic and whatever else is accepted by your local programs. And why stop there? With a little research, you should be able to find a home for old electronics, dead batteries (like Call2Recycle) and used clothing and household goods (like Value Village, Hospice or Habitat for Humanity).
  • Compost everything possible: veggie trimmings, food scraps, used tissues and paper towels and anything organic. The bonus: great fertilizer for your garden. If it's not convenient for you to compost, you can probably find a neighbour who'd be glad to get your organics for their compost heap and garden.

If you need more inspiration, consider this: Europe's official target is that 90 per cent of all waste be kept out of landfills by 2030. (A side benefit: with so much recycling, landfills designed to last 20 years would actually last 200.)

Zero waste? Okay, maybe that's a stretch. But being the worst waste generators on the planet? Surely, fellow Canadians, that's a title we need to shake -- so let's get started.

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