Solid Waste & Recycling Magazine


Growing Waste, Stalled Diversion

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact year that our society shifted from mere subsistence to affluence. Maybe there has never been a precise time — just an ebb and flow, like waves on a beach. Regardless, a large shift in how we...

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact year that our society shifted from mere subsistence to affluence. Maybe there has never been a precise time — just an ebb and flow, like waves on a beach. Regardless, a large shift in how we consume occurred as our material wealth rose over the past century, and a corresponding change in our waste generation, disposal, and diversion, which we can explore using data from Statistics Canada and other sources.

In 1940 Canada’s estimated waste generation rate was about 300 kg/capita. Now it’s about 1,000 kg/capita. Even when discounting for evolving and improved methods for quantifying waste generation, a more than threefold increase in just 70 years is staggering.

Per Capita Waste Generation 1940-2010

Our prosperity has had consequences: abundance has encouraged greater and greater consumption, along with a willingness to throw things away.

Gross National Product (GNP) is one way to measure a country’s economic output (although GDP is the current favoured method). Since 1940, both the country’s GNP and waste generation has grown significantly. It’s clear that there’s a very strong relationship between GNP and per capita waste generation (with the correlation coefficient of R=0.96). It appears that the rate of waste generation is starting to slow, but this is likely in part due to the economic slow down. The trend is similar for GDP. (See charts.)

Consumerism and results

The last 40 years have seen the greatest increase in waste generation; even with the introduction of a remarkable number of ways to recycle or otherwise divert waste, waste generation and disposal continues to outpace waste diversion.

In early 1990s when the authors started in the waste management industry, the term “consumer society” was used, along with calls that we should become a “conserver” society. Today we generate more and divert about the same. In some ways our up-sell and planned obsolence nation has turned into a “hyper consumer” society. While it may be pointless to yearn for simpler times, understanding our past may help cast a better future.

On the surface, increased waste generation is a function of what we consume in our daily lives. Purchasing has clambered to the top of Maslow’s triangle; we’ve been taught to extract personal validation from our purchases no matter how mundane.

So it’s not surprising that waste diversion in Canada has vacillated between 18 and 24 per cent since 1996. The high waste generation rates and grim waste diversion rate belies what we see around us. Most of us have access to a plethora of waste diversion programs in our daily lives, so why are we stalled?

One clue is that municipal diversion schemes only target 35 per cent of the overall waste stream, if we factor in industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) waste.

Looking across the country there’s considerable disparity when it comes to waste diversion. For instance, Nova Scotia has shown a steady upward trend since 1998. In 1999 that province banned organics from landfill and this has clearly had an impact. Ontario’s waste diversion rate vacillates around 20 per cent. Provinces whose IC&I sector generates a greater proportion of overall waste, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, have lower waste diversion rates of 10-15 per cent.

There are stark differences between the residential and IC&I sectors.

Waste disposal in the residential sector has increased by about 10 per cent; IC&I waste has increased by 15 per cent since 1998.

More telling is that diversion has increased by 70 per cent in the residential sector while it’s actually decreased by about 15 per cent in the IC&I sector. Waste diversion on a per capita basis is now greater from the residential sector, which has seen strong growth, than the IC&I sector whose efforts have dwindled.

“Front” vs “back” of the house

It’s difficult to rationalize the poor IC&I diversion rate given what we see at our places of work, restaurants, our children’s schools, and (occasionally) hospitals. Arguably many organizations across the country have some sort of green program; there must be a lot that we don’t see. We see the “front of the house” but not the “back of the house.”

Residential waste diversion programs have become much more successful because they’re publically funded. Municipalities have been willing to look at factors beyond costs, such as the environment, in making decisions. It’s doubtful there would be any recycling or green bin programs without this thinking.

The IC&I sector has little incentive to divert wastes. While there has been pressure from clients to be “greener,” for many facilities this still represents just “front of the house” waste diversion’ the invisible “back of the house” waste iceberg still goes to landfill.

It comes down to the bottom line: waste diversion is more expensive than waste disposal, so disposal wins. This is perfectly understandable and is how businesses work. To wish otherwise is not very realistic.

One key “back of the house” waste stream is construction and demolition wastes. While notable exceptions exist, much of this waste finds its way into landfill. This is likely true in the resource extraction industry. For instance, in resource rich provinces such as Alberta, where the IC&I generates 76 per cent of all wastes, the non-residential waste generation rate of 855 kg/capita is double that of Nova Scotia’s total per capita waste generation.

It appears we’re focussing 90 per cent of our diversion effort trying to divert 35 per cent of the waste stream. A closer look reveals that most of this focus is on single family homes, which probably represent something like 25 per cent of total wastes generated.

So, to make real progress in waste diversion we need to focus on IC&I (including C&D) wastes, and properly incentivize organizations to make changes. Somehow we must shift the marketplace and tip the economic drivers in this direction.


A different approach is needed. Using the word “resource” and catchy aphorisms like “Zero Waste” have had some resonance but traction has been slippery.

Ultimately we need to make some new decisions. At the residential level we may be prepared to pay more for waste diversion than straight disposal; we pay because it’s the right thing to do. What leap is required to get company CEOs and institutional managers to think the same way? (That is, to practice what they already do at home.)

Unfortunately, it’s likely that more government regulation and enforcement is required. Perhaps just the threat of changes could get things moving; industry sometimes reacts to minimize government intervention.

A number of solutions could be effective in reducing and diverting IC&I waste:

1. Pick a Realistic Waste Diversion Goal 

It’s clear that nation-wide and even provincial waste diversion goals of 50 per cent are not realistic, at least not immediately. Zero waste, while fine as an aspiration, is completely off the map in the foreseeable future. A better goal, with some realistic chance of attainment, might be to start at 30 per cent and then raise the bar in five per cent increments. (And allow no fudging of numbers.)

2. Landfill Bans

Nova Scotia led the way by banning organic waste from landfill back in 1999. This resulted in the highest level of waste diversion in the country. Quebec is poised to enact landfill bans of its own, starting with such simple-to-recycle items such as cardboard and eventually organics. For maximum impact, landfill bans shou
ld target organics, paper fibre, and (especially) construction and demolition (C&D) wastes.

3. Landfill Taxes

Economic drivers currently lead the IC&I to choose the least expensive form of waste management (landfill). Some jurisdictions (e.g., Europe) have effectively used landfill taxes to alter the economic landscape and make diversion more attractive. The taxes raised can be used to fund waste diversion programs. This approach will result in increased waste management costs, but help get the job done.

4. Recognize the Energy Value in Waste

In a perfect world everything would be diverted at source but we all know how well that is working. Waste embodies energy. Diverting wastes reduces energy usage associated with using virgin materials. What’s left over and not diverted contains energy. This energy can be captured using anaerobic digestion (AD) and/or waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies. AD and WTE could divert at a greater proportion of IC&I waste (as well as multi-residential waste). Incineration with energy recovery should be considered within the context of the 4Rs (with the fourth R being recovery) and counted as diversion as it is in other jurisidictions whose waste diversion we admire.

5. Develop  IC&I Waste Diversion Strategies

Require the IC&I sector to recycle and divert more waste. Enforce existing regulations and introduce new ones. This should include significant consideration of C&D wastes. These are just a few ideas that could put Canada on the path to powerfully improve its waste diversion results across the country and across both the residential and IC&I sector. 

Some decisions need to be made if we want to alter the current mix of waste disposal versus waste diversion. Otherwise we will continue to chase what are almost impossible to attain waste diversion goals.

If bold steps aren’t taken we’ll be looking at the same if not worse results a decade from now. That would be a shame given the efforts of many and the participation of some.

Paul van der Werf is President of 2cg Inc. in London, Ontario. Contact Paul at Michael Cant is Principal and Canadian Waste Sector Leader  for Golder Associates in Whitby, Ontario. Contact Michael at

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