Solid Waste & Recycling


Defining Waste Minimization

A new year and a time for new ideas, resolutions, and a time of reflection -- it's certainly an exciting time in Ontario with respect to waste management policy. The Waste Diversion Act is currently u...

A new year and a time for new ideas, resolutions, and a time of reflection — it’s certainly an exciting time in Ontario with respect to waste management policy. The Waste Diversion Act is currently under review. (See Cover Story and related sidebars in the December/January edition.). Perhaps not only the focus, but also the title of the act should be changed. Let’s consider the Waste Minimization Act. The use of the term “diversion” has contributed to an overemphasis on recycling while waste reduction (the intent of the ministry’s current review) has been ignored.

Ontario municipalities failed to achieve the 60 per cent diversion target set out in the 2004 discussion paper “Ontario’s 60 per cent Waste Diversion Goal.” The goal was supposed to be accomplished by the end of 2008. The most recent provincial statistics, gathered by Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) in 2007 for its annual report, reveal that the average Ontario municipality diverted only 39.2 per cent of its waste.

This rate is 20 per cent below the 60 per cent diversion target, and indicates that further action is required. Simply pressing people to recycle more is not enough; some kind of wall has been hit. Between January and December of 2006, the diversion rate rose by 1.4 per cent. It is unlikely that diversion rate will rise by the required 20 per cent without the introduction of multiple new initiatives across the province.

In October 2008, with the release of John Gerretsen’s discussion paper Toward a Zero Waste Future: Review of Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act, 2002, much-needed action may be possible. Gerretsen’s report re-evaluates the Waste Diversion Act and suggests bolder remedies than many observers had anticipated. Compared with the 2004 discussion paper and the Waste Diversion Act, Gerretsen’s paper is the only report that emphasizes the waste management hierarchy: reduce, reuse and finally recycle.

Historically, no Ontario legislation has emphasized waste reduction over recycling. WDO’s annual provincial reports on waste diversion detail the amount of waste recycled and reused in each municipality; these reports don’t even address reduction. The new waste act should reflect the hierarchy and waste minimization.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines “waste” as “material or manufactured articles so damaged as to be useless or unsalable.” The OED defines “diversion” as “the turning aside (of anything) from its due or ordinary course or direction.”

If one puts these two terms together, “waste diversion” refers to altering the current path of a useless material or product, so that it does not go to disposal. This accurately describes waste recycling. Recycling uses products that are no longer useful (for example, an empty plastic water bottles), and alters their path to the landfill by making a new product. Whereas, waste reduction prevents waste from being created in the first place; thus there’s no waste to divert. Consequently, waste reduction is not a subcategory of waste diversion.

The OED defines minimization as “the action or process of minimizing something.”

Waste minimization refers to the process of minimizing useless materials or products. Waste reduction, reuse and recycling all fall under this description. For example, if one reduces packaging, one minimizes potential waste. If one uses a refillable bottle, one is reusing a product and minimizing waste. If one recycles a disposable plastic water bottle, again one is recycling and thus minimizing the amoung of waste entering a landfill or other disposal system.

Waste minimization, therefore, is an inclusive term that represents the entire hierarchy. As waste minimization includes waste reduction, it takes a proactive stance to waste management.

Comparatively, waste diversion only manages waste after it has been produced, thus using reactionary management techniques.

The Waste Diversion Act should be renamed the Waste Minimization Act. Minimization would best represent the entire waste hierarchy: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. If the term waste diversion is not changed, it will likely continue to contribute to an overemphasis on recycling and ignore reduction.

Catherine Leighton is doing her Masters in Environmental and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo and recently received the SWANA Cliff Chan Memorial Scholarship. Contact Catherine

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1 Comment » for Defining Waste Minimization
  1. KanataTaxpayer says:

    The target diversion numbers whether they are 40%,60% or any other number tend to more reflect the enthusiasm of their proponents than any scientifically derived need. It is rather hard for these youngsters to stop and think rationally in the heat of passion. They need closer supervision from adults like the Auditor General and the Ontario Ombudsman.

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