Solid Waste & Recycling

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Getting to Zero Waste

There has been much debate in the environmental field in the last several years about the so-called "Zero Waste" option. A number of cities around the world, including Canberra, Australia, Seattle, Wa...


There has been much debate in the environmental field in the last several years about the so-called “Zero Waste” option. A number of cities around the world, including Canberra, Australia, Seattle, Washington, and Toronto, Ontario have all adopted Zero Waste policies; however, a literature search reveals little field work or actual experiments on whether or not achieving Zero Waste within our waste-producing culture is even possible.

Although far from scientific, I co-opted my family (a huge thank you to my wife and our three late-teens/early-twenties children who humoured me by lending their assistance to this project) to separate and measure our household waste for a year to determine what sort of waste diversion rate we could achieve using the municipal waste management programs and facilities that are available to Essex-Windsor residents. The project started on January 15, 2001 and ended after a 52-week garbage collection cycle on January 7, 2002.

We live in Leamington, a small town in the County of Essex in the south-western corner of Ontario. Our household receives once-a-week garbage collection, weekly yard waste collection from April to October, once-a-month junk/white goods collection (i.e., for oversized waste), and leaf collection in October/November from our town. During the year of the study we paid an annual fee of $90. The Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority (EWSWA) provides a bi-weekly recycling collection service and a Transfer Station and Public Drop Off depot about five kilometres from our home. This includes a composting pad where residents drop off yard waste year round, a Household Chemical Collection Centre (for used paint, pesticides, etc.) and bins for the recycling of cardboard, metal, white goods and electronics. The curbside recycling program collects old newspapers and magazines, boxboard, cardboard, junk mail, fine paper, telephone books, aluminium and steel cans, plastic PETE and HDPE bottles, and coloured and clear glass bottles and jars. EWSWA also promotes backyard composting and grasscycling, both of which were employed during the study.

We tried to lead a normal life during the fifty-two weeks so that the results would represent an average household. We also did not, at least consciously, change our purchasing or consuming habits in an effort to “reduce” the amount of waste generated.

In fifty-two weeks our household generated an astounding 1,395.7 kilograms of waste. At the same time we achieved an impressive (at least we thought so) 80 per cent diversion rate. Here are the raw numbers:

Waste Kilograms %
Weekly garbage collection 231.3 16.6
Junk Day collection 40.0 2.9
Blue Box Recyclables 410.0 29.3
Food Waste — Back- yard Composted 163.4 11.7
Yard Waste — Composted at Depot 479.6 34.4
Electronics — Recycled at Depot 10.6 0.7
Metal — Recycled at Depot 50.0 3.6
Used Clothing — Donated to Charity 10.8 0.8
1,395.7 100%

The average household in Essex-Windsor set out 148 kg of blue box recyclables in 2001. Our mix of old newspaper, magazines and junk mail alone was 168.2 kilograms for the year. Included in that mix was the city daily newspaper, the local weekly newspaper, a weekly advertising supplement, a weekly magazine subscription and two monthly magazine subscriptions (minus a few pages of recipes cut out for re-use!). Old corrugated cardboard (OCC) and old boxboard (OBB) was the second largest portion of our recycling stream. The complete break-down of material in the blue-box was as follows:

Recyclable
Material Kilograms %
Newspaper Mix 168.2 41.0
OCC/OBB 113.7 27.7
Containers 60.9 14.9
Glass 34.0 8.3
Fine Paper 33.2 8.1
410.0 100%

There is a number floating around out there that the average household with a backyard composter will compost 120 kg of organic waste per year. We composted 163.4 kilograms of food waste alone in our backyard composter, and another 479.6 kilograms of yard waste was generated and sent to be windrow composted by EWSWA. The yard waste figure did not include grass, which was cut and left on the lawn; however, it did include droppings from our 40 kg Golden Retriever, dryer lint and the contents of our vacuum canister (of which there must have been at least 40 kg of dog hair!).

The average household in Essex-Windsor set out 755 kilograms of residential waste for municipal curbside collection in 2001. Our total of 231.3 kilograms, or 4.4 kilograms per week, was 30 per cent of the average household. Originally it was not my intent to analyze the residual waste; however, my staff had another idea. Every year EWSWA carries out random and blind waste audits to determine the effectiveness of our waste diversion programs. On one of those days my staff decided to not-so-randomly audit our household, and it was the results of that audit that led me to start thinking about Zero Waste.

The sample they collected on August 13, 2001 weighed 4.2 kilograms, close to the average weekly set out rate 4.4 kilograms. Just over 52 per cent of the sample, or 2.2 kilograms, was food waste from animal sources, including meat, bones, fat and oils. Another 6 per cent, or 0.25 kilograms, was tissue, towelling and sanitary products. If we had access to a centralized composting facility these food wastes and paper products could have been composted together with our other food and yard waste, and our overall waste diversion rate could have been 90 per cent instead of 80 per cent.

Also in the waste sample were one #3 PVC bottle and one #2 HDPE tub, weighing a total of 0.7 kilograms. If this was repeated on a weekly basis it would add up to36 kilograms a year. If the local recycling program collected these two materials our overall diversion would have been increased by another 2.8 per cent.

Spot audit

My staff took great delight in noting that there was one boxboard tube in the waste that they audited (it was probably one of the “children”) — their written report advising me that this product could be recycled was warmly received. If this same “mistake” occurred on a weekly basis it would result in 2.6 kilograms of OBB being landfilled instead of recycled. If recycled it would have raised our overall waste diversion rate to 93 per cent.

Left over in the audited waste was one partially burned candle in a broken glass holder, one pair of men’s brightly coloured and wildly patterned shorts with the rear-end ripped out of them, one broken linoleum floor tile, and 40 grams of non-recyclable film plastic and laminated packaging products. My staff enjoyed speculating over the activities that generated the first three products in the remaining waste stream, but regardless of the method of generation, they were not recyclable, compostable or reusable.

So, can we achieve Zero Waste? The results of this personal experience would indicate that there are always going to be waste products that cannot be composted, recycled or reused, regardless of our efforts to divert waste. We also cannot expect perfection from every resident of every household. A banana peel or a toilet paper tube is going to end up in the garbage instead of the composter of recycling bin.

However, the Pepper family would have come extremely close to 100 per cent diversion if we had access to a centralized
composting facility and an enhanced recycling program. This would have reduced our overall waste requiring landfilling to approximately 95 kilograms for the year, or 7 per cent of the total waste generated.

(P.S. The Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority did implement an All Plastic Bottles recycling program in April 2002, so that the #3 PVC bottle can now be recycled. Now if I can only find $12-million in our budget for a centralized composting facility!)

Todd R. Pepper is general manager for the Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority. E-mail Todd at tpepper@ewswa.org


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