The Town of Markham’s journey to the Zero Waste frontier started with an eye-opening trip to its own loading dock. There lay the 14-cubic-yard dumpster into which all garbage from the Civic Centre (town hall) was deposited, then emptied six times each month and trucked to Michigan along with the rest of Markham’s curbside residual waste.
It was 2006 and Markham already prided itself on being known as a green municipality. Its waste diversion rate was 70 per cent — one of the highest in the province. the green bin program had been successfully implemented a year earlier, and its four recycling depots were booming. In fact, its success with residential diversion programs was so good that staff and politicians were starting to talk about promoting Zero Waste.
But what was in that dumpster?
According to Councillor Erin Shapero, Chair of the Town’s Environment and Sustainability Committee, a whole lot of things that shouldn’t have been. A waste audit (a polite term for “dumpster diving”) laid bare the lunch remnants, coffee cups, cardboard, polystyrene containers, diapers from the on-site daycare centre, computers, signs, wood pallets, and a multitude of paper, including huge amounts of paper towels from the washrooms.
“We were shocked,” she says simply. “We realized that more than 90 per cent of the dumpster’s contents could have been recycled.”
What happened next was the milestone decision that the Town of Markham’s Civic Centre — the workplace for some 500 employees and site for many local events and activities — would clean up its in-house act, and become a Zero Waste facility. It made sense to start with the Civic Centre, where operations were under the town’s control. Also, it would be impossible for Markham to espouse the goals of Zero Waste to local households, businesses and organizations until it had its own house in order.
“We knew we had to mirror the behaviour that we wanted residents to adopt,” Shapero explains.
Today, the garbage cans that once populated every work station and office at the Civic Centre are gone, replaced by under-the-desk blue boxes and 23 recycling centres where staff deposits organic, paper, plastic and glass waste. The giant dumpster is gone too. It was replaced by much smaller, locked garbage receptacles that are guarded by a caretaker who reviews and confirms that what goes in them is truly unrecyclable garbage.
“You’d think there would be pushback, but we had wide-scale staff communication and the morning that the garbage cans disappeared, people were ready,” Shapero recalls. “It was easier than we thought. Frankly, staff members were getting a ‘Cadillac’ service with garbage emptied every night, compared to Markham households, which have curbside garbage pick-up twice a month!”
But removing the workplace garbage cans was only the first step.
Bit by bit, the town is reviewing its purchasing policies, contracts and operating procedures with the Zero Waste lens firmly in place.
“As we began looking at all the components of Civic Centre operations, we recognized that food service operations were a big part of the problem,” says Andy Taylor, the Town’s Commissioner of Corporate Services. “Effect- ively taxpayers were subsidizing the use of non-recyclable packaging.”
The Markham Civic Centre is the site of a large cafeteria and numerous events, including weddings virtually every day, so food and catering policies were a natural place to start. Effective July 2008, the town’s main caterer had to conform to a new Zero Waste policy, and all polystyrene products — including plastic utensils and clamshell containers — were banned.
The staff cafeteria began using biodegradable knives and forks (which go in the green bin), unbleached napkins and fair trade coffee served in recycled (and recyclable) paper cups. Purists would point out that re-usable cutlery and dishes could be used, but as Councillor Shapero notes, “It’s a process.” And skeptics might ask what the costs of these changes are, but the town is saving money by going green.
“When you reduce waste, you reduce costs,” Taylor says.
By January 2009, the Zero Waste policy will apply to all caterers providing food services directly to the town and at town-supported events in the community. By that time, Markham expects to be at 75 per cent waste diversion for the entire community, and at 95 per cent per cent at all municipal facilities, including fire stations.
Shapero says the town’s main caterer has been very open to adopting new business practices.
“It means changing certain things,” she says. “The coffee was be- ing delivered in individually packaged, plastic-wrapped containers. We looked at it and said, ‘that’s not sustainable.’ It’s a process of change and of collaboration.”
Zero Waste doesn’t happen overnight, Shapero emphasizes. “We have to set high goals, but there are challenges.
“For example, we look to leadership from the provincial and federal governments to extend the responsibility of manufacturers to design and package products responsibly and we can’t wait forever.”
But as more people start thinking about the Zero Waste concept, she’s confident that it’s catching on.
Shapero shares the story of a town staff person who worked with her on the food services policy.
“He took his kids out for pizza and they couldn’t finish it. They wanted to take it home and the waiter brought out a Styrofoam container. For the first time in his life, this person filled out a comment card asking the restaurant to use something else for take-away items.
“People say Zero Waste is impossible, but we’re moving from concept to reality,” she adds. “All the challenges we’ve faced so far have been overcome. It’s reasonable to think that we can get to 90 or 95 per cent of garbage diverted across our whole community.”
Claudia Marsales is the Manager, Waste Management Department, Town of Markham, Ontario. Contact Claudia at firstname.lastname@example.org
“For the first time in his life, this person filled out a comment card asking the restaurant to use something else for take-away items.”
“As we began looking at all the components of Civic Centre operations, we recognized that food service operations were a big part of the problem.”