Trash Talk: Toward Zero Waste - NOW

With city hall kicking off month-long public consultations on its waste strategy and the province finalizing its waste-free Ontario act, it's time to stop trashing two-thirds of our garbage. Where are we going wrong?

March 30, 2016
Adria Vasil, NOW

Toronto may have been the first major North American city to unveil a residential green bin program back in 2002, but a staggering 182,000 tonnes of perfectly compostable waste still gets trucked off to landfill every year (including meat, litter, paper food packaging, tissues). Even now that most buildings finally have green bins on the property, most people aren't using them enough. Over half your garbage could be green-binned. Toronto Environmental Alliance'Zero Waste Toronto report is calling on the city to offer more outreach support and incentives to get more buildings doing what Scarborough's Mayfair on the Green has done - converting its garbage chute into a green bin chute. A ground-floor recycling and reusables room also collects garbage and hazardous/e-waste. Residents now divert an impressive 85 per cent of their waste. Meanwhile, 41 per cent of what homeowners with functioning green bins still trash could be composted. TEA wants to see City Hall follow Halifax's lead and ban organics from trash cans, and like San Fran make sure commercial buildings are composting. It'd be nice to see more funds going to programs like Second Harvest, which channels restaurant leftovers to shelters. We could also use some help from the province to ban grocers from trashing unsold food, à la France.



Are you still putting your clear plastic food containers, aerosol cans, plastic bags and clear compact disc cases in the trash? Most of us think we have recycling down pat, but up to a quarter of what we're tossing in garbage bins should be going in our recycling bins, which adds up to 84,000 tonnes of recyclables to landfill every year. But it's businesses (especially larger ones) and institutional buildings that are seriously dragging our recycling rates down, diverting only 11 per cent a year from landfill. Why doesn't Toronto force them to recycle all the same stuff that households have to, as BC and San Fran do? The province's new Waste Free Ontario Act should push companies that make or import goods to reduce packaging, make it recyclable and pay the full cost of recycling, which should save Toronto up to $30 million a year on collecting, sorting and processing all that crap. 


Those old cellphones, near-empty bottles of dodgy cleaners you stopped using and broken CFL bulbs you've been hiding in the dark recesses of your pad waiting for the day when you figure out what to do with them have been sneaking into the trash way too often. Hazardous and electronic waste only makes up 4 per cent of our waste stream, but it has a nastily outsized footprint. Batteries, for example, are responsible for just 1 per cent of our garbage and yet leach 88 per cent of the toxic heavy metals in landfill. You can wait to drop your hazardous waste at the city's annual Community Environment Days, call a Toxic Taxi, book a car-sharing service to reach one of Toronto's transfer stations or leave your e-waste in an open box at the curb on garbage days (don't worry, it'll get recycled). The city is considering mobile depots for divertable waste. But to get to zero waste, TEA is calling for equal access to hazardous and e-waste recycling for all buildings, so we can reach for zero at school and work, too. 


What are you going to do with that broken sewing machine, old shelving unit or forlorn toy? If you said fix it/sell it/donate it, you win. But a sizable 6 per cent of what we send to landfill in our trash bags is perfectly reusable. The city is mulling over some new reuse-focused programs, including sharing libraries and some sort of "textile reduction and reuse strategy" - something it's been promising for a decade, so fingers crossed it materializes. Instead of reinventing the wheel, TEA suggests City Hall partner with and fund the expansion of successful community groups and non-profits like the Furniture Bank, the Repair Café, the Toronto Tool Library and its upcoming Sharing Depot. The province could also require longer warranties on goods, the way Quebec and the EU do, pressuring companies to make more repairable stuff.


At this point, 85 per cent of Toronto's residential waste could be recycled, composted or diverted, but two-thirds of that is ending up in the trash instead. Other cities are getting creative. Owen Sound recycles old pots, pans and cutlery. Vancouver requires that 75 to 90 per cent of demolished older houses be recycled and reused. T.O.'s considering a ban on landfilling most construction and demo waste at city landfills. But unless we make recycling mandatory, it could just end up at private dumps. Heck, we've already figured out how to recycle 3,000 tonnes of old mattresses, furniture and large appliances put to the curb. Maybe millions of disposable coffee cups will actually get properly recycled, too (a girl can dream). In the meantime, TEA says the city needs to aim higher by setting a zero waste target ASAP.

For more on TEA's Zero Waste report head to

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