Our last post in the urban sustainability series saw us giving advice on how to take advantage of alternative modes of transport to help reduce single-occupancy vehicle commutes in Ontario. Now, we are switching gears to focus on another growing problem in societies of all shapes and sizes: waste. Waste accumulation is leading to pollution on a massive scale, leading to severe consequences for wildlife and humans alike. These include decreasing the fertility of soils, leaching toxins into drinking water, asphyxiating marine animals, and microplastics making their way into the human food chain via seafood to name a few. (Photo: Alfonso Navarro)
While the usual response to the demand to stem the growth of the waste problem is to recycle (for some great tips on how to recycle more effectively, check out this article https://www.sierraclub.ca/en/node/3389), a much more straightforward approach is to reduce your production of waste in the first place! So, before even considering how we should dispose of our trash, let’s launch into some of the best ways to shrink the amount of waste that we generate.
Get creative in the kitchen
Ontario has a fantastic green bin program that helps to divert waste from going to the landfill, but that doesn’t mean that we should eagerly toss any and every unused piece of organic material in the compost. Many First Nations cultures put enormous value in all parts of any animal they hunt or plant that they harvest. They are known for using every part of an animal to its utmost potential, including imaginative solutions like using a bison’s stomach as a water gourd. Now, we’re not saying that you should start doing arts and crafts with animal guts, but there is definitely a lesson to be learned here.
Many of the world’s top restaurants use conventionally under-valued ingredients like carrot tops for garnishes in their dishes. Some chefs choose to swap out beet leaves for spinach in their recipes. You can even keep the outer layers of onions, celery tops, mushroom stems and carrot peels in the freezer until you’ve accumulated enough to make a delicious vegetable broth! The key here is to get creative, and you don’t need to be a 5-star chef to do it. The magic of the internet allows anyone and everyone to have access to the world’s largest cookbook, overflowing with interesting ways to cook ingredients that you would have otherwise thrown away.
And, there’s an added bonus! Oftentimes it’s much cheaper to buy produce, whether it be animal, vegetable or fruit in their least processed forms. The cost-by-weight of an entire fish or chicken is usually cheaper than that of a fillet or skinless, boneless chicken breast. It’s almost always less expensive to buy raw, unprocessed carrots with the tops on than peeled and in a bag. Sure, we understand that this means you will have to do all of the peeling, deboning, etc. yourself, but the payoff for your wallet, the environment, and even your palate is well worth it.
(Photo: Sylvie Tittel)
That small shirt might fit someone else
One of the most commonly-found types of waste in landfills is textile waste, meaning clothing and other sewn/woven products. The problem with textiles is that due to their complicated construction and heavy use of dyes and other chemicals, they are often too costly or difficult to recycle, so they usually get sent straight to the trash. However, waste management systems have been evolving in recent years, and just because you might consider a piece of clothing trash doesn’t mean that everyone will.
You would be hard-pressed to find a community that doesn’t have a clothing donation bin nearby. Donating clean, good condition clothing that no longer fits, or that you simply no longer find fashionable, is an easy way to sustainably dispose of textiles. And, before you go thinking that nobody would want your ripped up and smelly t-shirt, think again! Organizations that recirculate clothing maintain standards for what they accept, so leave it up to them to decide whether or not your t-shirt has the potential to be worn again.
In fact, most of these organizations will send any textiles that they don’t accept away to textile recycling facilities that can handle the smelly, torn, or stained clothing that neither you nor the organizations themselves considered to be of value. And as we said, waste management systems have evolved – in many cases to the point that they will accept old socks and underwear, or even dirty old towels. So, before you throw out any old textiles, make sure you do a little research to see if your local donation bin will accept them – chances are that they will!
On the purchasing end of the textile spectrum, you can consider shopping at thrift stores and other used clothing retailers to reduce the demand for new products, which will avoid the introduction of new textiles into the waste stream in the first place. This is a great option for new parents with small children who will go through several clothing/shoe sizes per year. Social media has made community markets and trading groups easy to start up and join, meaning that parents can find other parents in their neighbourhood who are just a year or two ahead of them in the game. Hand-me-downs have never been so easy to come by.
(Photo: Priscilla Du Preez)
Ditch the single-use products
Our society revolves around the ease of use and simplicity of single-use products. Disposable make-up wipes, disposable razors, disposable grocery bags, single-use cling film, disposable coffee cups and straws, throw-away takeout containers, and the list goes on and on. While we can’t refute how easy it is to use something once and throw it away, out of sight and out of mind, we also know that there’s an easy alternative for all of these products.
It’s easy to find reusable alternatives for all of the products that we just listed. The only thing that is required on your end is a potentially higher initial investment and a bit of foresight. The higher investment can be seen in the cling film example. There are a number of reusable (and often biodegradable) food wraps that are on the market, however they are all relatively expensive. I happen to have purchased a pack of 3 large beeswax wraps recently, and although they cost much more than cling film, I haven’t touched a roll of plastic wrap in nearly 3 months.
Foresight is needed because you will have to remember to bring the reusable bag, coffee cup, straw, etc. with you the next time you leave the house to get groceries or a coffee, but it pays off in the end. Many businesses will reward you for bringing your own bag or cup by not charging you for a plastic bag or giving you a discount on your beverage! You can even take this concept a step further by repurposing a cloth bag you have from the last time you bought a pair of shoes instead of buying a new reusable bag.
Grocery stores are a huge source of household waste, mainly because most of their products are pre-packaged. If you opt to shop for fresh ingredients without any packaging, and choose to skip the product bags (which don’t do anything to protect your fruit from getting bruised, and let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter if you think that your apples will be kept clean in that bag because you’re going to wash them when you get home anyway) then you can easily shed a few more parcels from your personal landfill contribution.
The name of the game here is thinking ahead. If you take the time to plan ahead by, say, making your lunch at home and putting everything in reusable containers and a reusable bag, then you can easily go an entire day, week, or even month without sending a single thing to the landfill.
Stick to it!
One thing that we find never gets talked about in the countless articles you can find online about how to reduce waste and reuse things creatively is the constant scoffing and weird looks that you’ll get from friends and family who think that you’re being strange. Societal norms tend to put a lot of pressure on us to throw out that takeout container instead of reusing it, or to put all of our oranges in a plastic bag, because anything else is deemed unsightly and disgusting. Make sure that you stick to your guns and persevere! The comments will eventually (quicker than you’d expect) subside, and your habits of reducing your waste will surely rub off on your peers.
As human tendencies continue to worsen the state of the environment, we need profound changes to be made to the way that we do things. Kicking a bad habit isn’t easy, but it’s usually worth it. If we want to live on a planet that continues to provide for us for perpetuity, we need to focus on efficiency in all aspects of our lives. When it comes to managing our waste, that means focusing on the first of the three R’s by remembering to reduce before we reuse and recycle.
Part 4 of Urban Sustainability Blog Series by Cristian Hurtado and Mira Merchant