Sorting waste better and understanding how to utilize green bins and blue boxes is the best way to improve waste management and the environment, according to Region of Waterloo Waste Management.
Putting less waste into landfills, also known as waste diversion, is a goal all Ontario municipalities have in common.
Education programs by Region of Waterloo Waste Management on sorting, what is recycled, composted or goes into waste is one way the Region is trying to help residents help them.
Experts agree that it can be very confusing for the consumer and that things would be much easier if waste diversion started with producers and brand owners. An example of this is the use of single-serve coffee pods.
Many manufacturers claim that their coffee pods are biodegradable or recyclable. But according to Kathleen Barsoum, a waste coordinator with Region of Waterloo, the pods don’t end up getting recycled or composted at all.
“Our processors are seeing a lot of coffee pods,” said Barsoum. “What we are seeing is a lot of confusion in the marketplace. Keurig’s marketing strategy talks about how their pods are recyclable. But to recycle it, of course, you have to take it apart. You have to take the foil lid off, which is not recyclable, you have to take the grinds out of it and put that into the green bin, and then apparently Keurig is recyclable. However, I know that, [in] a study in Toronto of the pods that came through there, they found that 97 per cent of the pods were contaminated. That means there were still coffee grinds in them or the lids hadn’t been separated.”
The pods are also made out of a variety of different types of plastics that processors have trouble sorting.
Plastics are categorized by processing plants with a numbered system, one through seven. According to Barsoum, processors can’t be entirely sure what category different brands of pods go into because they vary, and for this reason, paired with contamination, municipalities urge residents to just opt for the garbage when it comes to these coffee pods.
Ontario’s environment ministry encourages producers to design their products with the environment in mind in order to put an end to this sort of confusion.
Manufacturers will put out products that appear to be better for the environment, stating that they’re a mix of compostable materials and plastic. But because this is unsortable, processing plants end up putting this into the garbage.
“We recognize that compostable coffee pods are a relatively new and emerging waste stream,” said Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. “These products create both opportunities and challenges, as they provide an alternative to landfill but need technology in place to adequately manage. While we do not track the specific number, we believe that too many coffee pods are going into landfills.”
The good news, though, is that Waterloo Region has seen a significant drop in waste that goes to landfills since introducing a new limited garbage bag program in 2017.
Blue box and green bin pickup is every week in the Region of Waterloo, while garbage bags are collected every second week, with a limit of four per single-family household.
Once the limit was implemented, green bin composting uptake jumped 120 per cent within a year.
According to Region of Waterloo Waste Management, around 50 per cent of household waste can be composted, reducing the amount that goes into landfills significantly.
“Now that has had such a beautiful impact on the tonnage of garbage,” said Barsoum. “Because before we started, like 2016, we were getting about 900 tonnes a day, just from the Region of Waterloo. One year later, after the changes, it had dropped down to 600 tonnes a day. Still high, but significant change.”
The reduction in food waste going into the landfill had a direct correlation to the drop in greenhouse gas produced by the landfill, according to studies done at Region of Waterloo Waste Management.
“Landfills are designed to be environmentally safe, so it’s sealed in,” said Barsoum. “The tonnage that comes in every day — it’s pressed down, it’s very tightly compacted. When you put food waste in there, particularly when it’s wrapped in plastic, no air or water can get to it. Of course those are the healthy elements needed for the food waste to decompose in a healthy manner. Because it’s an unhealthy situation for it to decompose, it starts to produce landfill gas. Fifty per cent of landfill gas is methane — that’s a direct result of unhealthy decomposition.”
All types of foods, bones, paper products and pet waste, such as kitty litter, can be put into green bins. Waste Management recommends putting a liner in green bins to keep them cleaner.
As far as advice for residents in terms of reducing waste goes, Barsoum said that moving away from single-serve items is imperative.