October 21-27 is the Waste Reduction Week in Canada. This is a post about my 3 week challenge to cut back on waste, how I managed it in the 613, and a few tips that you may find helpful.
I immigrated to Canada about 15 years ago. I grew up in a culture where ‘please finish everything on your plate’, ‘turn off the lights’, and ‘take care of your CD-player’ was drilled into my head from early on. One of my first impressions of Canada was a sense of abundance—abundance in food, access to shopping, big highways, and generous people. This was contrasted with another early memory—watching my coworkers in a national grocery store throw away huge amount of perfectly fine produce at the end of the evening.
I always prided myself in not being wasteful but of course life gets busy and I got used to the small conveniences I could get here and there—to order food on a mobile app instead of cooking or grabbing a coffee to go. But one of the consequences of living a disposable lifestyle is that Canadians produce more garbage per person than many high income countries, including the United States.
I tried to set a more realistic and practical goal: half the number of garbage bags I send to landfill every month.
So I set out to do my part. I know some people follow a zero waste lifestyle, where you eliminate almost all waste, and recycle and compost everything else. While I admire the commitment and challenges of living a zero waste lifestyle, I tried to set a more realistic and practical goal: half the number of garbage bags I send to landfill every month. I focused my challenge on food waste and packaging.
When it comes to food waste, I was the worst offender. I used to buy produce that seemed attractive in the store and think that I would find a way to use it. Or I would resolve to make a couple of big pots of food for the week, only to get bored by Wednesday and instead order in.
These bad habits were eating into my weekly budget and it seems like I was not alone. The National Zero Waste Council estimates that Canadian households throw away around 140 kilograms of ‘avoidable food waste’ per year at a cost of more than $1,100. Every day, that adds to about 470 heads of lettuce, 1.2 million tomatoes, 750 thousand loaves of bread and so on.
And of course there are considerable environmental impacts. Producing food is very resource intensive, and Canada imports a notable portion of its food from countries with warmer climates. On average, it takes 320 liters of water to grow an avocado compared to 5 litters for a tomato. The WWF estimates that half of the world’s original forests have disappeared and continue to be cleared for agriculture. In addition to water pressures and habitat loss, food waste also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada, the emissions for transporting food from farm to table in is equal to that of 2.1 million cars on the road. Food waste also breaks down in landfills and emits methane, which is many folds more potent than carbon dioxide.
The City estimates that about 45% (by weight) of Ottawa’s garbage going to landfill is compostable organic material that can be put into the green bin.
Fortunately, Ottawa has an organics program but needs more uptake. The City estimates that about 45% (by weight) of Ottawa’s garbage going to landfill is compostable organic material that can be put into the green bin. The list of items that are accepted in the green bins is long and you can learn about it here before your next weekly pickup.
Unfortunately for me, the City does not consistently offer the green bin program to apartment buildings. It is still at the discretion of property managers to supply an organics bin for the building and to participate in the program. The City is considering making the program mandatory in multi-residential buildings, but a decision is not expected until late 2020.
In the meantime, while feeling slightly slighted as an apartment dweller, I set out to cut back on food waste as much as possible. This required lots of planning and developing new habits (which you will notice is the theme for the rest of this post). I decided that making two big pots of food for the week was a good habit but poorly managed. Realizing that I get bored with my food after two servings, I invested in a “specialty” silicone mold and start freezing what I could not finish on Wednesdays. An added benefit was that I hardly ordered in or did food take out the following weeks. Win-win!
I also limited grocery shopping to weekends, after carefully planning what I wanted to cook for the week. No more quick after-work visits to grocery stores (another money saving co-benefit). I looked for recipes that freeze well, and tried to avoid pre-portioned produce: I only bought the exact portion that I needed for a recipe when possible.
Another advantage of avoiding pre-portioned ingredients is that you eliminate those pesky produce bags from your cart. I never understood the need to put three apples in a bag then re-bag that with the rest of groceries. Brussel sprouts, now that is understandable. One way I avoided the non-recyclable produce bags was to get my mom to refashion a broken umbrella into small pouches that I used for lettuce, kale, beans, etc. These were really simple to make: you basically sew two panels of the umbrella together and fold in the top corner. Reusable produce bags are also available for purchase in almost all grocery stores around town.
At the end of three weeks, I would have to say that I felt a great sense of accomplishment. No produce or cooked food spoiled in my fridge. I spend 30% less on groceries compared to before, and I managed to fit in some lovely walks along the Canal on my way to the farmers market.
What I did not manage to reduce was my “unavoidable” food waste but I am counting on the City of Ottawa to help me out soon.
Trying to cut back on packaging was a bit tricky! Almost everything is boxed or bagged somehow and as a consumer, we do not have much say in what a brand owner decides to wrap its product in. So more than anything, I wanted to keep my quest for minimal packaging practical. I focused on the type of packaging that is not recyclable and kept my shopping radius close to home.
This meant that I did not get to visit Ontario’s first zero waste grocery store here in Ottawa! If you live close to Wellington West, definitely check out NU Grocery, and listen to the Apt613 podcast interview with Valérie Leloup, the owner and founder of this visionary business. (Editor’s note: just in time for waste reduction week, NU Grocery has opened a second location at 143 Main Street).
When non-recyclable stuff get mixed with recyclables, it costs money to take them out and it lowers the quality of recycled material, making it harder to use in new products.
So what type of packaging is not recyclable? Interestingly, the common triangle symbol does not guarantee that something is recyclable. When non-recyclable stuff get mixed with recyclables, it costs money to take them out and it lowers the quality of recycled material, making it harder to use in new products. To be sure, you need to learn about what the City allows in its curbside collection boxes.
The City of Ottawa has a guide for the type of material it collects (and does not collect) in its blue, black and green bins! Here are a few examples of the type of packaging that is not allowed in the blue bin: plastic #6 (which is used ubiquitously for food takeout containers and coffee cup lids), snack bags, and plastic films and bags.
With all the DOs and DON’Ts in mind, I set out to cut back on all the non-recyclable packaging in my everyday shopping.
The worst offender on the list: meat packaging! Standard practice in Canada is to pre-portion the meat, put it in a styrofoam plate (plastic #6) and wrapped in clean film. Of course, neither the foam nor the film is recyclable in Ottawa.
I have to say that I have yet to find a perfect workaround for this problem in my regular shopping spots. One option I tried was to bring my own reusable containers to different shops and ask if they would place the portions directly in the containers. Many of the big grocery stores in my neighbourhood (e.g. Loblaws, Independent Grocer) do not have designated meat counters, and I was told that they could not accommodate my requests in their cold preparation area at the back of the store. Farm Boy at Rideau Centre on the other hand accepts reusable containers at their ‘meat shop’ and offers the standards cuts and ground meat options.
If you forget your own containers, the butcher’s meat wrap that is used in many of the local stores is compostable and allowed in the green bin.
The good folk at Seed to Sausage let me use my own containers to buy fresh sausage and bacon and the Glebe Meat Market is another local favourite with a wide selection of meat and less problematic packaging. If you forget your own containers, the butcher’s meat wrap that is used in many of the local stores is compostable and allowed in the green bin.
At the end of three weeks, I found that I needed to form two new habits: remember to pack my own reusable containers, and make time to go to the specialty shops or meat counters at larger grocery stores.
Other problematic packaging on the City’s DON’T list are snack wraps and plastic bags, which of course are very popular packaging options. The solution I tried was to go with reusable containers and shop bulk. The big grocery stores proved to be a disappointment again, so I looked for solutions at smaller local spots.
My re-affirmed one stop shop for all things bulk is Herb & Spice on Bank Street. They have a wide range options, from beans and sesame crackers to chicken stock powder and spices. You can bring your own container or buy one of their cloth bags or glass jars. You can even refill your laundry and dish detergents there.
Artizen Kombucha is a local business based in Perth that gives its customers the option to avoid disposable packaging. You simply buy one of their 1 litre bottles with your first purchase, and you can refill it at a few spots around town, including Herb & Spice. The store also has Culture Kombucha on tap.
Of course, Bulk Barn is another option. They allow you to use your own reusable container as long as it meets their standards and sell store brand reusable containers. Whole Foods in Lansdowne Park also has a bulk section with the standard options. They do not allow you to use your own bag or containers due to health and safety issue, but they have recyclable single use packaging and paper bags available.
Beyond packaging, another source of non-recyclable waste is single use disposable items that seem so essential to our day-to-day life. Think coffee cups, plastic cutlery and straw, food take out containers, shopping bags, etc.
The best solution with coffee cups is to always bring your reusable cup. Ottawa’s very own Bridgehead serves its to-go hot beverages in compostable cups and recyclable lids. They offer a 27 cents discount if you bring your own cup, and they also have a contest happening between October 15 and November 4 where you can win coffee for a year if you bring your own cup. Tim Hortons’ new lid is supposed to be 100% recyclable (and spill-proof) and they have a few other longer-term plans to reduce waste too.
My solution to all the common disposable single use foes has been to pack the reusable alternatives in my tumbler cup and carry it in my bag at all times. It is all about developing the habit and a little bit of self-discipline. For example, on my way to work in the mornings, if I do not have my tumbler, I wait until I get to the office and use my reusable cup. Some mornings it gets challenging, but delayed gratification is a sign of adulthood, right?
I think with a combination of cooking more at home, and having my trusty reusable kit, I have been doing really good in cutting back on single use items.
If you are interested in how I did overall, I would say not too bad. In a typical week, I would usually generate at least one bag of waste. Over the last three weeks, I ended up with one — meeting my 50% reduction target! Most of this was food scrap, which hopefully I would get to compost soon if the City makes green bins mandatory in multi-residential buildings. The rest was mainly plastic film from the cheese that I could not give up, a chips bag that I needed to buy last minute for Thanksgiving snack, and receipts.
These past three weeks, being more cognizant of the amount of waste that I produce, and also how much I shop, has been very eye opening. With waste, it is very much a matter of out of sight, out of mind which is a big problem because of environmental costs both at the production and disposal ends. I will certainly continue to cut back on my waste, change a few habits (plan, plan, and plan) when shopping, and do my part for making Canada less wasteful.