Going beyond reduce, reuse and recycle

My son participated in Wildsight’s Beyond Recycling program last year. In it, he learned the tenets of a sustainable community and studied how his own actions, and those of our family, impact the planet. I remember he came home one day and looked around our kitchen.

“There’s a lot of plastic here, isn’t there Mom?” he asked.

“Yeah buddy, there is,” I sighed. “It’s hard to not have plastic in this day and age.”

Author’s son (in green hat) during a Beyond Recycling field trip to the local landfill.

I took a good hard look in my fridge, and in my pantry. Almost everything I bought was wrapped in tight rolls of slick clear plastic or milky-coloured sturdy plastic containers. Yogurt and milk, cucumbers and cauliflower. Everywhere I looked, there was plastic. 

While some plastic can be recycled, it is the sheer volume of it that is concerning. In my household alone, we endeavour to recycle as much as is accepted in Invermere. We fill to the brim an entire large blue recycling bin every two weeks. Even after that much recycling, we end up with a decent-sized black garbage bag of waste that goes straight to the dump. 

After the conversation with my son, I drilled down on the recycling options in my community of Invermere and made sure that what can be recycled from our home is recycled. While the District of Invermere offers curb-side recycling that accepts cardboard, paper, tin and aluminium cans, and some plastic, we also have a Recycle BC depot in town that accepts more items such as flexible packaging, glass and styrofoam. I set up a system in my basement to further sort recycling into categories for curbside and categories for the transfer station, and I routinely make a trip to the depot to drop off those other materials. I purchased a few more reusable items and I make a concerted effort to actually use them. We try to shop local to lessen our carbon footprint, and I’ve attempted to grow a garden.

Could this be Canada’s most scenic landfill? Perhaps! Columbia Valley landfill, Windermere BC. RDEK communications coordinator Nathan Siemens gives a group of Grade 7 students an overview of landfill operations during a Beyond Recycling tour, 2023.

Canada’s waste problem

Canadians throw away more than 3 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. Only 9 per cent is recycled; the rest ends up in landfills, waste-to-energy facilities or the environment.1

By 2020, Canadians were producing 36 million tonnes of waste per year.2 Of that, 26.1 million tonnes is disposed of in landfills or incinerated, with only 9.9 million tonnes diverted. 

In the East Kootenay, where I live, the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) released a solid waste management plan in 2020 that included some interesting statistics.3 For example, during a 2018 waste audit, the RDEK discovered the largest component in the waste stream was compostable organics (29%) followed by plastics (14%). And per person across the region, we produce about 585 kg of waste per person per year, compared to the provincial average of 506 kg per year. That’s a lot of waste. 

Part of my own journey to waste reduction has involved looking at what still gets tossed in my garbage can, and seeking out options to reduce where I can. Some (like dog waste) just can’t be avoided. Others, like food scraps, can be. A personal goal of mine in 2024 is to figure out composting once and for all so I can reduce my waste output from kitchen scraps year-round, instead of just in the summer months when my compost bin works best. 

Circular economy mindset

What are we to do with so much waste? Well, the first step is to avoid buying what cannot be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted. We speak with our wallets, and companies will listen if we make conscientious choices in the store. 

Many items are created from the outset as single-use items, are designed to become obsolete and necessitate further purchases, or are simply cheaper to manufacture anew than redesign and sell at a higher cost to a consumer. In a circular system, a product can be reused or somehow remanufactured so it doesn’t go straight to landfill. Ideally, not ever. So buy products that aren’t ‘one-and-done’ whenever possible.

There are plenty of ways to reduce your own waste output. Simple things like bringing your own reusable container take-away coffee cup / grocery bag / food container and utensils are easy steps. Consider second hand before buying new. Shop bulk and at local farmer’s markets to avoid packaging. Compost. Cut out paper mailings where you can; identify other streams of waste in your home and look for ways to reduce those particular categories.

Take action

Did you know March 18 is actually Global Recycling Day? This day is set aside to recognize and celebrate how recycling helps preserve our resources and secures the future for our planet. Its goals are to tell world leaders that recycling is too important to not be a global issue, and to ask people across the planet to think resource, not waste, when it comes to the goods around us. 

This year, why not set a ‘no waste’ challenge in your own home? See if you can go one day, or even one week, without producing waste. Only use materials you can recycle. Shop for dinner ingredients that aren’t over-packaged. Look on your local ‘buy and sell’ site if there’s something you need for your home. Get inspiration from students in Beyond Recycling, who are taking actions all across the Columbia Basin to reduce waste and encourage a sustainable mindset. 

Communities across the region are also finding ways to act on the climate emergency through tangible waste-reduction initiatives. Wildsight Invermere runs an electric car-share program, reducing the need for many families to own a second car and reducing overall emissions too! Wildsight Elk Valley runs a tool share program, hosts an annual community yard sale to encourage secondhand shopping, and is spearheading a ‘Beyond Single-Use‘ waste reduction project; this page includes a number of amazing resources to reduce your own waste streams.

Some reflections

Reduce, reuse and recycle. It’s the holy trinity of waste reduction many try to live by.

But the mantra is meaningless in the face of outrageous consumption. Our planet simply cannot keep up with the rate of garbage generated. And the reality is that many things cannot be reduced, reused or recycled. What to do if you cannot reduce, reuse or recycle? Pete Seeger, the iconic American folk singer, got it right:

“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired
Rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold
Recycled or composted
Then it should be restricted, redesigned
Or removed from production.”

Clever guy, that Seeger fellow. 

Little steps can add up to big change. Join us in taking action this year to build a sustainable future for us all.

  1. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-reducing-waste/reduce-plastic-waste.html
  2. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/solid-waste-diversion-disposal.html
  3. https://ehq-production-canada.s3.ca-central-1.amazonaws.com/dc9623e0e347540d981c796333203e1f9510a106/original/1583794846/APPROVED_SWMP_2020.pdf_5536a22d59bdad3366defd2fc58c0b59?X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Credential=AKIA4KKNQAKIOR7VAOP4%2F20240313%2Fca-central-1%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Date=20240313T194411Z&X-Amz-Expires=300&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Signature=1854d3064e5a0387ec0bb3ead11a6272a9699f2ccefad96f426bd6d4ccfb096e