Every holiday season, Canadians will produce more waste than the rest of the year. More professional and community social events will mean extra food, and the mountains of gifts we give to one another will mean a lot of extra wrapping. In 2017, one advocacy group estimated that one Canadian will throw out 50 kilograms of trash during the holidays, 25 percent more than any other time of the year.
And confusion around what is truly recyclable or compostable is not our fault. Items are made out of so many different materials that it is near-impossible for consumers to know what to do with them — and for local authorities to find ways to repurpose them. Until manufacturers take more responsibility for the materials they produce, here are some small ways you can improve your own footprint.
1. Not wishcycling your wrapping paper
We’ve all done it – we looked at something and felt too guilty to put it in the garbage, so we tossed it in the recycling bin. Don’t do it! Not only will that item probably not be recycled, but it can complicate the work of sorters at the recycling plant and even damage equipment.
Gift wrap and bags often aren’t recyclable if they’re made with multiple types of material, like paper combined with plastic, glitter or foil. Items like this are tricky for recyclers to separate. Paper wrapping that scrunches easily and plain paper gift bags are usually fine.
To be sure, your best bet is to look on your local authority’s website – or call or email if there are no good online resources – to find out what they accept. And try your best to reuse gift bags and paper if possible, or make fabric wraps or bags for holiday presents.
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2. Rethinking compostable bags for your municipal compost or garbage
This one isn’t a mistake so much as it is not always that useful.
While using compostable bags isn’t any worse than using traditional soft plastic, it often doesn’t help all that much— because municipalities sometimes remove them before they have a chance to break down.
Montreal and Toronto both treat bags labelled as compostable or biodegradable as similar to plastic and pull them from the compost stream (Montreal accepts only certain compostable bags). The Recycling Council of B.C. says most curbside recycling programs in the province don’t accept compostable bags. So it’s best to check your local authority’s policies before stocking up on a box of bags labelled “compostable” or “biodegradable.” Regular plastic bags encasing your compost will also likely be dumped in the garbage.
And using compostable bags for household trash isn’t much different – the lack of oxygen in landfills means the bag will live a lot longer than you hoped.
Hopefully we’ll soon have facilities to break down compostable plastics, but if your area doesn’t accept these sorts of bags for organic waste, here’s what you can do:
If you live in a single-family home and have your own local authority compost bin, don’t line your bin at all or use newsprint, suggests this piece from the National Observer. If you live in an apartment or condo building, the decision is a little trickier. Dumping loose food waste into a large dumpster that may not be emptied for a week may attract wildlife who could make a mess.
The only benefit to using compostable bags is that you’re not perpetuating demand for petroleum-based plastic. A small win?
More on Broadview:
- Why compostable and biobased plastics won’t save the planet
- Author J.B. McKinnon on what might happen if we stop shopping
- 6 books about the climate crisis that offer hope
3. Buying gifts in person instead of online
This isn’t always possible, depending on your situation and the item’s availability. But if you have some extra time and the ability to travel to a store, call ahead to make sure your item is in stock and visit the business instead of buying it online. Online shopping has created an absolute mountain of garbage. Charity Oceana estimates that in 2020, Amazon produced 599 million pounds of plastic packaging waste.
Secondly, seeing an item in store — or trying it on if it’s a piece of clothing — can help you make a more educated decision about whether or not to buy it. How often has something arrived that doesn’t resemble the online photo? This can also help reduce additional decisions about whether or not to return the item or let it languish in your home due to restrictive return policies. And many returned items end up in the trash.
4. Composting or using up extra food
Depending on where you live, your municipal compost might restrict what it accepts or you may not have local composting services. And many of us don’t have the space or time to compost at home.
We’re all bound to make more food than we need for holiday dinners and social events. But you might not know that putting food waste in the garbage causes more problems than strong odours or flies. Organic material breaks down in landfills and releases potent methane and other greenhouse gases. According to Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, a quarter of the country’s methane emissions come from landfills. Methane is the biggest contributor globally to the creation of ground-level ozone, which is dangerous to humans, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, and over two decades, it is 80 times more effective at warming than carbon dioxide.
Some solutions? Grocery shop more intentionally and use up leftovers so you throw out less food. Send guests home with Tupperware containers or even Ziploc bags they can return to you. If you don’t have enough space for a backyard composter but have a garden of any kind (even balcony plants!), you can also try vermicomposting or one of the new tabletop home composters like Lomi.
Emma Prestwich is Broadview’s digital editor.
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