British Columbia·In Depth

B.C. is a recycling leader, but experts say it's time to turn to waste reduction

British Columbia is a leader in how it collects and recycles waste from people's homes — some 90 per cent of all containers and paper are recycled — but can residents adapt their habits to use less?

Zero-waste advocates say people's habits need to expand beyond sorting materials

Lys Fonger has been actively recycling materials in Victoria since the late 1970s. She also tries to avoid excess packaging to reduce the amount of waste she creates. (Jennifer Fonger)

Since the 1970s, Victoria resident Lys Fonger has set aside space in her home for garbage she didn't want ending up in a landfill.

In those days it meant cleaning and taking labels off tin cans, cutting off their tops and bottoms and crushing them flat. She bundled newspapers. When there were enough materials piled up to justify driving across town to an early-days recycling depot, she went.

She says her motivation at the time was simple.

"There is the landfill and it's not going to go on forever and if we can try to divert some stuff out of the landfill, it's going to last longer," she said.

Fonger, 77, is a retired physician who spent her adult life raising two daughters, working and sailing with her husband around the South Coast. She said seeing plastic waste in the ocean and garbage on beaches made her realize the importance of diverting waste.

"There is nothing more distressing than seeing the junk in the water," she said. "It's just awful."

Lys Fonger, 77, spent much of her life sailing or boating on B.C.'s South Coast and wanted to do her best to divert waste after seeing garbage in the ocean. (Jennifer Fonger)

Over the past 50 years, recycling has become easier for Fonger and her family in B.C. as her city and many others across the province introduced curbside blue box programs to collect and recycle a range of materials from homes.

Over the past seven years, the province has emerged as a leader across North America, with the wide range of materials it accepts to its province-wide recycling program and the percentage of those materials that gets recycled and turned into other products.

People like Fonger, who have spent a lifetime collecting, washing and sorting their garbage have helped make this happen through their habits, but some now say new habits are needed to complement residential recycling if waste reduction goals are to be met.

"When you don't produce an item at all and you reuse something that you already have, that really has the most benefit for the planet and for the climate," said Karen Storry, a senior engineer involved in waste reduction for Metro Vancouver.

The province says in 2017 an average of 506 kilograms of municipal waste was created per person. While that is down 61 kilograms from 2012 numbers, the province wants to lower the municipal solid waste disposal rate to 350 kg per person.

Storry says more residents, businesses and governments need to find ways to meet these goals by focusing on reducing and reusing in addition to recycling.

Recycling materials left uncollected at a home in Kamloops, B.C., in this undated photograph. Municipalities leave information with residents who have improperly sorted materials, as it could result in recycling contamination. (City of Kamloops)

"It's really about finding ways to reuse things ... and to remanufacture and repair things," she said. "Really talking about the reduce, reuse, repair part of the system."

B.C.'s recycling system

Residential recycling in B.C. is managed by an organization created in 2014 after the province enacted legislation that required producers who create packaging for their products to fund and manage programs to recycle it.

RecycleBC runs residential recycling collecting programs for nearly 2 million homes in the province. In 2019, it collected around 200,000 tonnes of materials, an average of 40.5 kilograms per person.

Of the materials it collected, around 90 per cent of it was recycled. For much of the plastic, an in-province processor turned it into pellets, which were then sold and used to make products such as food containers, bottles, automotive products and clothing.

"There is no doubt that the province of British Columbia has been a leader in the area of extended producer responsibility for quite some time," said David Lefebvre, who speaks for RecycleBC. "One of our biggest goals is to make sure that people are not only recycling, which is very important, but also recycling right."

Landfill lifespan

Still, despite an informed citizenry doing all the right things, landfills continue to fill up. The Capital Regional District's Hartland landfill is not slated to last beyond 2100.

Vancouver's landfill in Delta, has an end date of 2037. It opened in 1966 and currently has 225 hectares filled with garbage.

Even though RecycleBC processes 90 per cent of what it collects, on average only 78 per cent of products manufacturers create are recovered to be processed. Paper and glass are the two materials that have the highest recovery rate while only 46 per cent of all plastic materials are recovered.

B.C.'s contamination rate for recyclable materials is one of the lowest in the country. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Russ Smith, a senior manager with the Capital Regional District on Vancouver Island, says there are no limits to the amount of recycling residents can put out, but not all of it ends up in the right place.

"People consume but we have to know what to do with the waste," he said. "It's an ongoing challenge, a puzzle."

Throw-away culture

For people like Storry, the future of dealing with waste is clear: she believes people need to start making choices that don't require recycling or landfills.

"Just start to think about what are the everyday simple habits to start looking into," she said.

People who live in Metro Vancouver toss one billion single use items a year. The regional government says that works out to 440 items per person per year.

In response, Metro Vancouver has developed several campaigns to encourage reducing, reusing or simply avoiding certain products. Its latest is called 'Super Habits,' which encourages behaviours that residents like Fonger are already doing, like switching to reusable drinking containers, saying no to plastic utensils and using your own bags when shopping.

Advocates also encourage people to consider what will happen to packaging or items once they are used. Can they be recycled? Will they end up in a landfill? Is there a better alternative?

Governments and businesses are also looking at how to transition to something called the circular economy. It would ensure that resources used to make products are never thrown away, but instead are reused, remanufactured, recycled and reintroduced as new products. 

Storry says the easiest way to imagine the circular economy is through the concept of leasing, whereby residents lease items like coffee cups, bicycles, even jeans and then give them back to the company to repair or reuse them.

'Malleable'

Storry and others are hopeful that residents who are already successful at recycling will adopt these future changes with as much zeal.

"[People] are very malleable," said Jiaying Zhao, a psychology professor at UBC who studies behaviours around recycling.

She has a paper slated to be published this year, which shows that putting images of marine animals trapped in plastic debris on recycling receptacles in office spaces reduced plastic waste ending up in them by 17 per cent.

The team she worked with on the paper showed similar reductions for organics and garbage.

"The current study demonstrates the effectiveness of visualizing marine consequences of plastic waste and provides an important behavioural insight for plastic waste reduction practices," reads the paper.

Saving money by cutting waste

Zhao hopes education programs and incentives will help residents and businesses adopt further waste reduction habits. "We need to achieve zero waste," she said.

RecycleBC says it's doing its part to support waste reduction through the program itself, which has financial incentives for producers who use less packaging and materials to begin with.

"So the whole concept of extended producer responsibility sends a signal to producers that they can save money if they reduce the amount of packaging that they use," said Lefebvre.

Waste reduction is also something RecycleBC promotes through its own campaigns.

It's also something people who already strive to recycle well hope catches on.

Kian Webber, 42, who lives in Saanich, sets aside plastic bags and other items and routinely takes them to a depot for diversion.

"It's the future of the planet and I have two young kids and the environmental crisis is not going away so it's important to try and recycle as much as you can," said Webber. 

Webber says he is committed to recycling and reducing waste but he is also relying on manufacturers and governments to provide better options.

"I have two young boys who are eating constantly, so it's hard to avoid buying food that's wrapped in plastic," he said.

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