British Columbia

Reduce, reuse, refuse: Recycling is not enough, advocates say

The garbage fiasco between the Phillipines and Canada shows that putting waste in the right bin doesn't guarantee it will stay out of a landfill. Some people say they're taking matters into their own hands by avoiding plastic packaging altogether.

Phillipines-Canada fiasco shows that putting waste in the right bin doesn't guarantee it won't become garbage

Lauren Czura works for Vancouver grocery store NADA, which has shoppers bring their own reusable packaging to fill up with items. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Vancouver couple Dan and Patty Rogers are committed to reducing plastic waste in their lives and hope others will take up the challenge, especially as cracks in recycling systems continue to surface.

Part of the lifestyle change for the couple came after seeing that despite their best efforts to recycle, some of the waste still gets incinerated or buried in a landfill.

"I'm appalled by how much waste there is," said Dan at Vancouver's NADA grocery store on Friday. "[We] wanted to find ways to cut down on our household waste."

The Rogers, who live in the city's West End, have been shopping at the zero-packaging store since it opened almost a year ago. They bring their own containers to fill up with staples such as steel-cut oats and maple syrup, and they also buy items like wooden toothbrushes. 

Bins are filled with dry goods at Vancouver's NADA grocery store. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Nothing at the store comes wrapped in plastic, which is being found all over the planet, including waterways, oceans and in the stomachs of animals.

'The problem with the 3 Rs'

    Imperfections in the recycling industry grabbed international headlines in May when a six-year garbage spat between the Phillipines and Canada came to a head, with Canada agreeing to take back dozens of cargo containers filled with contaminated recyclable materials.

    A container of contaminated Canadian plastic scrap at Port Klang in Malaysia. (Eric Szeto/CBC)

    Dan Rogers says too many people rely on recycling alone.

    "The problem with the three Rs ... is we put all our focus on 'recycle' and people forgot the 'reduce' and 'reuse' and now the 'refuse.' The fourth R should be 'refuse,'" Dan said about finding ways to not accept plastic.

    For example, the Rogers have their meat counter wrap meat or fish in paper rather than plastic, and their favourite deli will fill a reusable container with hummus.

    Shoppers at NADA in Vancouver pay for items after filling their own containers with staples such as nuts, flours, yogurt, and even bulk ketchup. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

    It's these types of small behavioural life changes that stores like Vancouver's Soap Dispensary and NADA are trying to foster. They argue that recycling is not enough to make meaningful change around plastic pollution.

    "I think it's something that's going to need to happen in the future and it also needs to happen today and people aren't necessarily taking it seriously enough," said NADA's Lauren Czura, whose title is food enjoyment officer. She says she jumped at the chance to join NADA after working as an accountant at a restaurant chain. 

    "I really want to make [reducing waste] more accessible, make it possible for people to do this in their daily lives."

    Garbage audit

    Tara Moreau, associate director for sustainability and community programs at the UBC Botanical Gardens, hopes the dramatic images of Canadian garbage abroad will spur more people to change their habits.

    "These images ... I think help us feel emotional about these issues, which I think is a really important opportunity for us to then think about our role in this larger system," she said.

    Two years ago Moreau won a City of Vancouver award of excellence for her work on how to engage people to change their habits around sustainability, among other things.

    She doesn't want people to be overwhelmed by trying to change all their habits at once. She suggests taking a week to audit your garbage and see where you can make changes.

    Shoppers have plenty of choice when it comes to reusable straws at NADA. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

    "When you see your waste sort of splayed out through all your little bits and bobs of toothpaste tubes and Q-tips and all of these various things ... you could probably sort of then be like, 'Huh, maybe I don't need this or maybe I could reduce this,'" she said.

    That said, Moreau also wants people to keep up with recycling because B.C. is particularly good at it, with contamination rates at about six per cent.

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    Chad Pawson is a CBC News reporter in Vancouver. You can contact him at