compost waste recycling trash bins

Reducing waste one person at a time

People have a penchant for trashing public spaces with their, well, trash.

Rob Ironside has seen it time and again: unless people are explicitly told that they are responsible for their waste at events, they’ll leave a huge mess behind. Canada is one of the highest waste-producing countries in the world, per capita. Alberta leads the country in waste production by a wide margin.

It’s a dubious claim to fame, but it’s also a great opportunity for entrepreneurs. Ironside, a zero waste consultant based in Calgary, will be speaking at Cultivating Connections about the potential this sector has for new businesses. He explains that the city’s aggressive waste reduction targets – initially 80 percent by 2020, later revised to 70 percent – have created a market that didn’t exist a few years ago.

“Every event that the city sponsors –the City of Calgary sponsors over 100 events in Calgary every year – they expect your event to have a diversion rate of 60 percent or higher,” he says. “That’s their expectation and that didn’t exist a couple of years ago.”

Calgary has adopted a different approach to waste than Edmonton. In Edmonton, waste is sorted post-consumer at a large industrial plant. Over 50 percent of residential waste is diverted from the landfill and the city hopes to get that up to 90 percent by 2020 with the help of the new waste-to-biofuel plant that just came online.

In Calgary, however, waste is sorted by residents. The city is currently rolling out a three-bin system for residential waste that includes separate bins for landfill, organic compostables and recycling; by the end of 2017 there will be a full ban on dumping recyclable material at the landfill.

Legislating such measures goes a long way towards waste reduction, Ironside acknowledges, but they won’t be truly effective until the population is also fully trained on how to properly sort their waste. And even though Edmontonians don’t have to worry about sorting their trash at home, multi-bin systems are appearing in workplaces and public spaces. But not very many people know how to use these systems properly, Ironside says, and improper use can send the whole mess to the landfill.

“There’s all of this investment and money and changes that are being done by the bigger institutions, like the city of Calgary, but the biggest piece that comes along with that is culture and education around that and convincing people that it’s important,” he says. “The biggest thing that I see actually changing is the CBE, the Calgary Board of Education. They’re one of the biggest organizations leading the zero waste work in Calgary. They’ve been rolling out zero waste programs in all of their schools for years. There’s been schools that have complete zero waste programs for two years. So now you have this young population who not only knows how to properly sort their waste, but from a young age has been told they have to, and they actually believe in it. Then they’re going home and telling their parents how to properly do this.”

But we can’t just wait for all the kids to grow up before tackling the problem, Ironside says. That means training adults how to reduce their waste right now, which means Albertans have a lot of work ahead of them.


The east coast is a waste reduction success story. Ironside studied environmental engineering at the University of Halifax, where his friends had to train him how to properly sort his waste. Schools in the province have had zero waste programs for 15 years, he notes, so everyone under 40 has experienced it in some way. Nova Scotia’s per-capita waste production is almost two-thirds less than Alberta’s: in 2012, Nova Scotians generated 386 kilograms of waste per person while each Albertan generated over 1000 kilograms.

The good news is that people are generally quite receptive to sorting and reducing their waste once they know how to do it right. Then it just takes repeated, conscious reminders to ensure we keep doing it.

“You literally have to call people out,” Ironside says. “It’s been ingrained in us that if it’s not our house, it’s not our problem. That’s a major failure in our society, I think. … At what point did littering, or throwing cigarette butts on the ground – at what point did we allow people to do that without saying anything?”


For more information and to register for Cultivating Connections, click here.

Tweet your food questions to #AskEFC and #Cultivate2017 or email them to Three regional mayors (including Edmonton’s Don Iveson) will be answering your questions at Let’s Talk Food, the free opening event of Cultivating Connections.

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