Creating a Waste Free Campus at uOttawa: Part 2

Monday, July 11, 2016

K-Cups in a zero waste bin

So I got a lot of comments on my first post about going waste free. Thanks to everyone for all the questions and ideas. I think that the one that kept surfacing the most was around the theme of what is zero waste actually?
I thought maybe this would be a great place to start the next installment of this series... If we want to be zero waste, well... "what is waste?" seems like a great place to start.

If you have ever had the misfortune of attending one of my presentations you might remember me saying that there is no such thing as waste. This is technically true but not quite practically true.
Take Bill Gates and his project to recycle nuclear waste. I think that we could all agree that nuclear waste is pretty high on the list of "difficult things to recycle"... but it is not impossible to recycle or reuse, nothing is given enough time and money.

But we aren't really interested in fringe waste, we are interested in the everyday stuff like gum wrappers, broken umbrellas, or cigarette butts. A lot of attention has been paid lately to disposable coffee cups and why they can't be recycled. Actually coffee cups are a great example because although they can technically be recycled, it is impractical to do so.

When I say impractical what I really mean is expensive. Look at the company TerraCycle for example. They are a great organization who work with companies to recycle basically any product you can imagine. The catch.... they are pretty expensive. Let me give you an example.

If I want to recycle a bunch of paper, like an entire bin full of it, I could do that for about $45 dollars. That includes the pick-up of the bin and the tipping fees (which are non-existent for recyclables). When you work it all out and exclude the labour costs for the University, we are taking about something like maybe $100/tonne for paper to be recycled.

Folding coffee bags so that they can be recycled at the University of Ottawa
If I want to recycle an equivalent volume of K-cups from the office coffee machine, that'll cost you $171 (for a large box). The last box we sent weighed about 42 kilos so my quick math tells me that it costs about $4000/tonne to recycle K-cups. This makes sense given the volume of K-cups people want to recycle and the cost to transport them via the Post Office. But it also means that because it is so expensive to recycle them... very few people will actually do it. Don't get me wrong, even though the program is expensive I still use it.

So let's move this conversation over to the definition of Zero Waste... Is it really what it sounds like and is it even possible if some things cost a bazillion dollars to recycle? Isn't material waste just the cost of living in our modern world?

The common consensus is that zero waste means that you have an end of life strategy for all your resources (note the word resources because waste doesn't exist, right... there is only stuff that isn't useful to you). Sometimes that means composting, recycling, reusing - and sometimes that means giving it away for someone else to use or selling it as feed-stock for another process. Whatever the case, most people would agree that going zero waste doesn't actually mean that there is zero waste at the end... people tend to hover around the range of 96% to 99% diverted from landfill.

So I guess a working definition for zero waste will be "the thoughtful endeavour to manipulate resource life-cycles so that they emulate natural cycles an therefore, as much as possible, send no waste to landfill". 
You can find a million wonderful definitions of zero waste on Wikipedia.

Some of the most coveted waste diversion programs in the world still fall short of the zero waste ideal. San Francisco's Recology is a comprehensive waste management program that achieves an 80% diversion rate (not bad by any standards). And I am sure that you have heard tales about those Norwegian countries that have eliminated their waste by burning it. Of course the problem with that is that they aren't really getting rid of their waste, they are just creating new waste in the form of ash (albeit it a ten-fold decrease in volume). So zero waste isn't as easy as it sounds.

The Ontario government recently passed the Waste Free Ontario Act, a neat little piece if legislation that will help make it easier for municipalities to pay for their Blue Box programs by taxing the producers of packaging, thus reducing packing or financing the means to handle that packaging.

But there is another very interesting part to this act that many people overlook; the second part of this Act is called "Building the Circular Economy". I think that this little nugget is much more interesting than the zero waste part because it frames waste in the context of a resource waiting to be harnessed.

Building a circular economy implies the notion of cradle to cradle, the thought that there is no such thing as a final resting place and that everything we create and use will be used again and again and again...

But we aren't in a circular economy yet, so what can we do today to get closer to zero waste?
Well that's my cliffhanger phrase, you are going to have to wait until next time.

~ jON - campus sustainability manager

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