Clean Bin Challenge participants are ready with their clean bins and reusable coffee mugs.
courtesy Gladys Nuñez

Can we live waste-free?

Publication YearIssue Date 

This week’s feature is the fourth and final in our series on food security. The first part looked at a Canadian perspective, the second looked at organic farms in New Orleans. and the third looked at composting. This week’s is about reducing waste.

Can we live waste-free in a world where most goods come packaged, and throwing stuff away allows us to forget about it? We need to change the way we think about waste and reduce the amount of waste we produce. 

To promote this waste-free lifestyle, the University of Calgary sustainability street team invited U of C students, staff and faculty to participate in the Clean Bin Challenge between Feb. 27–March 26 during which they would live for one month without producing any waste — attempting to have a clean bin. The participant who produces the least amount of waste by weight will be declared the winner. 

This Clean Bin Challenge was inspired by the 2010 Clean Bin Project documentary. The documentary follows Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin as they compete against each other to see who can produce the least amount of waste over a year. The documentary examines waste problems, such as the Pacific trash island and offers ways we can reduce waste.

Rustemeyer and Baldwin show how difficult minimizing waste production can be and consider whether their tiny green actions will actually influence the large environmental problems caused by what they call our “throw-away society,” where materials are used once and then discarded, without consideration given to reusing it.

Deven Biskup, a fourth-year 
U of C history student, commented that tracking how much waste he produces is hard since there are two different bins in his back yard, and his household garbage is taken out constantly. He’s never had the chance to see all his waste together in one place.

Reducing waste production is difficult because buying products with a lot of packaging is very convenient. When getting food is easy, consumers hardly stop and think about the amount of waste produced. For example, take-out boxes provide convenient food but go straight to the trash. Consumers need to think about the production, packaging and disposal of goods. When buying a product, one is purchasing the packaging too. 

Ryan Petrushka, a third-year U of C geoscience student, said “[I have to] be more careful with what I buy, eliminate the source of it, not have as much food that I won’t be eating, because the food comes inside packaging and this is waste.” 

The packaging of food, clothing, electronics and other material goods has to be recognized as waste. Kenneth Marsh and Betty Bugusu from the Institute of Food Technologists found that 31 per cent of all municipal solid waste comes from packaging. In addition, food packaging contributes more waste to landfills than any other type of packaging. 

In 2007, Claire Bassett and Angela Charlton published the War on Waste for the U.K. government, which studies the amount of food packaging in grocery stores. Twenty-nine similar items from eight different stores were compared. The study found that about 5 per cent of the total weight of groceries was food packaging, and 21–40 per cent of this packaging could not be recycled. 

“The quantity of waste I produce is mostly food waste,” said Biskup. A common misconception is to think that food and water are waste. When consumers don’t think about packaging, their perspective doesn’t encompass waste fully, so consumers think they produce less waste than they actually do. 

Most food in Canada comes packaged, and the packaging will usually end up in the garbage. For example, the plastic bottle that water comes in will soon be thrown out. Both the paper bag used for a muffin and the disposable coffee cup go into the garbage. These small, one-time use products add up very quickly. 

Why do we need so much packaging? Packaging allows food to be preserved longer and allows for food to be transported farther distances. However, packaging is often just there to make carrying the product home convenient. 

In addition to this, the U.K. government’s Waste and Resources Action Program showed that luxurious packaging attracts consumers. Consumers often choose packaged goods over loose goods. In other words, consumers are willing to buy a product because of the packaging ­— the marketing on packaging helps to sell it. 

How can packaging be improved? “Creating a food package is as much art as science,” wrote Marsh and Bugusu. Packaging has to be efficient and maintain the quality and safety of food to be considered an ideal food package. Waste-reducing packaging is a “shared responsibility between producers, retailers, consumers, local authorities and the waste management industry.” Producers should promote the use of more recycled materials in the components of the packaging as well as design efficient packaging. Retailers should reduce packaging and research and market products that are less wasteful. Consumers should reduce their demand for packaging. Local authorities should provide recycling facilities and waste education for their residents. Industry should invest in facilities to recycle and recover waste.

Even if a consumer is aware of the waste problem, they still have to purchase the packaging in order to obtain the product. Until the food industry comes up with an ideal packaging system, the responsibility to reduce waste is on consumers. 

How can consumers reduce packaging waste? How will the competitors of the Clean Bin Challenge skip purchasing waste if almost everything comes wrapped in some kind of packaging? 

In three weeks of competition, the participants have had difficulties with food packaging, but are reducing their waste by being creative and organized. The Clean Bin Project documentary offered several ways that anyone concerned about the amount of waste they produce can reduce that amount. 

An important first strategy is to stop using plastic bags. Most people use plastic bags to take their food home and sometimes the bags are doubled. Cloth bags are much more durable and can usually hold more, so switching to them can be more efficient. According to the Clean Bin Project, an average person uses 500 plastic bags per year and fewer than 1 per cent of these are recycled. 

Michele Mallinson, a geoscience and paleontology student who is participating in the challenge, said, “If you could go to a natural place and even bring your own plastic bags, then you can just bulk it.”

The documentary also recommends thinking about packaging before buying a product. 

“I am a vegetarian, but I cannot buy veggie beef in bulk, like meat, so it comes with the plastic packaging,” said Nasrin Pak, a participant and a U of C physics graduate student. 

Janice Cook, another participant and a U of C kinesiology professor, faced the same problem, but with fish. If she shops at a grocery store, the salmon she wants comes wrapped in cellophane, with styrofoam and plastic pads. 

Another strategy to reduce waste is to have recycling bins handy at home, and to recycle everything possible. Pak, as well as Mallinson, commented that they have become more aware of recycling materials because of the challenge. 

“You have to look at your garbage and see what is recyclable, if you have a pop can then you know you can take it back to the bottle depot, you just have to watch what you are throwing away,” said Mallinson.

According to the City of Calgary, about 80 per cent of the total municipal solid waste goes straight into landfills, leaving only 20 per cent in the blue carts for recycling. Waste sorting is the responsibility of every citizen — things that can be reused, recycled and composted should be put in their appropriate place. 

Yet reducing packaging is preferable to recycling. Emma Cook-Clarke, a Clean Bin Challenge participant and first-year U of C environmental science student, said, “Even the recyclable things, they still have so much packaging. I bought some rice and it was in a square plastic container, but the plastic was so thick and it seemed really unnecessary. It doesn’t make any sense to have all this for a product you will use once.”

Considering if a product is actually needed before it is used reduces waste. Cook said that she was inspired to prepare food differently. For example, she no longer uses aluminum foil to cook. She also decided to use handkerchiefs because she realized she wastes too much tissue. 

“Twist ties are the other thing I noticed. Is it really necessary when you could just make a knot to close the bag? The challenge makes sure you are aware of the little things,” said Cook.

Composting and making some products yourself can further reduce waste. Pak started composting her organics and Mallinson started producing her own homemade soaps. 

Going to farmers’ markets instead of regular grocery stores can also help. Farmers’ markets are a local and healthy alternative, but they are also a waste-reducing business. Products use less packaging because they travel short distances and they don’t need to be packed in a special way to protect them for long-distance transportation. The products are harvested and are only kept in a cooler for 2–3 days, so packaging is not needed in order to preserve the food. 

One of the most important ways to reduce waste is to better educate oneself about the problem. 

“The challenge makes you become aware of all your choices, and it can’t be an isolated point — you have to look through all your lifestyle habits,” said Cook.

Cook-Clarke is also seeing the challenge as a lifestyle change, and that waste needs to be reduced in an inter-connected way, instead of isolated parts. 

“We don’t see where our garbage goes and this is a huge issue. Once the garbage truck comes and takes it away, it’s like we are done with it and we don’t have to see the effects at all. Until you see that the environment is being ruined because of the garbage, you don’t really realize the effect that the excessive amount of garbage makes,” said Cook-Clarke. 

Once something is thrown in the garbage, the problem does not end — the problem is just beginning. Consumers need to be personally responsible for sorting their garbage correctly and trying to reduce the amount of garbage they produce. Without personal responsibility, consumers won’t exert any effort to solve the problems caused by it. 

“These days people consume a lot. They don’t even think where all this garbage goes,” said Pak. 

The best way to reduce waste is to make these strategies permanent habits. The challenge has inspired the competitors to continue doing the new things they learned.

Consumers should review their true needs before going shopping and value the effort given to producing and disposing products. Is it really so hard to carry a reusable coffee mug, and is that plastic bag for groceries necessary?