The Status Quo
Vancouver has ranked among the greenest cities in the world, with low greenhouse gas emissions, hundreds of LEED-certified buildings, and renewable electricity (thanks to hydroelectricity!) However, such numbers are based on mere comparisons. How good is Metro Vancouver, really, at processing our waste? Are the city’s recycling methods truly that effective?
Since committing to the Greenest City Initiative, Vancouver has made major steps to reduce single-use items (e.g., paper and plastic), adhere to the Zero Waste Plan, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and recover useful resources from waste. As a result, a vast majority of plastic (e.g., containers, bags, etc.) is processed and turned into pellets or flakes, which are then turned into new products! Household glass is processed into new bottles, and metal containers are swiftly converted into new packaging and sheet metal.
That said, Vancouver still has its flaws:
(1) material collected from commercial/industries isn’t always accurately sorted, (2) a widespread ban on organics from landfills since 2015, rendering efficient recycling as tricky as ever, and (3) Vancouver’s recycling facilities aren’t equipped to handle “compostable” plastics. The first issue is quite self-explanatory, as mass amounts of industrial waste are inevitably difficult to record—though the last two problems require a little more explanation. Organics, like food, cannot be recycled; therefore, recycling single-use plastic utensils is not a profitable business because such materials would require the extra step of cleaning prior to being processed. Lastly, “compostable” plastics (e.g., PLAs) aren’t properly handled in Vancouver’s recycling facilities (Material Recovery Facilities, or in short, “MRF”) which don’t identify compostable plastics. Don’t forget the novelty of “compostable” plastics. No universalized recycling processes exist to process them as quickly as they are being discarded because the technology is still relatively new; such plastics aren’t being collected at rates that render such businesses profitable (to invest in expanded collection or recycling technology).
Two-thirds of these issues root from difficulty tracking and sorting recycled materials; when the wrong waste gets disposed of in the wrong streams, money and labor—which aren’t always readily available—are required to restore things, and even then, problems aren’t fully solved. Plastic bags, for instance, remain one of Vancouver’s biggest challenges, especially as over 2 million plastic bags are thrown in the trash every week. Plastic bags can, in fact, be recycled, though they must be dropped off at specific recycling depots for that to truly happen. However, that doesn’t happen as often as it should, and most end up contaminating the other waste streams (e.g., paper stream), where they are then hand-picked and discarded in the landfill.
Therefore, despite Metro Vancouver’s incredible strides to prioritize sustainability, we cannot remain complacent and neglect issues that evidently still stand. Vancouver’s recycling processes simply don’t justify the rates at which we discard waste, and we still have quite a ways to go to truly embody sustainability… though how might we go about doing that?
Call to Action
The journey to become more environmentally-responsible doesn’t have to be a tricky one. Consider these three simple steps, not only to improve your waste disposal practices but to reframe your attitudes as an environmental steward.
Reduce single-use items, and instead replace them with reusable products whenever possible.
This strategy might be implemented through business incentives (which encourage customers to bring in their own utensils) and/or implementation of a container return system. At Teaspoons, we sell a plethora of reusable items (e.g., metal straws, bubble tea cups, etc.) at affordable prices so that everyone has access to more sustainable options. We also provide special offers for those who bring in their own cups—bring in your own reusable bubble tea cup for a free topping of your choice!
If it is absolutely impossible to utilize reusable products, feel free to pursue fibrous materials (e.g., wood, paper, bagasse, bamboo) which are often biodegradable.
Remember, one recycling facility might differ from the next. Contact your local facilities to determine which ones accept paper and/or compostable plastics. Learn to distinguish recyclable materials as to avoid contaminating various recycling streams (refer to https://recyclebc.ca/what-can-i-recycle/ for more details!)
Recycle with intention; don’t be careless about how you dispose of your waste.
After becoming informed about proper waste disposal, don’t just let your knowledge sit there; apply your newfound knowledge to your everyday routine! Provide clear instructions to employees and customers to minimize waste contaminations, ensuring that waste is always discarded in its rightful place.
Although a city’s waste facilities remain essential in the pursuit of long-term sustainability, so are one’s personal choices. It simply isn’t enough to merely rely on Vancouver’s recycling processes, which will never be enough on its own. We, ourselves, must consciously pursue environmentally-friendly choices to bring about real, lasting change.