This time last year, most of my friends were baking bread or taking up running. I don’t like bread and I had a broken leg, so I decided to see if I could get single-use plastics out of my life.
This idea didn’t come out of thin air. During my three terms on city council, I led Vancouver’s efforts to become the world’s greenest city, including developing a nation-leading strategy on phasing out single-use plastics and a strategic plan for getting to zero waste by 2040. I also served a decade as a director at the Metro Vancouver Regional District, where I led efforts to kill plans for a new incinerator because I felt it would prevent governments from taking action on waste.
While doing this work, I learned a fair bit about waste policy and brought some of those lessons into my personal life. But I knew in order to tackle it at home in a comprehensive way, I needed time, and the pandemic shutdown offered just that.
Whether at a government or household level, the process is simple. You start by separating all the things for which there already are recycling solutions. Then you start solving the problem of what’s left over: The “residuals,” or garbage. On March 12, 2020, I set up three bins: things that could be recycled on site, things that could be recycled off site, and things that I thought could be reused. I also set up a file to track products I bought that created non-recyclable waste.
Here’s what I learned...
Tracking down all the drop-off depots is like being Dora the Explorer. The first step is to recover and recycle everything you can. Some of this is easy. There are a whole lot of uses for paper bags, elastics and twist ties that I hadn’t considered. Paper bags, for example, have essentially become my paper towels. I use them to pick up the extra grease off bannock and fried potatoes, pat fish dry before cooking it and line my compost bin. For actually wiping up a mess, I use reusable cloths.
But a lot of it is hard. Without centralized, government-run depots, the market is left to decide, and it is a labyrinth to navigate.
For example, in the building where I live, there are six different buckets with infographics to decipher which container or paper type goes where and what exactly is compostable.
While others baked bread, @natobserver columnist @andreareimer spent Year 1 of the pandemic trying to eliminate single-use plastics from her household. #ZeroWaste
The next stop would have been the Encorp Recycling Depot around the corner, which took electronics, small appliances and hazardous materials along with beverage containers. I say "took" because it’s now closed. The private operator lost his lease, so whether it’s my ancient iPad 2, the 27-year-old popcorn maker that finally died or the Liquid-Plumr the last tenant left behind, these materials have been piling up in my apartment waiting for the weather to get better so I can walk further to drop things off.
London Drugs has filled in some of the gaps; it will take batteries and light bulbs. One of my first zero-waste purchases, however, was a set of rechargeable batteries, and my dead light bulbs now get replaced with long-life LEDs, so it may be a while before I need those services.
For everything else, I head to the Recycling Council of B.C. Recyclepedia, an online database for the harder-to-deal-with items. There I found out Staples would take my small pile of shredding for a modest fee. It turns out they also recycle materials in one of the most vexing categories for an educator and designer: pens and markers. These are collected through a partnership with TerraCycle, which has made a business out of recycling hard-to-deal-with items such as cigarette filters.
Which brings me to Lesson No. 2: Waste reduction starts with decisions you make at the store. While recycling pens is better than disposing of them, buying a durable pen with a rechargeable cartridge is much better still. I now own a complete set of cloth produce bags and reusable silicon Ziplocs for storage. The filmy plastic around cheese, the waxy paper bags for tortilla chips and the metal/paper hybrid on butter all turned out to be much harder to solve.
That brings me to the last thing: Make what you can, buy the rest in bulk or packaging-free. While I now rarely buy cheese or tortilla chips, I have learned how to make both from scratch. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is actually super easy, way less money and tastes better than commercial equivalents. It also impresses the hell out of the guys I date.
For most things, though, I head to Nada, my local package-free grocery. They’ve solved my butter problem — it comes in a returnable jar I pay a deposit for — and provide everything from flour to laundry detergent in reusable or reused containers. Some of it’s more expensive, but other solutions have been cheaper. My friends have been happy to share their surpluses of vegetables, fruits and herbs as well as collaborate on bulk buys of everything from eggs to fish, and neighbourhood “Buy Nothing” groups have been springing up on Facebook for furniture, clothing and appliance exchanges.
I am now proud to say I’m down to one bag of garbage every three months or so.
Now, I’m not suggesting everyone can and should follow in my footsteps. I am financially comfortable, able-bodied and healthy, and although I don’t own a car, I live in a highly walkable neighbourhood with a full range of services and retail options. I work a lot, but my kid is out of the house and I am single, so I have the flexibility to track down products I want and hand-make things that just aren’t available without disposable packaging. I also have a large social network that provides information and many opportunities for exchanges of goods but also time, and all of this takes a lot of time. Many people don’t have even one of these luxuries, let alone all of them, and each was essential in this effort.
Managing the inputs and outputs of households also disproportionately falls on women who are already working two shifts in many Canadian homes. So, when governments fail to act to reduce plastics, those who can least afford the time are left to pick up the slack.
Until governments step up, it’s left to us to do what we can to inch toward a zero-waste lifestyle. My pandemic experiment provided some fascinating insights and made me feel a little more useful during this long, strange year.