Why do we collectively stink at waste disposal?

We produce a lot of waste. Even the best of us produce kilograms on kilograms per year. It’s a shame in a way. Waste is well, a waste. Often throwing away trash marks a sad end to a piece of plastic’s life. Even when recycled, is it really the same?

How long do you spend thinking about where to throw out your waste? Imagine you just got take-out sushi and a juice box for lunch. You approach the waste receptacles, probably dreadingly. We all hate waste. It’s a burden. We just want to get rid of it, as fast as possible! So you walk over, see the bins, recycling, paper, garbage and compost if it’s at UBC. Without really hesitating or thinking twice, you separate and toss your stuff in hopefully the proper bin. If there’s any careful consideration at the point of disposal, it’s probably what, 3 seconds? And maybe, in the case of UBC students, we think that because, you know, we’re intelligent students at a worldwide university, known for its environmental focus and robust sustainability infrastructure, that we’re probably right in our 3 second instant calculation pretty often! Nope…

Does it surprise you that 79% of the contents in the garbage stream of UBC’s student Nest isn’t garbage at all? That’s a 21% success rate for garbage disposers. When Common Energy performed a waste audit of the garbage of the Nest last year, this is what we found:

Green: Compost, Grey: Recycling, Blue: Paper, Black: Garbage

What’s all that compost doing in the garbage? Do people not realize that food is food? Who mistakes a half-eaten slice of pizza with broken glass, a plastic straw, or saran wrap (authentic garbage items)?

It was pretty sad to see the untouched food below and much more end up in the garbage as well. Particularly troubling as millions of people don’t get enough to eat here in Canada and worldwide. According to the UN about a 1/3 of worldwide food production is wasted, and I doubt very much of it even ends up in the compost (not that that would really make it much better).


Is there an explanation for our atrocious waste sorting habits? Let’s explore a few possibilities:

Explanation 1: Sorting out waste properly is beyond the intellectual capabilities of average human beings. It is simply too difficult to determine what goes into each of the four main streams. Especially for university students on their lunch break, apparently?

Admittedly, it is a tad bit confusing knowing what goes in what. But do you really believe the inherent difficulty in sorting out waste was what led to the kind of abominable statistics we collected last year?

Explanation 2: People don’t take the time to sort out waste properly.

I mean, yeah, this is probably the major one.

Explanation 3: People aren’t aware enough of how to sort it out, and that waste disposal is such a huge issue! This is where Common Energy comes in! We perform annual waste audits to get statistics about how students sort it out, but also to raise awareness!

Reducing your total waste consumption is challenging, but so worth while (and way more important than just sorting it out correctly). Check out my past blog post about going Plastic-Free for a month last July! This New York Times article is also useful for reducing food waste.

We’ll be doing our audit in front of the Nest this Wednesday March 15th! UBC students, sign-up to volunteer:  https://goo.gl/forms/5DJ0Zcfa6OjR6SIq1

Waste audit in action.

By the way, did you know how to sort out the hypothetical sushi/juice box you had for lunch? The take-out container is most likely recycling, but if you soiled it with soy sauce, it should be go in the garbage. The tetra-pak juice box is goes in the plastic recycling stream, but the straw is trash. If you couldn’t finish the sushi/wasabi/ginger, that is food, so compost it.

-George Radner                                                                                                                                               Common Energy UBC | Blog Coordinator | Zero Waste Co-Coordinator

References/Further reading:

Full report on last year’s Waste Audit of the Nest: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t2Mtdhp3hoPq-og88s9mzjJAa9yOdayCEpliL4ispqM/edit

Canadian data on disposal and diversion rates: https://www.ec.gc.ca/indicateurs-indicators/default.asp?lang=en&n=D2EA2E21-1

UN factsheet about food waste: https://www.ec.gc.ca/indicateurs-indicators/default.asp?lang=en&n=D2EA2E21-1

Italy’s effort to reduce food waste through legislation: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36965671

My friend’s video blog about going zero waste: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m98I-qcwDNA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s