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:

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:

Canadian data on disposal and diversion rates:

UN factsheet about food waste:

Italy’s effort to reduce food waste through legislation:

My friend’s video blog about going zero waste:

Conscious Consumerism: Why Shopping in Sales May End up Costing More than You Think



It’s that time of the year again. I see the signs everywhere, on the street, in the flyers, in my e-mail inbox – retailers are holding end-of-season or clearance sales. Trust me, I know how hard it is to resist all the seemingly great deals. Everything in the store up to 70% off looks awfully good when you’re a lowly university student on a tight budget. But besides the damage it will do to your wallet, have you ever considered how buying one more thing just because it’s cheap can put pressure on the environment or the society?

Just think about it. How can an item made from resources mined or grown from different parts of the world, manufactured on the other side of the planet, and shipped across the globe to be sold here cost so little? A consequence of globalization is that we don’t really know what happens at the “cradle” or “grave” in the life cycle of a product. How are multinational companies dealing with the workers and communities in developing countries? Are the municipalities really processing the collected recyclables in a sustainable way? Or just shipping them off to a place with less stringent environmental regulations? Even when everything is done according to sustainable and ethical principles, more stuff always means that more resources (whether renewable or not) are consumed, but it is invisible because the low prices never reflect the cost of the environmental and social impact.

Take clothing, for example. It takes energy, water, and [gasp] chemicals to grow the cotton, and more energy to transport it from the farms to the textile manufacturers to retailers. Within the manufacturing process, washing, de-sizing, bleaching, rinsing, dyeing, printing, and finishing also require energy. When you throw away your unwanted clothes, shipping them to landfills takes energy, too, not to mention the space they take in the ever more precious landfill location. In addition, cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world. Extensive pesticide usage leads to soil acidification and agricultural run-off that causes hypoxia, which is a fancy word for low or depleted oxygen in a water body often due to algae bloom. This results in a dead zone where aquatic life is limited, causing significant disruption to the ecosystem. Water demand of the clothing industry is huge. On average, a cotton T-shirt requires 2,500 litres of water and a pair of jeans takes over 10,000 litres of water to produce. Take a look at your wardrobe. How much water goes into all the clothes you own? Probably A LOT. As water shortage is becoming a pressing issue, it is important to conserve water usage even in not-so-obvious places.

And that is just one example. It’s not something that most of us think about, but from the computer I’m typing on to the coffee in my mug, everything we buy had to come from somewhere. The resources required for their raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, lifetime in use, and ultimate disposal are astounding if we really delve into the details. I’m not saying we should all become dumpster divers and never buy anything ever again in order to minimize human impact on the environment, but being more thoughtful when we shop is always a good idea. Yes, shopping local and voting with your dollars is a great solution. I have another suggestion: visit your local thrift stores!

Too many people wash their hands clean just because they recycle, but remember that recycling comes at the end of the 3R’s principle (because the recycling process – you guessed it – also requires energy), while reusing is number one! We’ve all been there, buying something impulsively but never using it. Declutter your space. Get rid of what you don’t need and donate back into the community. Your trash could very well be another person’s treasure and vice versa. You can not only save money but also the environment. You eliminate a big chunk of resource consumption when you opt for a perfectly good used item rather than a brand new one.


Did you know that there is a thrift shop right here on campus where you can donate your unwanted items and also browse for something you just might need? Best of all, it’s all free! UBC Free Store is located on the second floor in the Nest in room 2102, right next to the Hatch Art Gallery. We are always accepting donations and open whenever the Nest is open.

To learn more, visit:

Other Resources:

  1. Life Cycle Assessment Commons
  2. Water Footprint Network

Common Energy wants to hire you, and this is why you should apply!

16780121_10158260153180788_1024718589_nHello! This post is addressed at UBC students who have a passion for sustainability. I am writing to encourage any readers to apply to join the Common Energy Steering Committee for the coming year. By reading the blog post, you are already on Common Energy’s sweet website! Navigate to literally anywhere else (or stay on the blog) to learn more about what we do. In short, Common Energy is UBC’s largest and most active sustainability organization. Our mandate is to bring sustainability into every aspect of the student campus experience. In practice, that means we run campaigns, events, and projects aimed at igniting student sustainability action and university wide policy change.

I joined Common Energy in my first month of UBC. One of my first memories is settling into those fun Global Lounge chairs and listening to former Director Veronika Bylicki’s welcome to kick off the new year. It was exciting. She was inspiring (that could be you!).

Later in the month I helped out at a booth CE was running off Main Mall for the Tap That campaign to reduce plastic bottle water usage. It was raining I think, typical. It was Steering Committee member Umaima Baig’s birthday! I watched her come over to the booth, and observed her interactions with the other Steering Committee people there. She got a hug, they enjoyed some Sprouts vegan brownies, talked about Common Energy stuff, talked about non-Common Energy stuff, and chill out! Somehow the interaction had a deep impression on me. It was like “wow these people are super inspiring sustainability leaders but they’re also clearly such awesome friends. I want to have that.” Reader: you could have that.

Umaima ended up being my coordinator in first year — she and co-coordinator Niklas Agarwal led a fantastic Campaigns Team. They pushed me to apply to the Steering Committee the following year, and I am so glad I did! Being on the Steering Committee for the past two years has been DOPE.

Reasons you should apply for the Steering Committee:

  • It’s fun
  • You might not have had a leadership experience quite like being a team Co-Coordinator. Though you run a team, you are not the head decision maker of the team. Yes, you approve stuff, and ultimately the stuff that happens is stuff you liked. But Common Energy is setup to emphasize the individual members’ ideas, voices and action, meaning the Coordinators primarily job is to facilitate, not dictate, discussion and planning. That said, creating the ideal team dynamic and helping ideas turn into tangible solutions is actually very challenging! That’s probably something you could put on a resume and use later in life???
  • It’s good for our planet, the Earth.
    Community is actually a real thing here. It’s something Common Energy really focuses on, and does well. The Steering Committee does an awesome retreat in September to get to know each other and establish common goals. We focus on team building within the six teams, and throughout the entire organization. The biweekly steering Committee meetings have serious content, but honestly they’re a biweekly blast. The monthly Big Team meetings (open to members too) are like the most feel-good monthly events ever. The community is so warm and welcoming, I promise it’ll make your life at least 3% nicer.
  • You’ll eat a healthy (surprisingly large) amount quality vegetarian/vegan food.
  • The friendships you make working with people, seeing your ideas come into real life as events, campaigns and projects, are not like any other friendships. They have a more serious, perhaps deeper character. “We like each other, but we also did something together.” Part of what makes these friendships profound is that you have to work, and deal with real challenges. Common Energy, I think, compared to other organizations, particularly fosters friendships across all levels (members, Coordinators, Directors) because it is genuinely a community!


-George Radner

Common Energy member since 2014. Campaigns Co-Coordinator 2015 Term 1. Zero-Waste Co-Coordinator and Blog Coordinator 2017 Term 2.