Recycling and composting

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When Canadians are asked about the environmental actions they take, waste diversion—in the form of recycling or composting—is probably what springs to many minds.

Recycling: Almost everybody does it!

There is growing concern about what to do with the garbage generated by households and businesses as some of Canada's landfills reach their capacities. As a result of public pressure and high capital costs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to build new landfills. Recycling reduces the amount of waste entering our landfills, helping to conserve natural resources, saving landfill space and reducing the quantity of methane, a greenhouse gas, produced in landfills.

Figure 3.5: Households with access to at least one recycling program, by province, 2006

Recycling: Access and program participation

In 1994, the last time the HES was conducted, recycling was becoming common in communities across Canada as about 7 of 10 households had access to some type of recycling program. Twelve years later, 93% of the nation's households had access to at least one type of recycling program (figure 3.5). Of these households, 97% made use of at least one of these programs (text table 3.7).

Prince Edward Island led the pack in terms of access and utilization, with 99% of households reporting having access to, and making use of, a recycling program. This high degree of public buy-in for waste diversion could be attributed to a vigorous public education program and the institution of mandatory recycling for many materials. Nova Scotia and Ontario rounded out the top three provinces with respect to access to, and use of, recycling. Overall, 97% of Nova Scotia households and 95% of Ontario households had access to at least one recycling program, while the use of at least one program was 99% for Nova Scotia and 98% for Ontario.

Text table 3.7: Households that had access to, and used, recycling programs, by material and by province, 2006

Although access to recycling programs is lower in some provinces than others, where these services are available households tend to use them.  For example, among those households with access, household use of at least one recycling program was 94% in Newfoundland and Labrador and 96% in both New Brunswick and Alberta.

Access to recycling programs for the most common recyclable waste materials varied from province to province as municipalities offered a range of recycling options. For example, some local governments offered curbside pickup services and others set up depots. Some accepted a wide range of material types, while others accepted only a few. Annex table 20 illustrates the wide range of program access offered by cities across Canada. These varying service levels are also apparent at the provincial level where access to, for example, paper recycling ranged from 35% in Newfoundland and Labrador to 98% in Prince Edward Island (text table 3.7).

Improvement since 1994

Canadian households' access to glass, paper, metal-can and plastic recycling programs increased from 1994 to 2006. During this period, the national share of households with access to glass, paper, plastic or metal-can recycling programs grew substantially, in the case of plastic by 24 percentage points (Annex table 21).

Use of recycling programs by Canadian households also increased for every type of recyclable material. From 1994 to 2006, the share of households recycling glass and metal cans went from 84% to 94% in both cases. Paper recycling rose from 83% to 94% and plastic recycling increased from 82% to 95%. These changes may reflect increased awareness by Canadians of the importance of recycling and improvements in municipal collection programs and methods.

In 2006, Prince Edward Island displaced Ontario, the front-runner in 1994, for first place in access to, and use of, all forms of recycling programs. In 1994, 21% or fewer of Prince Edward Island households had access to each type of recycling program, and 70% or fewer of those households used each type of recycling program. In 2006, access to, and use of, recycling programs rose to above 95% for each recyclable material.

Text table 3.8: Households that composted kitchen or yard waste, by province, 2006

Composting: It's spreading

Compost is created when certain types of waste decompose and transform through a bacterial and thermal process into a soil-like product called humus. Organic materials such as food waste, leaf and yard trimmings, paper and wood provide the feedstock for compost. After it has transformed from waste to finished compost, it can be added to soil to improve texture, water retention and fertility. Composting diverts materials from landfills and literally adds something beneficial to the environment.

Composting can be done in a backyard, or compostable material can be collected at the curb in municipally run 'source-separated organics' programs. Source-separated organics is the separation of organic materials at the source of generation, such as a household or a business. Separation at the source usually involves placing organics in separate containers, such as bins or yard-waste bags, to be picked up or taken to an organics composting facility.

Nationwide, composting by households grew from 23% in 1994 to 27% in 2006 (text table 3.8). In the Atlantic provinces, the change in participation was most noteworthy. Households from Quebec westward did compost more in 2006 than in 1994 (except for British Columbia), but to a much lesser extent than their eastern neighbours.

The impact of regulation can be seen in these results. Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have both developed policies that prohibit the disposal of organic materials in landfills or incinerators. In 2006, the proportion of households that composted and the increase in the prevalence of composting from 1994 to 2006 were far higher in these two provinces than in any other. In Nova Scotia, leaf and yard waste was banned from landfills in 1996 and the ban was extended to all compostable organic materials in 1997. Prince Edward Island's Waste Watch program was fully implemented in 1999, banning compostable organics from disposal.

British Columbia was the only province where household participation in composting declined from 1994 to 2006. This could be due to an increase in the share of the population living in condominiums and apartments, especially in Vancouver. The popularity of composting in the Victoria CMA, with a 40% household participation rate, was offset by a lower rate (23%) in the Vancouver CMA (Annex table 22).

West of the Maritimes, the CMA with the highest proportion of households that undertook composting was St. Catharines–Niagara (figure 3.6).  The Niagara Region has been an active promoter of composting as part of an overall waste management strategy.  The low end of the participation scale among CMAs was occupied by Quebec City (8%).

Figure 3.6: Households that composted, by census metropolitan areas, 2006

Text table 3.9: Treatment of selected household special wastes, Canada, 2005

Household special wastes: Paint, pills and electronics

Household special waste comprises products that are unwanted by a household but whose disposal in the regular waste stream can present a threat to groundwater as leachate in landfills. Many municipalities have special depots to handle these wastes and dispose of them safely. The survey asked households whether they had any leftover paint, leftover or expired medication and unwanted electronic equipment and what, if anything, they did to dispose of these items.

Twenty-nine percent of households had leftover paint to dispose of and this was the one material that was most likely to be taken to a depot or returned to the supplier, with 54% of households reporting having done this (text table 3.9). Still, 38% replied that although they had leftover paint to dispose of, they still had it and didn't know what to do with it.

Of the 24% of households with used or expired medications to get rid of, 39% disposed of them by putting them in with the regular garbage, flushing them down the toilet or putting them down the drain. In many cities and towns, pharmacies will take these medications back free of charge and have them disposed of in a safe manner.  Thirty-one percent of households said they returned the products to these suppliers.

Old computers and computer peripherals, cell phones, electronic games and electronic music players are being discarded in increasing numbers. This 'new' type of waste can be managed through special waste depots. Some companies will take back their equipment after the useful life of the device has ended.

Almost a fifth of the 18% of households who had computers and other electronics to discard disposed of the equipment through one of these programs, and an even greater proportion (24%) donated them or gave them away. While almost one in six households put its unwanted electronic equipment in the garbage, 35% of households did not know what to do with it. As with unwanted paint, these results suggest that there may be a lack of access to special waste depots or a lack of communication about these depots preventing householders from disposing of their paints and electronic waste at approved depots.