Please welcome volunteer and guest blogger Corinne Piech, who will be unpacking her experience working on one of SHB’s recent waste management projects.
On a lunch break this past summer, a Sustainable Hamilton Burlington (SHB) employee noticed how much takeout waste was being generated from just one meal. She then asked her team if there was anything SHB could do to address this issue? Through this realization a new project, later dubbed the Resto Project was created. This project involved SHB volunteers surveying local Hamilton and Burlington restaurants on their takeout products and behaviour choices. The thought was to determine what restaurants were doing correct and what behaviours could be improved. What an eye opener into the world of waste! As an SHB volunteer, passionate about waste management, I investigated this topic further. Through this project I was able to ask basic questions about our waste and what “away” really means when we “throw something away”. I learned how complex this waste issue is and how much creative problem solving is needed by all levels of government and by the citizens of Hamilton and Burlington.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know! I feel like this statement can be used to paint many climate change and sustainability topics. I for one realized how ignorant I was when it came to recycling, composting and garbage…and that is okay. My research started with contacting the waste departments of both Hamilton and Burligton. I even went for a tour of the Halton Landfill. Landfills may be the coolest, saddest place to work. On one hand a lot of ingenious technology is at work capturing methane gas from the landfill and turning it into energy, collecting all our yard waste and turning it into rich compost. On the other hand, we produce a lot of waste! The waste management employees I spoke with were kind and supportive and took time to answer and explain the reasoning behind some of my most basic questions i.e. where the heck does a coffee cup go? Are compostable plastics actually compostable? And what actually happens to all our compost and recycling? I encourage everyone to contact your local waste management facility or visit their website, it is mind blowing the stuff you can learn!
I spoke with my Ward Counsellor, MP and MPP about this single-use plastic issue. My MPP, Sandy Shaw responded to my email and informed me that a private member’s bill has been submitted which would see to the immediate reduction and eventual elimination of many of the single use items involved in takeout packaging. Through my research I was put in touch with a group of amazing students from McMaster called the MacChangers who are currently addressing the single-use plastics issue. They were able to share notes with me after interviewing a city official. We learned that the city of Hamilton is imposing a single-use plastics ban in all city owned and leased properties by mid 2020. I am glad different levels of government are shining a spotlight on this issue, however I have yet to see a specific line by line action plan. I think clear guidelines and positive educational outreach campaigns are a necessity in order to effectively execute any future waste bans and bylaw changes. If an effective plan for reducing single-use plastics and waste in general is not sought out I am worried this will lead to much frustration and non-compliance among citizens…seen any black plastic and styrofoam in a blue bin lately?
With all this information acquired from restaurants and governmental officials about single-use items, specifically take-away items, SHB had to think about what our specific end goal would look like. This was very difficult to get our heads around.
Most of the restaurants we contacted were using a fiber based container that could be composted (if soiled with food) or recycled. The fast food restaurants still provided plastic utensils, straws and bags. I tried to put together a directory for restaurants to procure more sustainable takeout products. But then I thought, okay, if a restaurant switches from plastic to a compostable/recyclable based product does this solve the issue? The answer is, no. We are still encouraging a single-use habit among citizens. Also, not all compostable materials, specifically plastics, can even be composted in our city due to composting time requirements (range 30-90 days), the only compostable plastic accepted are the green bin liners. If a natural fiber based product is used, it must be composted in order to breakdown, if thrown into a landfill it will likely not break down properly due to lack of oxygen, and aerobic microbes (oxygen loving bacteria). The well-intentioned choice of a natural fiber takeout product, if not composted, will sit in a landfill eventually breaking down in the absence of oxygen releasing methane gas.
Not every individual has access to a green bin or recycling program and I don’t see a lot of restaurant establishments having green bins or a compost as a waste stream option for their patrons. I think the ultimate goal is changing habits, adopting zero waste and bringing your own reusable container – a lofty goal, indeed!.
I contacted a public health inspector for the City of Hamilton who said that at this time there are no set guidelines for patrons using their own reusable container and it is up to the discretion of the establishment to set criteria. The criteria has to follow the regulations set in place for food premises. I worked up the nerve at a couple places to ask for my takeout to be placed in my reusable container. Besides the initial awkwardness on my part most restaurants/grocery stores were very receptive and encouraging. It can be very nerve racking to start using your own container if you don’t see it as a common practise all around you. This is where SHB wanted to focus its energy. We are deciding to do the awkward, hard part for you and reach out to local Hamtilon and Burliginton restaurants and ask them to promote the use of reusable containers by their patrons. SHB’s Sustainable Business Initiative includes a waste reduction steam, that is also a great resource for companies who are interested in reducing waste..
From this whole experience I have learned that it never hurts to ask; ask about your waste, ask why and how and finally please ask for your delicious hamburger and fries to be put in your reusable container!
Corinne Piech and her young family reside in the Hamilton area. During the day she works in her chosen career as a Genetic Technologist. In her free time, she enjoys exploring Hamilton’s unique culture, volunteering with Sustainable Hamilton Burlington and researching ways that she and her family can reduce their environmental impact. Corinne enjoys learning and engaging with others to discuss solutions and barriers to climate action.