Waste Not

My grandma was a saver. Every drop of used oil went back into the jar under the sink. Every pea went from plate to the leftovers pot (for stewing later). If Grandpa didn’t bring home the waxed paper from his sandwich, there was hell to pay. For her and most of the homemakers in the ’50s, recycling was a necessity, not a trend.

She came to mind when Metro Vancouver promoted its Zero Waste Challenge last Christmas. Could I, a modern, childless pseudo-vegetarian with a 9-to-5 job, walk a mile in her shoes?

I began by asking Ken Carrusca, an engineer with Metro Vancouver, for advice. Metro Vancouver, it turns out, doesn’t really have any, beyond the basics of recycling and composting. It was up to me and my own ingenuity to live a life garbage-free.

First, some food. Over breakfast at White Spot, I scrutinized the litter on the table. What about the paper wrap that bound the cutlery? The napkin, the single-serve honey container, the orange rind, the paper towel in the washroom? I ended up bundling it all up in my soiled paper napkin and putting it in my purse.

Over the days, my midden grew. I ate a piece of gum in a silver wrapper. I shaved my legs with a disposable razor. A friend gave me a gift with a plastic tag on it. Even with the best of intentions, I was still contributing to the three million tonnes of waste that Metro Vancouver residents create each year. The Zero Waste Challenge aims to increase recycling of that garbage from 52 percent to 70. In my bid to hit 100, I went to see Brian Burke (not the hockey GM), the driving force behind Quayside Village Cohousing, the North Vancouver development that won the city’s 2008 Environmental Stewardship Award.

I showed him my stash of trash and asked what could be done with it. Envelopes with a window could be recycled; the cotton ball from my Tylenol could go in the compost; the plastic strawberry container, made from recycled material, could go back in the blue bin. The broken glass vase couldn’t be recycled, he said, but I could have it ground into gravel. The rest of the items, alas, were straight-up garbage.

Burke spoke of a utopia where manufacturers are responsible for their own packaging, where consumers can return their plastic boxes and Styrofoam trays at the point of purchase. This utopia is called Europe. There, he said, packaging has the German-created Grüne Punkt (“Green Dot”), indicating that the manufacturer participates in a program that not only recovers and recycles materials, but looks to minimize the use of non-recyclable packaging.

Why don’t we have such a program here? “Germany has a huge population and can make demands of manufacturers,” explained Brock Macdonald, executive director of the Recycling Council of B.C. “Our spread-out B.C. population is only four million. If we place demands like that on current manufacturers that are shipping to North America, they’ll just pass us by.”

To get a retailer’s perspective, I called up Salt Spring Coffee Co. Why, I asked, is its carbon-neutral, fair-trade, organic coffee sold in a non-recyclable bag? Alicia Herbert, the company’s sustainability steward, was happy to outline the various options (bioplastics, tin, even ethylene vinyl alcohol polymer) she had considered and the ardent nature of her search. “To reduce personal waste,” she concluded, “you can buy coffee in bulk and use your own container.”

So I raided the cupboards and went shopping. At Wheelhouse Seafoods on East Hastings, I asked, with forced casualness, for “a pound of halibut in this container, please.” I prepared myself for a debate pitting health issues against environmental concerns.

“No problem,” the counter person replied. He even deducted the weight of my container so I was only paying for the fish.

I took containers to Ugo & Joe’s Lucky Meats and filled one with cheese, another with olives. Burger King obliged me with a milk shake poured directly into my water bottle. At the movie theatre, popcorn was transferred out of the bag and into my own bowl.

I began to keep a container at work so that I could take my apple cores, used paper towels, and tea bags home to compost. Aside from having to carry a much larger purse, the whole zero-waste thing got a lot easier.

Two weeks later, my trash bin contained a rice cracker wrapper, 12 prawn shells, a spent face cream tube, the plastic strand from a price tag, and a week’s worth of Q-tips and dental floss.  I’d reduced my waste by 75 percent.

And I’d become obsessed with vacuum-sealed containment. Even now I find myself browsing the Tupperware aisle the way normal women flip through the clearance rack. Panic takes me if I leave the house without a Tupperware container. In the name of conservation, I’m going to embrace my new persona: Crazy Tupperware Lady. Grandma would be proud.