saying “no thanks” to packaging

I heard recently that Germans put out just a small bag of garbage because there has been a big push in Germany to reduce packaging. If you go to a toy store, you might find toys like smurfs and fantasy creatures made in Germany, with far less packaging than comparable toys encased in layers of plastic, twist ties and endless cellophane tape. Smurf figures have no packaging, and I’ve seen other toys from Germany with minimal and mostly recyclable cardboard packaging.

It’s a window on the possible.

Over the past several months, I looked for ways to avoid unnecessary packaging to reduce garbage volume. I focused on food packaging.

I usually buy whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than frozen or pre-cut ones–I think that’s healthier anyway. The fruit and vegetable’s skin is often the only packaging that’s required, and it’s compostable.

I use re-usable mesh bags for fresh produce. I often forgo bags altogether: if I’m just buying three tomatoes, I don’t bother putting them in any bag.

Sometimes stores package vegetables, such as corn on the cob, in styrofoam wrapped in cellophane. I don’t buy vegetables like that.  Mushrooms are often presented like that, but some stores such as Farm Boy and Loblaws provide paper bags (recyclable!) to package mushrooms yourself. I find that they keep better that way anyway.

Styrofoam packaging is pretty standard for fresh meat. But there are exceptions. Farm Boy sells a line of organic meat that is shrink-wrapped in sturdy plastic without any styrofoam. So at least the garbage volume is decreased. At some stores, if you order meat directly from the meat counter, they don’t use styrofoam there either.

How do you avoid packaging with the things you buy?


Sharing a Green Bin

I hit on a big eureka moment at the end of July.  And it’s still working!

A few people (like one of my neighbours) that I’ve talked with about the green bin think it’s a nice idea and all, but they live alone and don’t think they produce enough green bin-type waste to make it worthwhile to have one.  Sound familiar?  So they just throw it in the garbage.

I’ve heard of people who live in stacked townhouses who are in a similar situation, so they share a green bin among a few households. 

I have a standard full-size green bin (as opposed to the half-size models that are also available), and now that the City collects green bin materials every week, it’s usually only about half-full.

Back in late July, I talked to one of my neighbours about this–as we were already outside chatting about something else already–and welcomed her to put her compostable waste into my green bin.  I listed the things that can go into the green bin.

I want to avoid having to clean out a potentially gross green bin with someone else’s compostables, so the I told her about wrapping compostables in paper or putting them in a cardboard box (especially for messier food waste).  This summer, I put everything in a paper leaf and yard waste bag (tip:  they cost less than the ones designed for the green bin) inside the green bin.  So even if she doesn’t wrap stuff properly, the big brown bag will help limit mess.

She basically politely nodded and said yes…just to humour me? 

I store my green bin in the back yard;  that week, I started storing it in a corner of my yard where my neighbour can easily access it.

The big eureka moment was when I noticed that she had put some stuff in the green bin.  Great! 

That was a few months ago.  My neighbour continues to share my green bin, and so far, it’s worked out well–she has even brought it back from the road for me.  I think the key things that make it work is that I store it in the same place (the bin is predictably available), and she makes sure that stuff she puts in the green bin isn’t a dripping mess or it’s wrapped properly.

With the upcoming switch to bi-weekly residual garbage pickup, there’s been a lot of information floating around about what can go into the green bin, so that has helped too.  And it’s an extra incentive to start using the green bin.

What do you do if don’t generate very much compostable waste?

the green bin: next generation composting

Is composting a new old thing or an old new thing?

A great-great aunt of mine, who was something of an expert in home economics, reportedly said that throwing food scraps into the garbage is the craziest thing city folk do:  it’s a waste.  So says my octogenarian grandma who never stopped composting when she moved into the city.  Compost feeds her garden, and you should see the flowers, fruits and vegetables she grows.

For most of us though, recycling compostable material is some new wave thing.

I’ve been lucky to have had decades to warm up to the municipal Green Bin program. 

When I was a kid, we had a big garden and a compost bin of some sort that we used in the summer.  I got used to the idea of putting fruit and vegetable scraps and peelings into a separate container (with no lid…let’s not get too fancy, here) and then emptying it in the back yard.

It was an easy way to recycle, but it had its limitations.  Certain food wastes like meat scraps and bones can attract pests in a regular back yard composter, so we didn’t compost that stuff.

When I heard about the City of Ottawa’s Green Bin program, which was still in its pilot phase, I thought it would be great because it enables us to recycle a lot more than the shorter list of things that can go in the backyard composter.

Composting, like breastfeeding, was old is but is new again.  We have this opportunity to turn waste into a resource.  Today, Orgaworld, the company that processes the Green Bin contents, sells its product–compost–to farms.  I think my great-great aunt would have approved.

Now the question is, how do you make it convenient to get the material to the green bin week after week?

green match ended yesterday, trash match ended today, 0-0 for both…should I go into playoffs? See also game stats and conclusions

game stats and conclusions

OK, so even though they say that there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics, I’ll do some number crunching on the scores from my friendly competition with Mr. Racoon.  Please see my previous post, game on, for an explanation of this competition.

The green bin was out with waste in it for a total of 21 nights.  Of those nights, the racoon successfully opened the green bin on 2 of those nights.  It knocked over the bin, but didn’t get at the waste on 4 additional nights.  The racoon visited a total of 6 nights.  The nights that the racoon was successful, I had forgotten to secure the green bin lid with bungee cords;  on each night that I was successful, I had remembered the bungee cords.

It’s interesting to note that the garbage can (which I store right next to the green bin) had trash in it on 4 of the 6 days the racoon visited, but the racoon only attempted to get at the contents of the garbage can on one of those 4 days.  That was the racoon’s only attempt at getting at the trash in the garbage can (compared to 6 attempts in total for the green bin).  Also, the garbage can had trash in it for a total of 24 nights (3 nights more than the green bin), and the garbage was there longer…a record of 12 days without the racoon showing interest in it.

In conclusion, if I divert organic waste to the green bin, the racoon likewise diverts its attention from the regular garbage can.

Do you use the green bin?  Have you noticed a similar drop-off in any pest’s interest in the non-recyclable trash?


* * *

the raw data:

Green Game

  • Match 1:  Start Apr. 15, 2012  ran 3 nights, score:  0-0    
  • Match 2: Start Apr. 20, 2012  ran 6 nights, score:  Racoon 1, Me 0 
  • Match 3: Start Apr. 27, 2012   ran 6 nights, score:  Racoon 1, Me 2 (Mr. Racoon attempted to get in the bin twice in one day, but I’m only counting that as one of my points)     
  • Match 4: Start May 7, 2012    ran 2 nights, score:  Racoon 0, Me 2
  • Match 5: Start May 12, 2012  ran 4 nights, score:  Racoon 0, Me 0                              

Trash Game

  • Match 1:   Start Apr. 15, 2012  ran 3 nights, score: 0-0
  • Match 2:   Start Apr. 20, 2012  ran 13 nights, score: Racoon 1, Me 0 (Mr. Racoon didn’t score a point until the last day)
  • Match 3:   Start May 9, 2012    ran 8 nights, score: 0-0

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Blue Box

Last fall, my son and I went to some sort of City run information fair about waste management and conservation.  My son got a real kick out of flushing bright rubber tubes down a low flow toilet they had on display. Flushing over and over and over.  I got little more out of the recycling displays.

I learned that the City now accepts a wider range of plastics and even empty aerosol cans into the blue boxes.  That’s how I started recycling more last fall.  But I started recycling a long time ago.

Aluminium soft drink cans were one of the first things we started to recycle at school.  Drink containers are the best things to recycle—not too messy and the material tends to be in demand.       

When Cornwall (where I was living at the time) launched its municipal blue box program, my family started to put a variety of food containers in the blue box.  I don’t think we even rinsed them or took the labels off, but it was a start.

In the late 1990s, I went away to school in Guelph, Ontario.  Here, instead of a blue box, we put all the “dry”, non-compostable waste in clear blue plastic bags.  This was part ofGuelph’s experiment in a Wet/Dry garbage system, wherein all household waste went into one of those two waste streams.  By then, I was rinsing out tin cans before chucking them.

I lived in student residence the summer of 1998 in Rimouski, Quebec.  I didn’t see any recycling program there…  Really?  We just put recyclables in the garbage?  Weird.  Recycling had become second nature.

When I lived in an apartment in Cornwall, I had a small blue box that I would empty into one of the blue carts by the parking lot when I took my trash to the dumpster.

At my apartment in Williamsburg, we stored recyclables in an outdoor wooden cupboard. Williamsburg was quaint and small like that. 

Most communities use the blue box, but the program is a bit different in each to suit the community.  What goes into the blue box is different from one city to the next and changes over time.  So part of the recycling habit is keeping tabs on the latest recycling news.  How do you get the blue box to fit in where you are?

my garbage story, or this is how my family generates less than one can of trash per week

I’ve been dealing with garbage for a long time. 

…or how I cut down from a two to five per week habit to a less than one per week habit:

It goes back to my childhood…Ah yes, there I am in my fluorescent orange T-shirt and faded overalls riding my fluorescent pink and sky blue skateboard back up the driveway…

I load another garbage can onto the skateboard and pull it down the driveway.  Repeat.  I lived in a household of five, plus my dad had a small home-based business. It was the late `80s inCornwall:  acid-washed jeans were cool, and fine paper recycling was just starting to catch on at school. 

We produced in the ballpark of 2 to 5 cans of garbage. 

Every week.

Fast forward to 2012.  Today, my family of four produces between 1/2 to 2/3 of a can of garbage per week. 

How did I get from there to here?  My household changed its habits over time:  we recycle a lot, and I’ve found ways to minimize the amount of garbage we produce.

I look for ways to reduce the amount of non-recyclable garbage we produce;  I think of ways to make it more convenient to make waste-reduction a habit.  

The key is continuous improvement of habits.

My goal, this summer, is to only produce 1/2 a can of garbage per week, and only take out the garbage every second week.

I’ll blog on my thoughts and progress.  I’ll ask for your feedback and ideas.  Every month, I’ll focus on a different theme.  Even though the mantra is ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ in that order of priority, I’ll focus on recycling first since I think that’s the easiest way to quickly reduce your amount of ‘garbage’.

I’ll share my experience as a sort of case-study only.  If you’re looking for detailed information about the City of Ottawa’s waste management services and recycling programs, please visit