Reducing municipal solid waste

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The waste hierarchy - rethinking to recovery

We need to rethink how we purchase, use and throw out used items to reduce the costs and environmental impacts of waste management. This waste hierarchy ranks the preferred approaches to waste reduction and management to maximize the recovery and value of used materials. Value recovery processes, such as metal recycling, can be effective in industrial settings but can also be part of our daily routine.

The waste hierarchy diagram ranks the preferred approaches to waste management from most preferred to least preferred.  The most preferred is waste prevention and reduction, followed by reuse-repair, remanufacture-refurbish, recycle, energy recovery and the least preferred landfill.
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The waste hierarchy diagram ranks the preferred approaches to waste management from most preferred to least preferred.  The most preferred is waste prevention and reduction, followed by reuse-repair, remanufacture-refurbish, recycle, energy recovery and the least preferred landfill.

Waste prevention: Preventing the generation of waste in the first place at the manufacturing, consumer and institutional level

Reduce: Reducing and preventing the amount of material entering the recycling and solid waste stream

Reuse: Reusing materials and/or products as much as possible through repairing and refurbishing before entering the recycling or solid waste stream

Recycle: Recycling by collecting, sorting and using materials as a resource input or selling them to secondary markets

Recovery: Using materials or waste that cannot be reused or recycled to produce fuel or energy using technologies such as Waste-to-Energy and Anaerobic Digestion

Canadians can also support the recycling effort by purchasing products that can be and are able to be recycled, or have been manufactured using recycled content. This helps to provide a market for recyclable materials.

Waste prevention and the circular economy

The first priority should be waste prevention, both at the manufacturing level and by consumers and institutions. The second priority is waste diversion to keep it out of landfills. Waste should be seen as valuable resource to increase the economic benefit from recycling and diversion.

A transition from the linear “take, make, waste” model to the circular economy would help efforts to implement the waste hierarchy. The circular economy keeps materials and products in use as long as possible by extending the lifespan, recirculating them back into the economy through recycling, refurbishing or repurposing, and by moving away from ownership of products to services and the sharing economy.

Municipal solid waste: non-hazardous and hazardous

Municipal solid waste (MSW) includes waste generated by the residential and industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sources. The ICI sources can include wastes from office buildings, shopping malls, schools or hospitals. MSW can include:

  • Recyclables - such as plastics, metals, paper and cardboard
  • Organic waste - biodegradable and compostable wastes such as food scraps, yard waste as well as used paper products and boxboard
  • Construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) - such as wood (clean, engineered, treated and painted), asphalt roofing and drywall
  • Residual materials - wastes that cannot be recycled or composted

MSW is primarily non-hazardous, however it includes small quantities of residential and ICI hazardous and other wastes that require specialized collection, treatment and disposal. Household hazardous waste and special wastes typically include wastes that are toxic, flammable, corrosive, environmentally hazardous or explosive. This can include wastes such as used batteries, mercury-containing products (lamps or batteries), pharmaceuticals and sharps, cleaners, paints, pesticides/herbicides and propane tanks.

How to recycle or dispose of specific items or wastes

In Canada, it’s important to remember that waste is managed locally. The collection, diversion and disposal of compost, recyclables, household hazardous waste and non-hazardous waste are the responsibility of municipal governments.

Provinces and territories may have Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs in place for certain types of wastes. EPR programs help to recycle or dispose of a variety of products such as: used agricultural and automotive products, beverage containers, electronic and electric equipment (EEE), household hazardous waste, mercury-containing products (e.g. fluorescent light bulbs), packaging and printed materials, pharmaceuticals, plastic bags and refrigerants.

Product manufacturers and retail stores can also be a source of information on how to dispose or recycle a product in environmentally safe manner or often provide collection of these items. For an overview of EPR in Canada and an inventory of recycling programs, by product category and jurisdiction, please see:

EPR programs vary between each province and territory. If you have an item to recycle or household hazardous waste to dispose of not listed in the EPR programs above - please contact your local municipality and provincial or territorial government:

Additional resources for managing specific wastes

Electronic and electrical equipment

End-of-life electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) is a growing domestic and global waste concern as electronic waste (e-waste) may contain toxic and hazardous substances, such as mercury or lead that could pose risks to human health and the environment if disposed of improperly.

The disposal of e-waste is managed by the provinces and territories. Most Canadian jurisdictions have introduced EPR regulations to promote and improve the collection of e-waste for environmentally sound management. Other useful links include:

Pharmaceutical wastes

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) include expired or unused prescription or over-the-counter drugs and natural health care products.  PPCPs have been detected in the environment and in drinking water. PPCPs should not be disposed of in regular garbage or flushed down the toilet or sink. Proper disposal is an important step to reduce PPCPs in the environment and to protect the health and safety of Canadians.

The disposal of PPCP waste is managed by the provinces and territories that have introduced product stewardship programs to collect unwanted or expired medications and used sharps for environmentally sound management. Your local pharmacy may also be a good source of information in regards to proper disposal of PPCPs. Other useful links include:

Light bulbs containing mercury

Every year mercury is released into the environment from millions of light bulbs such as compact fluorescent lamps and fluorescent tubes that end up in landfills. Be sure to check your bulbs for the letters: Hg. This indicates that the product contains mercury.

Some provinces and territories offer programs where you can drop off your lights at collection sites or arrange to have free pick-up services. There are also companies that offer disposal services for a fee and retailer take back programs, to keep mercury out of landfills.

Construction, renovation and demolition waste

Construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) waste represents a significant portion (4 million tonnes or 12%) of the solid waste stream generated in Canada. CRD waste also contains chemicals that may pose risks to human health and the environment if improperly managed.

Many Canadian municipalities are developing legislation or programs to encourage the reuse and recycling of CRD waste. Larger CRD waste processing facilities in Canada are located in or near large cities. Provinces and territories have committed to developing EPR programs for CRD through the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility (Phase 2). Other useful links include:

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