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Putting Nova Scotians’ waste sorting to the test

Divert NS organized a province-wide waste audit to determine what was still ending up in landfills instead of being sorted into composters and recycling bins. (Divert NS)
Divert NS organized a province-wide waste audit to determine what was still ending up in landfills instead of being sorted into composters and recycling bins. (Divert NS) - Contributed

Nova Scotians are excelling at recycling, so Divert NS CEO Jeff MacCallum says it may be time to focus on another R — reducing.

“Recycling has taken us so far, but to get where we really want to be, we need to focus more on reducing our waste,” says MacCallum. “It’s great to compost and recycle, but it’s even better if we’re not disposing of so many items in the first place.”

Divert NS organized a province-wide waste audit to determine what was still ending up in landfills instead of being sorted into composters and recycling bins. MacCallum says audits like this help Divert NS adjust their programming to better educate Nova Scotians on managing their waste.

The report was published earlier this summer, and organics, plastics and fibre/paper remained the top three shouldn’t-be-there materials in provincial landfills.

MacCallum says single-use plastic containers are a bigger problem than ever, as many consumers readily pay more for the convenience. Bulk Barn now allows customers to bring their own reusable containers in an attempt to cut down on plastic bags and containers.

“As consumption continues to grow in society, our focus is going to be tackling organics and plastics,” says MacCallum. “We want people to consider what they’re consuming — and how much. Do you really need the plastic cutlery? The plastic bag? The straws? Could you use a reusable mug instead of a take-out coffee cup?”

As for food waste, MacCallum says about 50 per cent of it is coming from households. For many families, he says it’s a matter of breaking the cycle of buying more groceries than you’ll consume before they’ll expire. (We’re looking at you, mushed bagged salad that got hidden in the back of the fridge.)

“About 12 per cent of what’s going in the garbage — and off to the landfill — is food waste that could just as easily be composted,” adds Jens Jensen, whose firm, HMJ Consulting Limited, conducted the waste audit for Divert NS.

He says this tends to be an issue in multi-unit apartment buildings and condos where there aren’t always sorting stations, and there’s a lack of accountability if people don’t feel like following through.

While Jensen agrees all food waste should be dropping into compost bins instead of garbage cans, he points out that we’re slowly improving. Even though the population has increased, we’ve seen a steady decrease in organic material ending up in landfills.

Jensen started working in waste management in the mid-’70s when Nova Scotia had a dirty secret. There were dozens of open dump sites that were mostly unattended. People could show up and toss in anything they wanted. There were concerns with fires, dangerously tainted steams and rat problems.

He says Nova Scotians recognized this wasn’t healthy — for themselves and for the planet — and many expressed a willingness to change. Today, he says the province is genuinely admired worldwide for its successful recycling and compost programs.

“We’ve come a long way and that’s something we should all be proud of, but there’s always room for improvement,” says Jensen.

Food waste isn’t the only issue. The audit showed that out of the fibre (cardboard, newspapers, etc.) going to landfills, about 60 per cent of it was readily recyclable, meaning eight per cent of the content of our landfills is simply piles of paper and cardboard people didn’t bother to put in a recycling bin.

“When you combine the un-recycled fibre and the un-composted food, that’s 20 per cent of our landfills right there,” says Jensen. “There’s nothing more required than simply putting things in their proper bins.”

Most households don’t have designated recycling bins for outgrown or worn-out textiles, so they’re often ending up in garbage cans as well.

Andrew Garrett is the communications manager for Valley Waste-Resource Management, which manages solid waste for the seven municipalities in the Valley region. He says there’s always a lot of clothing and bedding that could have been donated to one of the many charities or textile recycling locations around the province. But once something’s in the garbage, it’s too soiled to be reused.

“Donation bins are everywhere, and those organizations have the ability to divert thousands of tonnes of unwanted clothing or clothing accessories while simultaneously providing employment for Nova Scotians, generate revenue for charities and saving municipalities unnecessary solid waste management costs,” says Garrett.

Even though there are many categories that could be improved, Jensen says plastic makes up about eight per cent of the waste stream, so it’s as significant an issue as food waste and fibre.

He urges homeowners to continue being diligent about separating their compost, paper/cardboard, and recyclables like bottles and cans. But he says the best change we can make starts at the point of purchase.

“Try not to buy things that are needlessly packaged, and see what can be bought in reusable containers,” suggests Jensen. “Sorting waste from recyclables is one thing, but it’s even better to produce less to start with.”

He believes education is key, and it’s most effective at the Grade 4 level when children are young enough to be influenced and old enough to take it seriously.

“There’s nothing like a 10-year-old on a mission to save the planet. They really get their households whipped into shape,” laughs Jensen.


How can households improve?

-Continue to separate your recyclables (metal cans, glass bottles, milk cartons, etc.) from your paper/cardboard, and make sure none of those items are accidentally winding up in a garbage can.

-Collect your refundables separately, and bring them to your nearest Enviro-Depot for a refund — it puts money back in your pocket and helps the environment.

-Make sure everyone in your household (and your guests) understands to put all food waste and other compostables in your green bin

-Consider ways your household could cut down on single-use plastics by using reusable containers or food wraps, or buying in bulk.

-Donate unwanted clothing and other textiles to an organization in your area that will reuse or recycle them properly. Many veterinary clinics and animal shelters appreciate donations of old blankets and towels.

-Take unwanted electronics to your local drop-off centre so they can be safely and responsibly recycled.

-Not sure what to do with old tires, paint, hazardous waste, etc.? Visit for a complete guide.

Nova Scotians excelling at recycling electronics

Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA) Nova Scotia has been operating for 10 years and now has 71 drop-off locations across the province, including many Enviro-Depots.

“We try to make it as easy as possible for people to drop off their electronics and, at the end of the day, if it’s convenient, people will do it,” says EPRA executive director Gerard MacLellan.

He says EPRA has worked hard to educate residents about the importance of recycling their unwanted electronics instead of dumping them. The waste audit proved their success, with electronics accounting for less than 0.0026 per cent of the waste stream. Nova Scotia amassed nearly eight tonnes of recycled electronics in 2017 — one of the highest per capita rates in Canada.

“Luckily the culture in this province is very tuned in to protecting the environment,” says MacLellan. “By recycling electronics, we don’t have to mine for new metals and we’re saving natural resources.”

He says televisions are by far the most popular donation, followed by computers and printers. Once the electronics are collected, recyclers break them down and separate the various components, which are then put back into the supply chain to produce new products.

“If you have old or broken electronics and you don’t have a friend or relative who can use them, please drop them off with us, free of charge,” says MacLellan. “We’ll make sure they’re recycled properly.”

Do you have electronics to recycle? Visit (or call 1-877-462-8907) to find the location nearest you.

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