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How to tackle the zero-waste challenge during holiday season

Imagine the garbage cans in your place, empty.

But it’s not garbage day. It’s every day. Sound impossible?

Not according to Marnie Newell and others who have taken on the zero waste challenge. Newell works part-time for SPEC, the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, an organization based in Kitsilano which has been around in Vancouver for more than four decades, and was responsible for bringing recycling to the city.

SPEC promotes zero waste, something that is exceedingly difficult during the holiday season. 

“True zero waste to me is a goal of eventually creating nothing that natural systems can’t safely digest... thus zero waste is really the idea that one day humans could learn to live without causing any pollution”.

It’s more of a moral issue than simply an environmental issue, one that should be our duty as humans, she believes. Add to the fact that there’s a plethora of information out there on zero waste for people to read about and to get started.

Newell recommends looking up the The Clean Bin Project,  David Suzuki’s Queen of Green, watching or reading Cradle to Cradle, and The Soap Dispensary store on Main Street.

I decide to give zero waste a try, and what better time than the Christmas holidays, with its huge amount of waste food and packaging. If this concept can succeed at this time of year, it should be able to succeed anytime.

The first step is determining what I throw out as waste. I live at home with family; we already sort out recyclables into bins, and my mother puts organic uncooked food waste in her vegetable garden in the backyard. My personal waste consists of small everyday things like used tissues, some food waste, and my cat’s waste. It’s at this point that I discover something called a “bokashi bin”.

Along with obvious tools like composters, this turns out to be one of the more overlooked but incredibly useful and effective tools in living zero waste. I visit the Homesteader’s Emporium on Hastings Street to get some more information about it from owner Rick Havlak.

A bokashi bin is a small indoor bucket (approx. 14 litres) that functions like a composter, but it’s far more versatile —it takes anything from organics, used tissues, napkins, pet waste, and also cooked food like meat and bones.

Layer the waste with bokashi mix—a combination of bran and microorganisms—and when the bin is full, the mix ferments the waste into compost material after a couple weeks. One important difference between bokashi bins and regular composters, aside from their much more compact size, is that bokashi bins don’t emit greenhouse gases while it ferments.

Havlak adds that the final result should go into the ground, or better yet, in a garden, where it provides rich nutrients to the soil. Bokashi bins and the mix can be bought at the Homesteader’s Emporium and The Soap Dispensary for as little as $20.

At home, I put the chicken bones from my dinner as well as some used tissues in the bin, along with leftover veggies scraps. Before I go to bed, I scoop my cat’s litter box and put the waste in too, after which I sprinkle in some bokashi mix I bought at Homesteader’s. At my birthday/Christmas/end -of-the-world party (only two of the three events actually occurred), my friends happily contribute by adding mandarin orange peels they eat.

 The smell, as I come to realize, is funky, but not bad. And just like that, a lot of my waste has already been diverted from the landfill.

More suggestions come from Metro Vancouver’s “Create memories, not waste” campaign. 

You may have seen some of the videos, encouraging citizens to reduce their waste by (for example) getting children lessons instead of packaged presents, baking instead of buying, and being aware of the pros and cons of real versus artificial trees.

In one, the operations manager of a transfer station in Coquitlam comments on the huge increase of wrapping paper, ribbons, and even still-decorated Christmas trees the station has been receiving, while machines push around mounds of garbage in the background. It’s a disgusting sight, and you can almost smell the stench of waste.

Newell agrees with the campaign’s motto.

“Personally, my partner and I have cut drastically back on the number of gifts we give and receive and focus more on spending quality time with family and friends. We focus more on making memories through activities and good food.”

Keeping this in mind, for a close friend’s present, I decided to bake cookies and put them in a clean, plastic bread bag I’ve saved. I put the cookies in a gift bag I learn to make from a finished chip bag, and fashioned an empty bag of cat treats into a bow.

There’s still a pile of assorted bags I’ve kept with the hope of reusing them and keeping them out of the landfill. Furthermore, it’s been years since I’ve used gift-wrapping paper – nowadays, I use old sheets of paper, hand-outs and assignments from my schooling days, or even copies of scripts and screenplays I no longer need, which looks pretty cool.

I also plan to get my mother reusable produce bags so we can stop the accumulation of plastic bags we keep under the kitchen sink, and I always decline plastic bags when buying anything.

In fact, I don’t notice much of a change when it comes to what I buy for people; rather, I am more aware of how things are packaged. What’s on the inside? Can the package be recycled? 

Checking out various vegetable peelers for a friend, some of which are packaged in plastic which may or may not be recyclable, I choose a peeler fastened with twist-ties to a cardboard backing. The cardboard can be recycled, and the twist-ties reused.

I realize while shopping that although trying to achieve zero waste can be tough in many ways, it’s more about being a smart, informed consumer making careful decisions and asking questions. So much of the time, we don’t ever know or see the consequences of our actions. Zero waste, I realize, is an acknowledgement of the impact, local and global, our actions and our waste can have, but also a silent but powerful statement of rejection of the status quo.

And if that’s not enough to convince you to try cutting down on waste? Take yourself and your family to the landfill for a holiday trip, and see if you can spot the wrapping paper and packaging you gave to you-know-who. It can be an eye-opener. 

If anyone wants a late Christmas present of delicious compost, please let me know.

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