Zero-waste movement goes mainstream in Vancouver

Credit: JASON PAYNE / PNG

 

2017 was a relatively wasteful year for Shia and Hanno Su, and it’s all Shia’s fault.

She broke a mug and a bowl — nearly doubling their annual waste output for the year, which fits in a one-litre jar.

The couple’s garbage includes thermal paper receipts, toothbrush bristles, a Band-aid, and plastic bits and bobs.

“At first I thought it must be really difficult,” said Shia of their zero-waste lifestyle. “It just turned out to be a sum of small, very doable changes.”

The Sus — who are set to return to Germany after a year of living in Vancouver — were inspired in 2014 by a video of Bea Johnson, a California-based French woman dubbed by the New York Times as the Priestess of Waste-Free Living, showcasing her family of four’s yearly trash that fits into a single Mason jar.

“I loved the idea but dismissed it as being too unrealistic for us,” said Shia, 34. “We decided we’re not going to go extreme, but just do what we can.”

First, they started bringing their own containers to restaurants for takeout. Then, they bought fruits and vegetables without the ubiquitous plastic produce bags, and talked a store into stocking bulk rice and oats.

When they ran out of cleaning products, they made their own, using vinegar, water and citrus peels.

Today, Shia whips up shampoo made of rye flour, shuns toilet paper in favour of a bidet spray.

If you think this sounds hippie-dippy, think again. The zero waste movement is going mainstream, with books, blogs, and plenty of Instagram posts with the hashtag #zerowaste depicting a sleek, minimalist esthetic.

Large multi-nationals are jumping on the zero waste bandwagon. Coca-Cola recently announced plans to recycle a bottle or can for every beverage it sells by 2030, while fast-food giant McDonald’s vowed to switch to 100 per cent renewable or recyclable packaging by 2025, fulfilling the No. 1 request of its customers, it said.

Metro Vancouver leading way in push for zero waste

Modern society’s voracious consumerism and penchant for convenience produces a massive amount of waste. The consequences for the planet — environmental degradation, plastic-choked oceans and global warming — are devastating.

Most zero-wasters adopt the lifestyle to reduce their ecological footprint. Instead of chucking things into the garbage, their ethos is the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.

Metro Vancouver has been steadily diverting more trash from the landfill and incinerator, but the amount of waste the region produces remains staggering.

In 2016, the region dumped more than 653,000 tonnes in residential and commercial waste in landfills, which translate to 1.37 tonnes of waste per resident.

Despite educational campaigns, food waste accounts for about 30 per cent of garbage. When dumped into the landfill, the organic materials produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Vancouverites throw away 2.6 million coffee cups and two million plastic bags a week, according to a city staff report looking into single-use disposable items.

The city sent 351,000 tonnes to the landfill and incinerator in 2015, a 27 per cent decrease from 2008 levels.

It is about two-thirds of the way toward meeting its zero waste target of 240,000 tonnes by 2020, largely thanks to residents diverting about 70 per cent of their waste to recycling and composting, said Albert Shamess, the city’s director of waste management and resource recovery.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get there,” said Shamess. “We are starting to run into challenges with how much we can do with the existing infrastructure, and how much can we expect residents to do.”

A final report on the single-use-item reduction strategy is expected to go before council in April.

Many zero wasters say the city can do more to curb the use of plastics, citing cities like Victoria, which approved a ban on plastic bags last year, and Seattle, which is set to enact a ban on plastic straws and utensils.

But Shamess said the regulatory hammer is not the solution.

Banning items like plastic bags could create unintended consequences, he said. For example, the majority of plastic bags are reused as garbage bags. If plastic bags are banned, would people buy more kitchen garbage bags?

“You can’t regulate yourself out of this dilemma. We need to change people’s behaviour.”

Businesses, too, need to take a more proactive approach and take responsibility for the waste they produce, he said.

“We’ve developed these attitudes and processes we have used for decades,” said Shamess, noting that when disposable coffee cups were first used, they were marketed as convenient and hygienic alternatives. “It’ll take time to sort them out. There is no one intervention to solve these problems.”

Zero waste businesses springing up to meet demand 

Lack of regulation aside, Vancouver is a waste-free-friendly city, say local zero-wasters.

Farmers markets that run year-round selling loose produce without plastic packaging or stickers. Some businesses already charge for plastic bags, offer discounts if you bring your own container, or offer straws only upon request. Baristas are usually amenable to a request for non-disposable mugs for customers who are drinking their beverage inside the coffee house. But many people say those mugs should be the default, not the exception.

Across B.C. there is an increase in zero-waste stores that offer products liberated from packaging and offer alternatives to single-use items like plastic cutlery, paper towels, or disposable razors.

Green, Canada’s first zero-waste grocery store, opened in 2016 on Salt Spring Island. In Victoria, West Coast Refill opened its doors last fall. And Bulk Barn, a chain of retail stores offering bulk foods, has 16 stores across B.C.

Linh Truong opened Soap Dispensary on Vancouver’s Main Street in 2011 after moving back from Victoria and finding no place to refill soap and cleansers.

Mayor Gregor Robertson had just pledged to make the city the greenest in the world by 2020, and it seemed fitting to open a store dedicated to package-free personal care and household cleaning products, said Truong.

“When I first opened it was pretty scary. The word zero waste wasn’t really in the mainstream consciousness yet. We had customers come in and tell us they were worried for us.”

But the store appeared to have tapped into a growing public consciousness and demand. Last fall, Truong expanded her package-free provisions to include food and kitchen utensils.

Kitchen Staples, located next to Soap Dispensary, sells pantry staples such as spices, baking ingredients and pasta.

Honey in large containers is sourced from Jane’s Honey Bees in the Fraser Valley, while grains from Cedar Isle Farm in Agassiz can be milled on-site into flour.

A bar almost as long as the length of the room dispenses vinegars and oils on tap, and near the back, a refrigerated section holds items such as butter, cheese, yogurt, tempeh, tofu, and jam.

Customers bring their own containers, which are weighed and refilled at the counter. The store also sells empty jars and bottles.

Truong said food is a tougher market than personal care because of narrower profit margins and competition with big-name stores. But prices are competitive, especially since the items are usually organic and local.

“Most household packaging comes from food,” said Truong. “It’s why we decided we needed to get into food. There was a lack of options available.”

There are also health and safety hurdles zero-waste stores need to clear before they can sell high-risk perishable foods such as yogurt and butter. Kitchen Staples offers nut milks, but Truong is still in discussions with Vancouver Coastal Health to provide milk on tap.

Marine biologist turned zero-waste entrepreneur  

On Broadway and Fraser, another zero-waste grocery store is set to open in the spring. Nada Grocery will sell produce, eggs, cured meats, fresh and frozen local fish, as well as other grocery items, and be equipped with a self-serve digital weighing station.

Co-founder Brianne Miller, a former marine biologist, was inspired to open Nada after years of spotting trash floating in oceans and washing up on beaches. Plastic doesn’t disappear, she noted. It gets broken down into ever-smaller pieces called micro-plastics that threaten marine life and the aquatic ecosystem.

Zero Waste Market owner Brianne Miller fills a customer’s container at a pop-up shop at Patagonia Vancouver in a 2016 handout photo. JENNY PENG / THE CANADIAN PRESS

After hosting more than 75 pop-up stores of bulk goods and community events on the environment since 2011, Miller was confident there’s enough of a demand for a zero-waste brick-and-mortar store. Her instincts appear to be on point: Last fall, a crowdfunding campaign for Nada surpassed its $20,000 goal in less than 48 hours. The campaign raised $55,000.

Miller said her goal is to expand the store’s customer base from “hardcore dedicated” zero-waste shoppers to a more mainstream audience.

“The zero waste trend is not going to disappear,” she said. “It’s only something that’s going to gain momentum. As a society, we are only going to be more conscious of our limited resources and how to manage them and protect them at the same time.”

Both Truong and Miller say sourcing suppliers has been easy, crediting many small, nimble, and innovative local food businesses which are able to provide their goods without packaging.

Dealing with large suppliers, which have a harder time making any change to the manufacturing process or supply chain, is much trickier.

But “it’s the bigger companies that are going to have more of an impact,” said Miller. “If they can shift into a zero-waste mandate, that would be a win-win for everyone.”

When Lisa Papania opened Lupii Café in Champlain Heights in 2015, there was no question it was going to be zero waste, in terms of its upcycled furnishings, supply chain and internal operations.

The vegan café has no disposable cutlery or cups. It buys “ugly” fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be sent to the green bins.

On a rainy January afternoon, Papania showed six boxes from one supplier heaped full with tomatoes, apples, peppers, potatoes, bananas and grapefruit — a drop in the bucket of the $31 billion worth of food that ends up annually in compost or landfills in Canada, according to a 2014 report from Value Chain Management International.

“The stuff we take is not waste,” said Papania at her café, where she served tea in mugs and offered a plate of banana bread she baked from scratch in less than 10 minutes. “Everything we take is stuff they’re taking off the shelves for lots of reasons, primarily because of over-ordering.

“People order too freaking much. They never want to have people walk in and not have their heart’s desire, so there’s this massive destruction problem … that’s perpetuated throughout the stream.”

The café is no longer open every day, but it hosts free vegan community dinners on Fridays and offers free produce on Saturdays. It also offers catering and sells weekly produce boxes.

Papania, who teaches business and entrepreneurship at Simon Fraser University, takes a broad view of zero waste — seeing it not only as buying less or consuming less, but “a constant asking yourself: What is the impact and where do you put your money where it will do the most good?”

It’s not enough to buy clothes second-hand, for example, but also look at where those clothes are manufactured, she said.

“It’s not just not consuming new stuff,” she said: Buying an unethical product, even second-hand, legitimizes the creation of the product in the first place.

Lisa Papania, who opened Lupii cafe, a zero-waste restaurant, in 2015 buys unwanted fruits and vegetables from three suppliers in Vancouver.  NICK PROCAYLO / PNG

Papania has a pessimistic view of capitalism as it is currently practised, seeing it as a race to the bottom where the real costs of goods — including the consequences of low wages and labour exploitation and damage to the environment and to health — are hidden from the consumer.

But there are also enough individuals who want to change the system. “There’s a bit of a ground swell,” she said. “We need to start supporting places that are doing good things. More will emerge if we put resources into it.”

The misconceptions around living zero waste include that it’s inconvenient, ascetic or simply not realistic.

Papania disagrees. All that’s needed is an adventurous spirit.

“There’s nothing in my house we don’t need,” she said. “It’s a matter of going: Your store is not your primary source of inspiration. You’re looking at your cupboard thinking what I can do with that.”

Shia said some people may find it hard to switch to zero waste because it does require a change in habits. But she advises people to start slow, and do things one at a time.

Now that it’s a habit, she doesn’t have to actively think about it. “If I’m on autopilot, I just don’t create any trash,” said Su, who chronicles her zero waste hacks on her blog Wasteland Rebel and is set to publish a book in April.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” she added. “Zero waste isn’t about perfection.”

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