Mindful Consumption & the #HaltonWasteChallenge

Have you ever thought about what happens to our waste after it’s picked up from the curb? Or about ways that we can reduce what we throw away? And perhaps more importantly, does it make any difference? Here at Halton Green Screens we think a lot about those questions and more when it comes to waste. That’s why we launched the #HaltonWasteChallenge in 2015.
Halton Green Screens, a program of the Halton Environmental Network, inspires environmental stewardship through film. While I was planning screenings of “The Clean Bin Project”, a film about a couple who competes to go waste-free for a year, I kept thinking that if we are asking our audience to take action after our events then we need walk the talk and take those actions ourselves. And in that moment, the #HaltonWasteChallenge was born.

The Challenge

In the first year of the #HaltonWasteChallenge, I replicated the competition from “The Clean Bin Project” by:

– Trying not to produce any landfill waste for a year
– Keeping any waste I produced to be weighed publicly
– Saying no to unnecessary packaging, even if it’s recyclable or compostable
– Not buying any “stuff,” even secondhand

I did, however, have one exception to these rules: I was allowed to buy secondhand baby items because I was due to have my first child halfway through my waste-free year.
Everyone who attended our events, participated in our schools program, or visited us on social media was invited to join the #HaltonWasteChallenge by committing to do just one small thing to reduce their landfill waste. Because that’s what the challenge is really about: raising awareness about the impact we have on the planet and empowering people to make a positive difference through their actions. We hope that by taking the challenge people think about the fate of the packaging, clothing, furniture, gadgets, and other stuff that we throw away.

Are you part of a school community? Get in touch with us to sign your school up for the 2017-18 #HaltonWasteChallenge!

The Fate of Our Trash (spoiler alert: it doesn’t disappear when we put it to the curb)

When we throw stuff away in Halton Region, our compost is sent to Hamilton, our recycling is sorted then sold to recycling companies, and our landfill waste goes to the waste management site on Highway 25 where it will stay long after we’re all gone. It’s easy to forget about our trash once we’ve properly disposed of it for curbside pickup, but it doesn’t disappear. Often, it’s quite the opposite – items that may decompose quickly with light and oxygen decompose slowly or not at all when buried in a landfill. When they do decompose, it’s under anaerobic conditions (low or no oxygen), meaning that rather than decomposing to produce carbon dioxide (among other things) they decompose to produce methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas. Once our Halton landfill site is full, we will need to find another place on our irreplaceable planet to bury our trash, or switch to incineration which comes with its own environmental impacts. Waste reduction and diversion efforts by Halton Region have drastically prolonged the lifespan of our current landfill, from 20 years to 25 and counting.

We are sometimes questioned about the #HaltonWasteChallenge rules to minimize even recyclable/compostable packaging and to not buy any “stuff”; we have been conditioned to see recycling and reusing as really positive environmental choices. And they are – to a point. Both are far better than throwing something away to sit in a landfill for hundreds or even thousands of years. But recycling takes a lot of energy and resources, and is often what’s referred to as “downcycling”, where the resulting product is of lower quality and will itself eventually end up in a landfill. Reusing is also a great option when we do need “stuff”, but those reused items are usually still destined for a landfill when they reach the end of their useful life. Furthermore, with rapidly changing tastes and fashions, when we donate our used items they often go straight to landfill because we donate far more than could ever be sold in thrift stores. Even though I may not have thrown it away during my waste-free year, most of the “stuff” I may have purchased would have ended up in a landfill someday. So I repaired what I already had or did without.

Taking the #HaltonWasteChallenge: My Personal Experiences and Motivation

In the early days, my waste-free lifestyle took some adjusting, with the occasional nightmare about accidentally producing garbage and filling up my bin. By the end of the year it had become so much my normal lifestyle that I can hardly believe I haven’t always lived this way. Several of my belongings broke during the challenge. Each time, it was stressful at first, but I quickly learned that I don’t need nearly as much stuff as I thought.

Some of my waste-reducing strategies were time consuming, such as making personal care products and food items from bulk ingredients, but once I got into a good rhythm they were easy enough to fit in and there’s a satisfaction that comes from making something myself. Other changes required little extra time but did call for a little foresight, such as bringing a reusable mug if I might get a coffee, Tupperware if I might get takeout or have leftovers, and cutlery if I might eat at a restaurant that provides only single-use. Once the habit was formed these all came naturally and often led to a good conversation. I had the occasional slip up and some unavoidable waste, but I count my year as a success with less than 2.5lb of garbage in my little bin, compared to the average of over 350lb/year/person in Halton. And it took far less effort than I had imagined it would. As the mom of a 16 month old, my first and most important responsibility is to my child. That means doing my best to make sure he gets all the food, snuggles, giggles, and sleep that he needs. But just as importantly, it means doing what I can to ensure he has a bright future ahead of him, which means leaving him a safe, healthy planet to live on. As parents we have so much to think about as we try to do what’s best for our children (or sometimes as we just try to make it through the day), and we are often doing so on very little sleep and with very little time. There is a temptation to give in to the convenience provided by packaged and disposable items, and I get it – so far we only have one small child demanding our time and he keeps us pretty busy. But when we give in to that temptation, it is the planet and our children who will have to pay the price. With our lifestyles driven by convenience over sustainability, we are using up our beautiful planet faster than it can replenish itself.

We can each do our part by being mindful in our decisions. I am always asking myself what the impact of my choices will be on the planet and on my child’s future. The typical North American baby spends its early life producing a mountain of garbage that will outlive the child. I am talking diapers. If we change our baby an average of 5 times per day, and if he is potty trained at 2.5 years old, he will use over 4500 diapers. My first big decisions as a mindful mom were to use cloth diapers for our little one, buy them secondhand, and hang them to dry most of the time. My child and I both still have an impact on the planet, and we still produce some landfill waste, but I hope my efforts will contribute to a brighter future for him and help me raise a mindful adult who will consider the impacts of his own actions.
This year, I am trying one new thing every week to lessen my overall consumption. I am blogging about my experiences at www.HaltonGreenScreens.ca/blog – check it out for more tips on waste reduction, or to make suggestions for the weekly challenges.

  • Heather only had two and a half pounds of waste after taking on a personal #haltonwastechallenge!
  • She made paint from beet and onion peels.
  • Onion peels were used to make brown paint.
  • Here is a painting by Heather's toddler with the onion and beet paints.
  • She made a draft stopper from old jeans and fabric scraps.
  • She used a bar of soap instead of bottles of dish soap.

We Can ALL Make a Difference

Through engaging the public, we have learned some of the reasons that people often don’t make an effort to reduce their waste. One of the most common roadblocks lies in the perception of our capacity to make a difference. Looking at the big picture, it is easy to feel like any actions we take, however big or small, will not make any real difference. We are here to tell you that we can and do make a difference, even without really impacting our lifestyles. Let’s use straw as an example. A straw is small and doesn’t take up much space in a landfill; yet, in Canada we throw away enough straws every day to fill about 13 school buses. When we all do this small, harmful activity that may feel like it doesn’t really matter, it amounts to a large amount of plastic waste, much of which doesn’t get disposed of properly and ends up in lakes, rivers, the ocean, and even in wildlife. We can flip this into a positive: when we all make small, positive changes that may not feel like much individually, together we make big, positive impacts.

If you are new to mindful consumption and waste reduction, here are some simple rules to live by to help get you started:
• Live more simply (with less “stuff”)
• Buy what you can secondhand
• Choose items with less packaging
• Start a conversation
• Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good – start small and be kind to yourself and others!
If you are interested in making specific commitments, consider joining the #HaltonWasteChallenge by trying one or more of the following:
• Ask for no straw at a restaurant
• Bring a reusable mug when buying tea, coffee, or other beverages or ask for a porcelain mug if you are drinking it there
• Take your own bags and containers shopping
• Reduce plastic use
• Replace clothing, furniture, and electronics less often

Halton Region is due to schedule some public engagement sessions in the next few months to get public input on their waste management strategy. Keep an eye out for those events and consider attending to add your voice to the discussion. If we reduce our annual curbside landfill waste in Halton by just 1kg/person we would prevent about 550,000kg from ending up in our landfill every year. So who’s with me?

Are you up to the challenge?

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Last modified: September 6, 2017

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