With the COP21 gathering wrapping up last week, we’ve all heard plenty of talk about key areas of focus when it comes to slowing down the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But are the actions being discussed really the most cost-effective strategies?

Were you aware, for example, the budget for most mass-transit projects is over $5,000 per household but these initiatives still require a $3 to $4 fare for one person to ride one way? Did you know a new Prius costs close to $20,000 and that to date, worldwide, only 5 million have been sold (.05 percent of the 1 billion cars currently on the road)? How about that a new high-efficiency heating and cooling system is $10,000 and that it will take decades to retrofit every North American home?

Imagine if there were an impactful, inexpensive and quick means of mitigating climate change?

Well, imagine no more. The secret weapon is waste diversion.

Waste diversion programs can be introduced and/or enhanced at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time of most, if not all, other actions we are asking residents to take to reduce the carbon footprint of individual communities.

It’s true we burn fossil fuels to power our cars and to heat, light and cool our homes, but we overlook the vast amounts of energy we consume just to make the products and packaging we all too quickly use and throw away. In doing so, we discard the energy embodied in the production of that item. Using available global emissions data from the EPA, I believe it’s reasonable to deduce that 45 percent or more of the energy we use comes during the production of the goods we consume. That’s more than driving (15 percent) and home energy consumption (20 percent) combined.

In addition, continuous production of goods from virgin materials naturally leads to their depletion, and the process has highly detrimental effects on our land, air and water.

Clearly this situation is unsustainable.

The means of increasing waste diversion are simple and begin with an understanding of the composition of our discards. An analysis of EPA waste characterization data reveals that at least 40 percent of the waste from a home or business is recyclable material, mostly containers and paper fibers. Yet, every single day, we fail to capture much of this material, which is worth millions of dollars and can lead to thousands of jobs if waste diversion infrastructures were fully developed. As a first step we need to maximize the use of existing recycling systems, which, by the way, operate for about $1 per week, per household.

According to my own calculations using figures from ICF Consulting and the EPA, it’s clear the current mix of containers and fibers currently collected can be manufactured from recycled material using just a third of the energy of production using prime materials. The ratio is even higher (four-to-one) if you remove glass from the calculation – recycling glass saves very little energy. More specifically, the energy saved by recycling a single soda can power a TV for three hours, according to Keep America Beautiful. So just think how much energy there is in your old garage door.

Perhaps even more important are diversion plans for organic material, which accounts for around 30 percent of the municipal waste stream, according to the EPA. This material produces methane when buried in a landfill, and methane is estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be 86-or-more-times more potent by volume than carbon dioxide in its shorter life span in the atmosphere. In addition, using compost instead of fertilizers and pesticides, which are extremely energy intensive to produce, has numerous other environmental benefits.

How much does organics diversion cost? Toronto’s Green Bin program was introduced for around $150 per household and costs about $2 per week per household to operate.

Diversion plans for what I lovingly call the “last six” – e-scrap, furniture (including mattresses), textiles (including carpets), construction and demolition material, hazardous waste and “other” waste – represent the final step. These groupings may seem like they contain an extremely diverse range of materials, but the fact is items of consumption can be broken down into just a handful of resources: wood fiber; rocks, minerals and metals; and oil. The ultimate goal is getting these materials sorted into individual streams.

What’s more, all we ask of residents is to keep items separate at the time of discard. What could be easier? After all, you purchased a can of beans separately, a banana separately and a cellphone separately. You consumed each of these items separately, and at one point in time you held each of these items separately in your hand.

I use the prop shown in the photo to communicate this idea. You didn’t buy things all together – so why would you dispose of them in this manner?

We do of course face major challenges in shifting policies and priorities, and this is the result of making waste disposal cheap and easy for too long. But I do honestly believe residents want to do more.

They see the planet is hot and getting hotter, and when they come to understand that waste diversion is in reality the cheapest, quickest and easiest means of mitigating climate change, they’ll jump at the opportunity to divert more. It’s up to the industry to help them make the connection.


Rod Muir, Hons B. Comm., MBA, is is the waste diversion and sustainability campaigner for Sierra Club Canada. He is very willing to talk to any group on this important subject and can be reached at [email protected] or 416-535-9918.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in a future Op-Ed, please send a short proposal to [email protected] for consideration.