By Stephen Leahy
On Aug. 10, Shawn Williamson put out his family’s first bag of trash in 26 months. That’s right, 26 months and just one bag of trash for Williamson, his wife, Monica, and their 7-year-old daughter Alyssa.
The Brooklin family recycles, reuses or composts 99.3 per cent of their waste, Williamson calculates. “It’s easier and cheaper,” says the management consultant, who specializes in environmental challenges.
“In my office, there’s a container for compostable materials, one for paper and a small one for garbage.” Asked what’s in the garbage container, Williamson says “cut-up credit cards, old pens, some plastic wrapping … I empty it every four or five months.”
There are only two other small garbage containers in the home. But there are plenty for recycling, composting and a couple of large containers destined for the Goodwill donation centre.
Driving by, no one would guess this is a near-zero-waste home. Williamson insists they don’t have a Spartan lifestyle. In fact, he feels a bit sorry for the rest of us: “If you’re putting out three bags of garbage, you’re wasting an awful lot of time and money.”
It all starts at the store, especially the grocery store. Buying pre-packaged and ready-made food not only creates a lot of trash, it is much more expensive and less nutritious than buying fresh. The Williamsons hit the supermarket once a week with their 12-year-old green plastic baskets and preprinted shopping list, with the weekly essentials listed to make shopping more efficient and eliminate impulse buying.
“We still buy things like potato chips occasionally, and those bags can’t be recycled.”
They also buy in bulk. Toilet paper comes from an office-supply outlet in a giant box that barely fits in the car. Staples such as rice come in 50-pound bags. The house is outfitted with more shelving than most homes but Williamson insists it doesn’t look like a warehouse.
“Try eating only fresh for a few weeks and you’ll see a health improvement . . . you’ll feel better,” Williamson says.
When the family does order takeout, they bring their own plastic containers. “We bring the big ones and the take-out places tend to fill them up for the same price.” Most of this is just common sense on how to be more efficient, and Williamson believes it has saved his family hundreds of hours.
“Just take a few seconds once a week to think about how to do something better and do it.” Before you know it, you will be living better, saving money and maybe losing a bit of weight, says Williamson.
Nearly all food waste and organic matter goes into a back-yard composter, to be turned into rich top soil for the vegetable garden. Williamson says he gets a bit of a workout digging in the compost and he finds it very relaxing. And it beats driving to the gym.
“It’s really all about living better, living simpler and living smarter.”
Incineration vs. diversion
The Williamsons live in Durham Region, where 60 per cent of residential waste is now being diverted from the landfills in Michigan, where much of Ontario’s waste has been going for the past decade. But Durham and York regions are proceeding with plans to build a $230-million garbage incinerator in south Courtice, near Lake Ontario. To operate efficiently, the natural-gas-powered furnaces will need to be fed thousands of tonnes of garbage around the clock. That will take the emphasis off waste reduction and the need to improve recycling programs, says Shawn Williamson, whose family diverts 99.3 per cent of its household waste.
“The simple solution to Ontario’s perennial garbage problem is not to create any waste,” he says. “We saw a big change by converting all our garbage cans throughout the house into recycling bins and putting a tiny container for garbage inside.”
Ontario’s overall waste diversion rate has risen from 21 per cent in 1992 to about 44 per cent. Toronto’s diversion rate was 45 per cent last year, far short of its target of 70 per cent. San Francisco and Los Angeles are already at 70 per cent. More than half of Toronto’s households are in townhouses and high-rise apartments or condos, where recycling and composting must be taken down to basement bins and the diversion rate is a paltry 15 per cent
First published in The Toronto Star October 21, 2011