The household waste boom and what our waste tells us about the COVID economy


Some of Canada’s largest cities are seeing an increase in household waste thanks to a myriad of COVID-related trends, including the re-emergence of disposables, a summer full of home renovations and the continued growth of online shopping.Initial figures for the cities of Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax show that the amount of household garbage collected has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic.

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Data compiled by CBC Radio Cost of life shows that the waste collected in many of these cities has increased in a few months by 35% compared to the previous year.

City by city, there’s still a lot of garbage

In Toronto, household garbage collection fell by more than 9% from May 2019 and May 2020, but then jumped 12% from June 2019 to June 2020.

Vancouver saw a decline in May 2019 compared to May 2020, followed by increases of 18 and 11% in June and July, respectively.

In Calgary, household garbage collection from single-family residences increased by double-digit percentages each month from April to July, comparing those months in 2019 and 2020. The largest increase was in June 2020, a 22% increase compared to June 2019.

Winnipeg also saw high increases, with garbage collected from single-family residences increasing by 34.5% in June 2019 compared to June 2020. However, some of these year-over-year differences could be due to processing changes, when the City of Winnipeg changed their contractors to pickup services.

Halifax did not provide Cost of life with monthly breakdown, but it recorded an overall increase in residential waste of 11% from March to August 2020.

Commercial waste goes the other way

Commercial waste, meanwhile, is dropping sharply across Canada, suggesting a major shift in where and how we consume goods and services.

“That wouldn’t surprise me much at all,” said Colin Guldimann, an economist at RBC Economic Research.

“At the start of the pandemic period of late March, early April, spending dropped quite significantly – just over 30 percent,” he said. “But by the time we got there in June he had almost fully recovered and in fact [was] slightly higher tracking than last year. ”

According to RBC’s COVID Consumer Spending Tracker, Canadians are spending more on home renovations, electronics and groceries. All these categories contribute to household waste generally collected by municipalities.

“We also saw some interesting trends in the way Canadians spend on food, which of course accounts for a large portion of residential waste. Grocery spending over the entire period since April has increased by around 20%, and restaurant spending is down quite a bit, ”Guldimann said.

Framed by Amazon Prime, so to speak

Online marketplaces have become a staple of consumer habits in the COVID-19 economy, and early data from the city of Toronto suggests consumers are throwing more cardboard boxes into their blue bins.

Cardboard made up about 14% of all materials entering the city’s recycling facilities, but its share has risen to 17.3% on average so far this year.

In an email to CBC Radio Cost of life, a spokesperson for the city of Toronto said the jump “could be the result of increased online shopping this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Early data from the city of Winnipeg seems to support the same theory. The amount of corrugated boxes collected in Winnipeg for recycling has increased by nearly 23% in the first seven months of this year.

Online shopping was already on the rise before pandemic lockdowns across the country began, said RBC’s Guldimann. But spending rose 70% once physical stores started to close.

Waste, as an economic indicator, is waste right now

Garbage and waste was a pretty good indicator of a country’s economy. When times are good, we often waste more and want more. When times are bad, we save and conserve.

But the events of 2020 were no ordinary economic recession.

“What surprised us is how strong consumption has remained throughout this period,” said Guldimann.

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“And I would attribute a lot of that to the overwhelming role the federal government has played in supporting household incomes during economic times. ”

However, it might be too early to determine whether Canadians actually produce more waste overall, as many cities have yet to fully analyze their data.

An Amazon facility in Brampton, Ontario, where online orders are processed and shipped to customers. Online shopping was already on the rise before the nationwide pandemic lockdown began, but spending rose 70% once stores started closing. (Chris Young / The Canadian Press)

While it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons between residential and commercial waste trends at this point, the decline in commercial waste in cities like Toronto was clear during the spring closings.

This is just one of the results of the shift in consumption from workplaces, schools and restaurants to the home.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, who said the changes could help reduce waste overall if habits change. .

I think the pandemic has really forced us… to think local and buy local.– Jo-Anne St. Godard, Executive Director of the Recycling Council of Ontario

“The positive side of our lock-in is that we were forced to think, plan and prepare meals,” said St. Godard, whose organization is also known as the Circular Innovation Council.

According to St. Godard, there is also anecdotal evidence that Canadians buy more local products and therefore reduce packaging and transportation waste.

Initial figures from the cities of Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax show that the amount of household garbage collected has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. (Carmen Ponciano / CBC)

“I think the pandemic has really forced us, from a market perspective, to think local and buy local. And that can actually produce very real results for the economy and for waste-free markets, ”she said.

As single-use products such as plastic bags and disposable gloves make a comeback, recycling advocates like St. Godard say they hope it’s only temporary.

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