Talkin’ Trash

Concordia Waste Audit Results and What It Means for the Landfills

Photo Katie McGroarty

With over 40,000 students and staff who study, eat and occasionally sleep on campus, Concordia University inevitably has a lot to deal with on garbage day.

For the past near-decade, R4: Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—a working group of Sustainability Concordia—has been conducting an annual waste audit to determine what students are throwing out.

For one week every March, the compacting room in the basement of the EV Building is filled with protective goggle-and-glove-clad volunteers. Dissecting bags of trash, they’re put to the messy task of counting each chocolate bar wrapper, Ziploc bag and apple core that is either recycled, composted or sent to the dump.

“I’m always encouraged by the amount of people who are really excited about it—like, it seems like a sort of strange thing to do, dig through garbage all day,” said Hannah McCormick, the Zero Waste Campaign coordinator. “You would think that we would struggle to get volunteers, but it always fills up.”

Things get a little tricky after the counting is done, because then R4 has to make sense of it all. Compared to last year, when a detailed, 23-page-long report on the waste audit was released, the findings this year have been compressed into a half-page infographic. McCormick says the reason for the short version of the results is simple—no one wants to read an extended document about, quite literally, garbage.

So, The Link is here to dig up the dirt on campus waste—without actually rifling through any trash.


Compared to 2011, Concordia reduced waste by approximately 100 tonnes this year. To put that much garbage in perspective, we’re talking about an amount that equals roughly the weight of a short-distance passenger plane.

Over one year, the school has decreased the total yearly amount of trash sent to landfills from public bins from 689 to 685 tonnes.

The four-tonne decrease could be due to a combination of Sustainable Concordia initiatives, or just a collective consciousness to be more mindful of what we were buying and throwing away, said McCormick.

“There’s no way to say for sure. I like to think that the work we’ve been doing leads to [waste reduction]. I wouldn’t be quick to say it was one thing, because we didn’t see any one component go down,” she said.

“We worked a lot with coffee cup reduction last year, but I don’t think that we saw the coffee cup count go down by half. But generally, everything was lower. Maybe just the fact that we were out there more, we reached a lot of more people last year—that concept of being aware of what we’re throwing away permeated.”

The audit is separated the same way as the bins in Concordia’s hallways— paper / plastic / trash / compost. Divided between what can be composted and turned back into soil, plastic, glass and metal that can be recycled and garbage sent straight to the landfill, the waste is then divided into more specific categories, such as cardboard and mixed paper, carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich.

“Last year, as well as the year before, the food waste has always been the greatest component, and food waste is completely divertible,” said McCormick.

When it comes to waste management, according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, diversion refers to disposal tactics that direct garbage away from landfills or incinerators through reuse, recycling, composting or anaerobic digestion—an oxygen-free compost-like process that produces methane.

In order to reach the ultimate goal of “Zero Waste,” a 95 per cent diversion rate must be met. In 2011, the university reached 53 per cent diversion.

Ideally, rates would be met though reduction rather than recycling or diversion. However, it can’t be realistically expected that the total number of containers consumed and food waste leftovers will decrease in the short term, as stated by Sustainable Concordia’s Environmental Coordinator Faisal Shennib in the 2011 Waste Report.

“If it was something like 80 per cent garbage going in the garbage, that would be a problem because that would be a lot of garbage,” said McCormick. “But the biggest component, which I think is 36 per cent food, can be composted. That’s something I think the focus should be [for the upcoming year].”


With each passing audit, the numbers are changing for the better, if only very slightly. The task of affecting the process of something like deciding whether a piece of trash belongs in the recycling, garbage or compost isn’t something that comes quickly, and R4 is well aware of the challenge of changing habits.

To approach R4’s zero-waste mandate, Shennib says the most important thing is to encourage “early adopters” to consciously generate less waste in hopes that the rest of the community will join in.

“You can grow really quickly just by talking to people who do want to make those changes, but don’t feel validated enough to do so,” he said.

Small initiatives that will eventually make a big impact are the backbone of Sustainable Concordia, whose yearly goals are decided depending on the results of the previous year’s audit results.

This year, they’re slated to host six Sustainable Concordia “SustainabiliTEA” events, which will take place over the course of the current academic year, where students are encouraged to brainstorm ideas for reducing waste on campus.

Suggestions made at the first event, on Oct. 18, included having volunteers watch over the recycling bins to encourage proper use, hosting more workshops for students and a phone swap for used cell phones.

As well as turning to students to make sure their opinions are heard, R4 has already derived options from this year’s report to make the upcoming semester as waste-free as possible.

“Throughout the semester we want to eradicate every trash bin that is by itself at the university, so there will be no garbage bins without a recycling bin beside it at least, if not a plastic, glass, metal and paper recycling as well,” said Shennib.

There are also plans to increase the frequency of the now-yearly waste audit.

“Having it in one week, just one week, definitely limits the data,” said McCormick.

“The amount of waste at different times varies incredibly, so if we do it more often and more thoroughly, it’s better for data and better for keeping the community involved with the waste audit. If people can be involved throughout the whole year, they will be thinking about it more.”

— with files from Jane Gatensby

To see the Concordia 2012 Waste Result infographic, go to Sustainability Concordia’s Facebook page. To get a copy of the 2011 audit, contact Sustainable Concordia.