When we invite young people to visit the engineered landfill at the Comox Valley Waste Management Centre, we ask them to come prepared with burning questions. And some of them are hard. “Why do people throw away so much stuff?” “Why don’t we figure out a way to be nicer to the Earth?” “Don’t people realize that they could be reusing and recycling most of this stuff?”
It is natural to be curious about these things while standing atop the edge of a giant pit the size of 11 football fields—and being told that it might be full within five years.
“Then what?” We dig another one of these pits, invest in more of the expensive liner systems and technology, and keep filling. “But what happens when we run out of room?” or “What happens when we run out of oil to make all of our plastic things?”
Yes, these are all really good questions. And although we don’t have all the answers, Comox Strathcona Waste Management (CSWM) Diversion and Operations Support Coordinator Jennifer Ivan and I help students think about waste on these trips to the landfill. As the CWSM Curriculum Educator, I also visit classrooms and work with the kids to evaluate their own waste. They save up classroom garbage for one week for us to audit together, looking at each item that ended up in the trash and deciding how it could be prevented from going to the landfill. In addition to these programs, we provide teachers with CWSM waste-related teaching materials to work through in class.
While we do our best to answer questions throughout our time working with students, we often turn matters back to them: “What can you do in your school or home to make sure we are all doing our part to reduce waste and think in a more circular way?”
Most students know the R’s. Refuse to buy items that contribute to the problem when you can. Reduce the amount of waste we are sending to the landfill. Rot (compost) food waste whenever possible. Be sure that items are Reused until the end of their lives. And Recycle things that can be recycled. Really, the key is to be willing to Rethink everything.
Through the not-for-profit organization Recycle BC, British Columbians are lucky to have a very comprehensive recycling program that accepts many items that may have otherwise ended up in the landfill. Gone are the days of just paper and cardboard being recycled; now, there is a long list of items that are accepted at Recycle BC-supported depots—from plastic (almost all kinds) to glass and even foam packaging—with more items on the way. These are processed in British Columbia, and most of the end products also stay in BC. Visit recyclebc.ca for a current list of what you can recycle.
These simple “R” rules are easily absorbed by young visitors to the landfill, and while they are encouraged to bring those messages home to the adults in charge, they still come with their burning questions. “Why DO we throw away so much stuff?”
A tough question for us grown-ups to answer, isn’t it?
Comox Strathcona Waste Management is currently piloting field trips to the landfill for students in grades 4 through 7 in School Districts 71 and 72. More than 1000 students will have visited the landfill by the end of the 2021-2022 school year, bringing information home to their families and supporting waste diversion in our community. A video tour of the landfill can be found here.