Zero Waste Journey

Markham’s zero-waste journey began a few years ago with the simple premise that, as one of the richest and most wasteful counties in the world, we could do better than landfill or incinerate valuable resources. It was time to get serious about waste diversion.

The community of 305,000 on Toronto’s northern border has a long standing recycling culture.

In 2005, the innovative and comprehensive “Mission Green” program was launched to make it easy and convenient for residents to understand and participate in the city’s various diversion programs. Markham reduced garbage collection to twice a month and (amazingly!) no one died as a result!

Markham council made a decision to expand (not close!) its five recycling depots; these complement the curbside program by accepting a multi-faceted array of recyclable materials (e.g., plastic film, shredded paper, OCC, batteries, scrap metal, tires, e-waste, textiles, fluorescent light bulbs, and clean polystyrene). More than 600 tonnes of polystyrene has been diverted and recycled through the drop-off depot system.

Markham’s municipal curbside diversion rose from 35 to 72 per cent (see Table 1) and program participation increased to over 86 per cent.

In 2008, Markham converted all of its 42 facilities to Zero Waste. This included the removal of all personal staff waste bins, mandated the use of clear bags, introduced organics collection, and made staff their own “waste managers” to demonstrate to residents that city hall was also doing its part.

Markham’s growing multi-residential sector is also required to participate in the city’s diversion programs. The city’s long-term policy is to ensure all residents — whether they live in a house, condo or apartment — receive the same diversion opportunities.

Updated program

With Mission Green in its seventh year, it was time to review the program and consider program enhancements and innovations to expand participation, community engagement, and set the diversion bar higher.

In April 2011, city council created a diversion subcommittee comprised of staff, councillors and public representatives, chaired by Deputy Mayor Jack Heath. The following guiding principles were presented and approved and helped serve as a guide when considering changes to Markham’s diversion program:

• Change must have a reasonable expectation to increase participation and diversion;

• Program changes should be initiated recognizing our partnership with the Region and/or collection contractor if processing and collection is impacted; 

• Program cost be evaluated based on single taxpayer principal; and

• Program changes should be introduced simultaneously whenever possible and supported with an effective and timely communication program.

The result was the “The Best of the Best: Markham’s Road Map to 80 per cent Diversion” that was completed and approved by council in October 2012.

The Road Map features 10 new initiatives that focus on enforcement measures, material bans, service level improvements and broadening diversion opportunities in the community. A key goal was to increase participation and diversion without cost increases either though user pay fees or taxes. The new programs include:

1. Mandatory Material Separation By-law (including multi-rez);

2. Clear Bags for Residue;

3. Expanded Textile/Carpet Diversion;

4. Zero Waste for Schools Program;

5. Establish Retail Bag Policy for Markham;

6. Enhanced Promotion & Education: Drop & Shop;

7. Reuse Depot for Renovation Materials;

8. Curbside Electronics and Battery Collection Ban;

9. Establish Spring & Fall Clean-Up Days (encourage scavenging); and

10. Expanded Fall Leaf/Yard Collection to December 15.

To their credit, Markham residents have participated in the city’s diversion programs on a voluntary basis. To get at more recyclables, the city updated its waste bylaw on December 2012 making it mandatory for residential and multi-residential homes to separate their waste materials into four streams: recyclables, compostables, leaf-and-yard wastes and residue. This is expected to encourage residents that don’t divert wastes to start, and for those that do to improve their performance.

The cornerstone of the new initiatives is an unlimited “clear garbage bag program” that requires residents to use clear garbage bags, in preparation for the transition from the landfilling of waste residue to incineration in 2014.

The clear bag program will ensure Mark-ham’s waste does not contain hazardous or toxic materials, recyclables or organics. In a counterintuitive move, the current bi-weekly three-bag limit has been eliminated and replaced by an unlimited clear bag policy to give residents added flexibility. The advantages of switching to clear bags were too numerous for Markham officials to ignore. Carts and user-pay bag tags were considered but dismissed as ineffective tools for the cost containment and lasting recycling behaviour change Markham sought.

Additional program details

Long concerned about the lack of comprehensive recycling in its schools, Markham’s next step was to establish a program to support schools in implementing the Zero Waste approach. As each school has considerable control over its purchasing and disposal activities, this was a logical step.

Markham’s “Zero Waste for Schools” program offers financial support through the Markham Environmental Sustainability Fund of up to $2,500 per school for green bins and blue boxes, and will provide collection of recyclables and organics at the curb.

To date, 10 of the 72 schools in Markham have adopted Zero Waste practices and achieved over 88 per cent diversion. Most importantly, future generations will be learning to properly sort recyclables.

To achieve the Zero Waste funding, participating schools must complete a waste audit, replace all large classroom waste bins with green bins and blue boxes, ban Styrofoam, and revamp their purchasing contracts with lunch providers.

Additional initiatives emanating from the Road Map include:

• Provision of bins in multi residential buildings for textiles, electronics and household batteries;

• Partnerships with local Service Clubs for public e-waste collection events throughout the year; and

• Acknowledge the impact of climate change and expand collection of leaf-and-yard wastes to December 15 each year.

The Road Map is expected to signal to residents, schools and businesses in Markham that it’s time for serious solutions to the problem of waste in our affluent province. It’s time for everyone to do more!

Claudia Marsales is Manager, Waste & Environmental Management, for the Town of Markham, Ontario. Contact Claudia at

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