Have you ever had that awkward experience of being at a party with plates and leftovers in your hands, but you’re not sure where to take it? Is it garbage? Recycling? Green bin? Full of uncertainty, do you hide it in the bathroom? Or do you hang onto it for hours and take it home to save making a mistake? Breathe, relax … you are not alone.

Most people have the best of intentions when it comes to sorting out their waste, but need a little help from their friends. So it was at the annual staff BBQ at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (PM) last week, but some super green heroes helped save the day. As with most victories, it takes a village.


Melisa Trilles, PM BBQ organizer, reached out to the Green Team and invited them to volunteer as Waste Stewards (alternate titles … Waste Wizards, Compost Cowboys, Recycling Rangers, Sorting Saviours). Rita Soares and John Lee Gibbons of Environmental Services made sure the site had a good set up of bins and signs. Veng Chhin, Nathaniel So and Dr. Alex Vitkin (all amazing Green Team peeps) set up shop by the waste stations to help staff sort it out. I also got in on the action, and really enjoyed guiding staff while I danced to the upbeat band!

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Dr. Alex Vitkin sorts us out. The green team vest is a nice touch.

You can really see the difference having a guide at the source makes. Here’s an unfortunate example of  a lonely bin (no guides and no alternative bin options around it). Everything (trash, recyclable, organics, the kitchen sink) went into and around it. That will all go to landfill.

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A cautionary tale … this lonely bin with no recycling nearby and no guidance will all go to landfill.

In the areas with a helper, the recycling bin and organics bin filled up waaaaay faster than the trash. Staff of all sorts really appreciated the help in navigating the system. The reason it needs navigating is because there are no universal rules for recycling.

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A little welcoming sign goes a long way.

Rules can change from city to city and building to building, all based on how easy it is for the recycling company to sell their materials to companies that use them to make something “new”.

Planning a BBQ that mother nature will like as much as your friends and family do? There are lots of things you can do:

  1. Set up your own easy waste stations, clearly labeling organics, recycling, garbage
  2. Go reusable. You can find lots of backyard-friendly plates, cutlery, napkins, cups in stores, online and at garage sales.
  3. If you can’t go reusable, go recyclable or compostable (fun fact: a paper plate that gets covered in food can go in most compost bins right along with napkins and any leftover food bits. A clean paper plate can go in recycling)
  4. Skip the straw … unless you have a medical condition that requires one, straws are just a waste of plastic that often end up in oceans.
  5. Serve food in stages and you’ll have less to throw out later. Reducing supersedes recycling! (Abide food safety rules so you don’t poison your guests with a mayonaisse-y potato salad that’s been cooking in the sun for 4 hours.)  
  6.  Avoid polystyrene (Styrofoam). a 2014 study confirmed its status as a known carcinogen that can leach into your food, especially if hot. Though it is recyclable in Toronto’s municipal program, it is not recyclable at UHN (more on why in the follow up deep dive).
  7. Use big condiment bottles, not single-use condiment packets. The bottles are recyclable, the packets are trash
  8. Choose organic and local food and drinks if you can. Cleaner supply chains and fewer food-miles/km per bite or sip.
  9. Serve more vegetable-based dishes and a little less meat (I know! This one is hard at a BBQ, but meat takes a lot more energy, water and creates more pollution per kg than veggies. There are some clever recipes for 1/2 veggie burgers  to have your meat and balance at the same time.)   
How much pollution does each type of food cause? image credit: The Environmental Working Group EWG.com

A big thank you to the UHN Green Team for helping us all sort it out!

Veng double-fisting it with rescue tongs and a sign. Way to lead, Radiation Medicine Green Team!

Stay tuned for a follow up blog where I’ll go for a deep dive into our various waste streams (not a literal dive, definitely not literally). :).