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Food and drink: Wasted after the party

Over-wrapping it up, or why the heck can’t we recycle pizza boxes?

Whew! The sidewalks are pretty much rolled up after the big Telus World Ski and Snowboard Fest. About all that's left now is all that party garbage - burger wrappers, slushy cups, beer cans, more beer cans, dog-poo-for-dummies bags, plastic-water-for-dummies bottles, juice boxes, candy wrappers, pizza boxes, chip bags and a whole lot more.

It was a nice symmetry that as the big fest was coming to a close Whistler Blackcomb received kudos as one of Canada's greenest employers. Part of their commendable effort has been reducing waste by 50 per cent.

But back to those garbage cans in the village... 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 or however many people it was can leave a lot of stuff behind.

What's that old cliché Parks Canada drilled into us in the '80s? Take only pictures, leave only footprints? Hmm, we didn't quite bring that one home last week.

It's amazing how "packaged" just about every food item we consume has become. Bubble packs for jelly beans. Salad greens in plastic tubs the size of a shoebox. Deli-to-go Styrofoam boxes painted as prettily as a piece of Japanese lacquer ware with a little spring roll inside that you could probably carry in your fingers and eat on the way home.

I'm still waiting, waiting - can you hear my tweaky foot-tapping? - for B.C. to get organized and ban plastic grocery bags.

Hey, politicians, what happened to that one? Did your feet get tangled up in the billions of them? Did you see the photo of the sea turtle gagging on the blue plastic bag hanging out of its mouth? Did you know the dead zone in the middle of the Pacific - the Northern Pacific Gyre it's called - is stuffed to the gills with plastic, most of it bits from food products, and it covers an area the size of two states of Texas.

And that's just the big, eye-catching stuff. Right now I'm dumping onto my desk the contents of a little five-inch basket that once held Chinese tea samples and now sits in our kitchen's junk drawer.

It holds all the fat elastic bands and dark blue foil-wrapped wires that are wound around the broccoli these days. We can hardly imagine buying a bare-naked stem of broccoli anymore instead of these pre-bundled clusters with their Earthbound Farms labels with recipes, no less, attached along with the SKU numbers for the cashier's scanner and easy store inventory keeping. Or cherry tomatoes that aren't in a plastic bubble or red mesh bag, or celery that isn't in a plastic bag with bright labelling splashed all over it. We have moved from raw food to food presented as product.

Then there are all those little square plastic tab thingies that are supposed to keep your plastic bread bag closed, but never do. My dad curses those things. What do you do with them? Stick them in the basket in the junk drawer, or throw them out. After all, how many can you keep in a drawer?

I'm looking at probably a hundred of the paper-covered wire ties, the white ones with numbers written on them from the bulk food bins, the bright red and green ones, from god knows what, but all at one time closing plastic bags. And, gads, here's a whole raft of tie closures once enclosed in a box of green plastic garbage bags. How useless were those? Don't we just knot the top of the bag or scrunch the flaps down?

Even these picky little things often overlooked in the waste department of "how do we deal with that once it's discarded" add to that pile of 600 kg of waste per year each person generates on average at Whistler - and that's not including what our thousands and thousands of guests generate.

How about those ubiquitous pizza boxes? About 400 million are delivered every year in Canada, bearing delicious contents we gobble up, then they get tossed. Even though they are cardboard and could be recycled, grease from food products is the bane of paper recyclers.

Plastics, metals and glasses are all recycled through processes that use heat, so any greasy bits aren't a problem. But paper and cardboard items are mixed with water and turned into a nice mushy slurry. Since water and oil don't mix, that grease soaked into your pizza box from the cheese and olives and pepperoni causes oil to form on the top of the slurry.

Paper fibres can't separate from the oils, so when the water is squeezed out of the pulp to make new recycled paper products, you get a lot of irregularities like holes and spots in the paper.

Ergo, if a pizza box gets into recycled paper products by mistake, the whole batch of nicely recycled paper-product pulp is wrecked. Some estimates put the costs of irresponsible contamination in the U.S. alone in the neighborhood of $700 million a year, industry-wide.

For the same reason, other food-related items are also no-no's in the recycle bin, such as paper plates, napkins you wipe your mouth with and those paper towels you used to dry your strawberries on. But don't forget that you can include used paper napkins, coffee filters, tea bags, wooden stir sticks and, naturally, those biodegradable cornstarch containers we should all be using more of in with your compostable waste for Whistler's waste program.

As for the pizza boxes, don't try to "sneak" them in with your recyclables unless you are willing to take the time to remove any greasy parts. A lot of times the lid is fine, but you have to have good judgment on what to toss and what to recycle.

As for all those darn little plastic and wire ties, and the burger wrappers, slushy cups, beer cans, more beer cans, dog-poo-for-dummies bags, plastic-water-for-dummies bottles, juice boxes, candy wrappers and chip bags, we'll have to get to work on those.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who loved getting her rice desserts in Thailand on a beautiful banana leaf.