Zero-Waste Knowledge Base

Why Zero-Waste?

We all generate waste every day, but we don’t always stop and think about how much waste we generate, where it goes when we are finished with it, and the broader impact it has.

Reducing the number of products we consume and dispose of is an essential part of social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

McGill’s Zero-Waste Knowledge Base is a resource to help you understand the important impact of waste, learn what McGill is doing to become zero-waste and rethink your consumption and waste sorting habits.  

Environmental Impact of Waste 

Disposing of waste, through dumping in landfills or incineration, contributes to climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation. As materials decompose in landfill, large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane are released into the atmosphere, adding to global warming.  

Methane is a powerful and potent greenhouse gas that has 86 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, 23 percent of Canada’s methane emissions come from waste. 

What we throw away also has more immediate impacts on the health of our planet and people.  

Landfills can lead to the contamination of soil and water through leachate, when rainwater leaches and draws out chemicals and contaminants when in contact with waste. This endangers ecosystems and the health of communities. Sending waste to landfill also creates additional air pollution, which lowers the quality of the air we breathe. 

Litter that is not properly disposed of is another large issue that contributes to environmental degradation. Plastic makes up to 90 percent of marine debris and trash which can cause suffocation, starvation, and drowning for marine life.  

When plastics break down in the ocean, microplastics, which are plastics under 5 mm in size, are produced and make their way into water and food sources for humans and animals. Not much is known about microplastics and their impacts yet, but it is a growing concern.  

Social Impact of Waste 

Waste disposal also has important social impacts that should not be ignored.  

We know that landfills and incineration of waste can be detrimental to human health through the air, water, and soil pollution, but other negative impacts include noise, smell, and smoke.  

There are also environmental justice implications for waste disposal. Property values near landfills are lowered because of these negative impacts.  Moreover, landfills are more often located in neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of low-income and minority populations which is an example of environmental racism.  

An example of environmental racism in Quebec is the large quantities of unidentified construction waste brought from large cities to Kanehsatà:ke, amounting to the equivalent of 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This has resulted in toxins being released near the community, threatening the health of people living nearby and local biodiversity.   

Learn more about waste-related contamination in Kanehsatà:ke 

What is Zero-Waste?

The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero-waste as:

“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” 

Zero-Waste Hierarchy

Zero-waste is not only about sorting your waste properly after using or consuming an item but also about what you buy and how it is produced.  

The zero-waste hierarchy is a helpful tool for deciding the best course of action to achieve zero-waste. 

The hierarchy is: Inverted triangle with the 4Rs: Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

  1. Rethink 
  2. Reduce 
  3. Reuse 
  4. Recycle 

Circular Economy

Zero-waste is closely linked to the concept of a circular economy. 

According to UNCTAD, a circular economy is when:  

  • All forms of waste are returned to the economy, while residual waste is reduced to a minimum, 
  • The constant extraction of new resources is avoided, and 
  • The lifetime of products and materials is extended by reuse, repairing, sharing, and recycling. 

A circular economy is beneficial because it significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction through its reduction of raw material extraction. It can also boost economic growth and create jobs.  

Zero-Waste at McGill

1,485 tonnes The amount of landfill waste produced at McGill annually, equivalent to the weight of 13 blue whales.

Zero-Waste by 2035

An illustrated trash bin with a line through it to depict zero-waste by 2035.According to a 2018 waste audit conducted on campus, McGill’s landfill waste produces 540,000 kg of CO2 equivalent per year which is the equivalent of flying a Boeing 747 for 17.05 hours nonstop.

McGill aims to become zero-waste by 2035 by attaining a diversion rate of 90 percent, based on the Zero-Waste Alliance's internationally recognized standard. 

Reduce Your Waste

Using the Zero-Waste Hierarchy, here are some steps you can take on campus and beyond to reduce your waste. 


Waste is a global challenge, but the sustainable choices we make creates a positive change. It is up to all McGillians to rethink their consumption and address the waste they produce.  

Learn more about zero-waste  

Some ways you can learn more about rethinking your consumption on campus include:

  • Attend the Waste: What Goes Where? online workshop offered to staff each semester by the McGill Office of Sustainability and Organizational Development. This training will inform participants about how campus waste streams work, how to properly sort materials, and how this may differ from a remote working location.  
  • Attend the Zero-Waste Actions SKILLS21 online workshop offered to undergraduate students each semester by the McGill Office of Sustainability. Participants will leave this one-hour training with best practices and a better understanding of McGill’s waste reduction strategy. 
  • Apply to be a Zero-Waste Ambassador and build a culture of sustainability at McGill by sharing knowledge about waste reduction and diversion, fostering zero-waste and circular economy practices, and encouraging our community to re-think its waste. 
  • Become a Sustainable Workplace Ambassador and empower your coworkers to create meaningful and sustainable change, such as proper waste management, in their workplace. 
  • Host a sustainably certified event by receiving consultations, training, and resources on best practices for sustainable event practices, including how to reduce material waste generated by events on campus. 


Reduce the quantity of material and resources you consume and discard. 

Avoid single-use products  

Eliminating single-use items is especially effective when eating on campus because food-related waste and packaging represent a large portion of waste on campus.  Try making these zero-waste swaps:  

  • Bring a reusable mug for your coffee: As part of the Lug-A-Mug program, you'll get a discount on beverages when you bring your reusable drink container to participating locations on campus. 
  • Bring a reusable water bottle: Thanks to the Refill McGill campaign, McGill no longer sells bottled water on its campuses. Scope out the location of water fountains and taps near where you study or work. 
  • Carry reusable dishware and cutlery.  
  • Carry reusable bags.  
  • Take advantage of reusable dishware programs on campus:  
    • Using the Cano Co. Program helps avoid single-use packaging for your lunch on campus. Simply download the app and scan a QR code to borrow a container, bring it back, and earn rewards. Available at the Redpath Café.  
    • The Plate Club is a service provided by SSMU that provides the SSMU cafeteria and events on campus with reusable dishware free of charge.  
    • Ask food servers at NRH, RVC, BMH, CS, and La Citadelle to place your food in a reusable Ozzi container. Return your empty container and exchange it for a token at the Ozzi machines for your next use. 

Buy less

Buy only what you need. ​Avoid buying new things by sharing and swapping items.  For example, instead of buying a packaged lunch, try bringing your own. You can warm it up using one of the microwaves on campus

McGill Little Free Libraries (LFL) ​are designed for sharing books. Visitors are free to take a book and keep it, or return it when finished to any LFL on campus. LFL users can also provide a book of their own to an existing collection. 

Buy smarter/better 

When buying take-out or other items, try to avoid buying items wrapped in plastic or with excessive packaging. Prioritize items with minimal or easily recyclable packaging.  One great option is the McGill Farmers' Market, which offers local vegetable baskets with minimal packaging every Summer and Fall. 


Use products again, repair them, or repurpose them before replacing them. Give your old things a new life by donating them. 

On campus, this could take the form of: 

  • Reusing notebooks if they have not been filled 
  • Reusing plastic take-out containers and bags  
  • Buying refillable items, such as pens  
  • Repairing your itemsThe Flat Bike Collective provides an anti-oppressive space for all people to learn how to fix their bikes. 
  • Buying used textbooks. See the McGill Tribune’s guide to buying and selling textbooks for some great tips. 
  • Donating items you no longer have a use for. McGill has an initiative called the Winter Coat Project, which allows students to recycle winter coats and support students who are not prepared for Canada’s cold winters. 
  • Partnering with MealCare McGillto take your edible surplus food and deliver it to their food aid partners across Montreal if you are hosting an event on campus. 
  • Contacting Trash2Treasure (T2T), a carbon neutral collection service, during the spring move-out period to donate usable household articles such as furniture, clothes, books and electronics. 


Finally, when your waste needs to be disposed of, recycle what you can so waste can be reprocessed into new materials or compost organic matter so that it can be decomposed and returned to the soil.  A four-stream waste sorting station with floor decals indicating the compost, paper, and plastic waste streams.

At McGill, everyday waste is divided into four streams: 

  • Compost
  • Landfill 
  • Two recycling streams:
    • Paper and cardboard 
    • Plastic metal and glass

This is done to avoid contamination.

Learn more about what goes where at McGill and download the free Ça Va Où app to search how to sort over 1,000 items. 

Tips for Waste Sorting  

  • When in doubt, throw it out. Sorting materials in the wrong stream can lead to contamination of the compost and recycling streams, resulting in the whole bag being sent to the landfill.  
  • Separate packaging and products that are assembled with different materials. For example, separate lids from containers.  
  • Before sorting plastic into the yellow recycling stream, check for the triangle symbol on the item. If there is a #1,2,3,4,5 or 7 in the triangle, place the item in the yellow recycling stream. If there is a #6 in the triangle or no number at all, the plastic is not recyclable. Dispose of the item in the landfill stream.  
  • Food residue can contaminate other products in the recycling bin. Lightly rinse your plastic, glass, and metal containers and aluminum foil before disposing of them in the yellow recycling stream.  
  • Plastic and wax-lined paper are not recyclable or compostable. Place materials like wax-lined coffee cups and cardboard soup bowl lined with plastic in the landfill stream. 
  • Only clean and dry paper and cardboard go in the blue recycling stream.  
  • Paper that has been soiled or become wet can be placed in the brown compost stream, as long as it has not been in contact with chemicals.
  • Organic materials go in the brown compost stream. Anything that was once a living organism is considered an organic material, including food waste, paper products, and bamboo utensils.  

Zero-Waste Knowledge Test

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