Furniture Bank here in Toronto has been tracking data outputs for 10 years now. We all know that throwing a good couch or bed into landfill is a dramatic waste when we see it, and look to find clever ways to change behaviours. We are seeing a lot of movement and success engaging government and zero waste leaders explaining the role that organizations like us permit in the discussion of diversion and reducing carbon impact.
Last week I was fortunate to have a Calvin Lakhan from The Waste Wiki at York University visit us for a tour and to discuss his preliminary results on the top level LCA impact of a furniture bank.
Furniture Banks in general lead with the lives changed, children and families supported, and beds given. We generally do not lead with discussing how the social work we do has a knock on benefit to zero waste / landfill goals of local municipalities. Calvin was kind enough to highlight some less popular areas for more diversion – one being furniture, and connecting that diversion to local furniture banks. I have pulled the excerpt from his Linkedin report below – ‘Diversion with Purpose’
YOU CAN SEE IT (AND SHARE IT) ON LINKEDIN HERE: DIVERT WITH PURPOSE
Where will our next diverted tonne come from? Diversion with a purpose
Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University … See more
Provincial diversion rates have largely stalled in the past five years, and in fact, is trending downwards for the first time in more than two decades. The reason for this stagnation is heavily debated – some point to the proliferation of light weight packaging, while others suggest municipal inefficiency and lack of applicable legislation. Whatever the cause, the reality is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to divert “the marginal tonne”- where will our next diverted tonne come from? What will it cost? And what will be the environmental, economic and social benefit? What makes this issue particularly salient is that municipalities across Canada continue to set lofty diversion targets as a first step towards achieving a circular, zero waste economy.
The next tonne will not come from printed paper and packaging (Blue Box)
Furniture – A Missed Opportunity
Much like textiles, there is no prescriptive legislation for how furniture waste should be managed. In most instances, households bare the physical and financial responsibility for transporting furniture waste to landfills, and will often rely on “junk” collectors to provide this service.
While furniture waste generation is highly variable (depending on locality, season etc.), a review of Ontario waste audits suggests that furniture and white good waste makes up approximately 5% of the overall waste stream, representing approximately 125,000 tonnes of material annually.
However, unlike textiles, end of life furniture does not have a value (or at the very least, it is highly dependent on the item, and site/situation specific factors). As such, collectors have to be financially incented, with the generator (in most cases the household) paying to have items removed and sent to landfill.
Municipalities have traditionally played a limited role in managing these items, but what role can a municipality play in not only supporting keeping these items out of landfills, but maximizing social and environmental outcomes as well?
Charitable Initiatives – The Furniture Bank Case Study
Furniture Bank is a Toronto based charity and social enterprise that helps marginalized and at risk families furnish their homes. Furniture bank accepts gently used furniture and other household items, distributing them to families in need. This initiative helps divert more than 1500 tonnes of material from Toronto landfills annually, but perhaps more importantly, serves more than 5000 local clients in need on an annual basis.
In strictly economic terms, the City of Toronto benefits through avoided landfill tipping fee costs (as well as collection costs for large, bulky items), while the province benefits through the provision of a social service to marginalized communities (without incurring a direct cost).
Since 2010, furniture bank has diverted almost 10,000T of furniture/household wares from landfills, which has had an enormous environmental impact for Ontario (shown in figure 3):
Given that the vast majority of furniture waste (as noted earlier, in excess of 125,000 tonnes) is ending up in our landfills, there is an enormous opportunity not only to increase diversion rates, but achieve a truly sustainable outcome.
Leveraging organizations such as Furniture Bank (to serve as a used furniture collector) provides a rare opportunity to address all three pillars of a sustainable waste management program. We are able to increase diversion from landfills (environment), while transferring costs away from local government (economic) and simultaneously support social impact initiatives (social).
As noted earlier, research suggests that Ontarians express a strong desire to support social initiatives and charities through waste donations (used textiles, furniture etc.). In a two year study conducted by York University, households were more than twice as likely to donate their used materials to a designated charitable collector.
Diversion with a purpose
Waste management (at least in a Canadian context) has historically not been seen through the lens of social sustainability. It is largely seen as a service provided by municipalities, to help keep material out of landfills and promote circularity.
However, as we look to increase diversion rates, we have to ask ourselves two questions:
1) Where will the next diverted tonne come from? And
2) What do I want achieve by diverting more material?
As noted earlier, conventional means and mediums of diversion (i.e. Blue Box) have been exhausted – the next diverted tonne is not likely to come from newsprint or cardboard, but from organics, textiles and furniture.
In addition to finding new opportunities to divert material, what are we trying to achieve by doing so? Is it good enough just to keep material out of landfills, or should we seek to identify ways to maximize economic and social outcomes as well?
This article hopes to highlight that it is possible to “divert with a purpose” – municipalities (and the province) can play a critical role in supporting waste collectors that have a mission beyond “managing waste”, and look to improve the lives and well-being of Ontarians.
The opportunity isn’t just about the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material not currently being diverted, but the thousands people that benefit through strategic prioritization of material streams and waste collectors.