by Barry Friesen, General Manager of Cleanfarms Inc. and an Etobicoke, Ontario Rotarian

Imagine hosting a dinner party for 100,000 people.  Where do you seat them? Where do they park? Where do you find enough food to feed them?  And the overflow of packaging and compostables in your green and blue bins would fill a house.

Volunteer staff sorting waste at the recycling station

That’s what the Etobicoke Rotary has done for 18 years with its Toronto Ribfest held in Centennial Park, Toronto to celebrate Canada Day and raise money for charity. Typically, 100,000 people over four days enjoy ribs, music, friendship and fellowship, all the while raising money for important causes.

Toronto Ribfest

A small army of volunteers from Etobicoke Rotary spends a year planning and then executing the event.

The volunteers plan for: parking, entry, food, on-site activities, health and safety, emergency routes and of course, managing the waste generated at the event.

My assignment, carried out during my ‘spare’ time, is to manage City permits, fencing, toilets, grey water collection, grease collection, electrical systems and, closest to my heart, waste-resource management. To add to this complicated task, several years ago we went ‘Zero Waste’.

I’ve been a waste management professional for most of my engineering career and currently run Cleanfarms, an industry-led company that operates across the country. While we manage a different waste stream, picking up agricultural wastes from over 1,200 collection locations, I do know that designing the right system is key to success.  It needs to be convenient and efficient for users or they simply won’t participate.

So, while the Toronto Ribfest is more modest in comparison, it’s definitely challenging- as Blue Box program operators will know, but we started small and are continuing to expand an ‘on-site’ public space diversion programs for this event. Our original waste diversion program consisted of gathering beer cans for the deposit-refund – not a tremendous diversion rate, but it was a start!

Of course, the rule of thumb for any waste project is to understand what is being generated. For Ribfest, there are two kinds of waste – in front of the counter and behind the counter.  Each is managed differently but both can be separated into three streams – organics, recycling and waste.  Here’s how we do it.

Front of the Counter Waste

Clamshell containers, napkins, small cups for sauces, drink containers and, of course, food waste comprise front of counter waste. To achieve diversion goals, volunteers hand sort waste into various streams.  And to ensure ease in sorting, our vendor contracts specify wooden cutlery, paper napkins (no non-recyclable wet-naps), paper straws, paper cups for sauces and compostable fibre clamshell containers to limit non-recyclable and non-compostable waste.

The Ribfest ‘zero waste kit’ with compostable, recyclable, reusable components

We took these seven steps to reduce front counter waste:

  1. Situated 10 strategically-located recycling tents where volunteers separated waste into four streams – recycling, deposit beer cans, composting and waste.
  2. Used clear plastic bags for garbage and recycling to facilitate sorting.
  3. Separated beer cans for deposit-refunds and the remaining non-deposit drink containers for recycling.
  4. Mandated a compostable paper straw this year because plastic straws proved too hard to separate from remaining waste.
  5. Eliminated ‘wet-naps’ and set up sanitizer stands at recycling stations and hot wash stations at four washroom areas for patrons to clean their hands.
  6. Eliminated most garbage cans. As exceptions, we put garbage cans at washroom stations for paper towel waste and at park exits to capture beer cans; these wastes were sorted later into proper streams.
  7. Placed organics in paper leaf and yard waste bags donated by Canadian Tire.

We placed five dumpsters provided by Miller Waste just outside the festival boundary. Accessible only by staff, they were labelled for old corrugated cardboard (OCC), recycling, garbage and two for organics.

Miller Waste emptied the dumpsters daily into dedicated rear packer trucks.

Organics and waste went to Walker Environmental to manage. The City of Toronto was the destination for recycling and OCC. Beer cans were returned to the Beer Store.

Behind the Counter Waste

Behind the counter waste is made up of corrugated cardboard, large cans, plastic pails, stretch wrap, bottles, organics and varying amounts of garbage, most of which is recyclable or compostable.  We provided vendors with clear plastic bags and organic yard waste bags.  The vendor’s job was to separate the waste – easy to do.  Our job was to pick it up and take it to the proper dumpster.

Lessons learned on our journey to zero waste.

There are many lessons we learned on our journey and many more we will still encounter.  Of all of them, I would point out a few.  First, it took us almost five years to get to our ‘sweet spot’ where things just seem to work. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and likewise, our waste diversion plan has been tweaked over a few events.

Another thing we learned is that there are side benefits to good programming.  Litter, for instance, has been down substantively since we started.  When patrons of the event see the service they receive, they appreciate it and go out of their way to help in other ways like reducing litter in the rest of the park.

Another key to success is ensuring we have a master sorter. We found one and each year sorting improved to a point where there is no need for retraining each year.

Rotary Etobicoke’s Toronto Ribfest – By the Numbers

Ribbers (BBQing and serving ribs)

Other food vendors13
Recycling Stations10
Garbage cans throughout the park6
Man-hours in the recycling/sorting tents1,200
Man-hours moving waste from tents to dumpsters840
Total amount of solid waste (tonnes)23.46
Total amount of organic (tonnes)12.42 (53%)
Total amount of recycling (tonnes)5.36 (23%)
Total amount of landfilled waste (tonnes)5.68 (24%)
Total waste diversion76%*

*During the first three days the actual diversion was 87%, but considerable other waste created at the end of the event brought the diversion number down.)

Where to Next?

In 2018, we achieved 76% waste diversion.  That’s a far cry from the few beer cans we recycled in the past.  The City of Toronto has a goal of 70% waste diversion and we’ve beaten that. But should we stop now?  I know we can do better. I’ve seen what goes into our waste bin and know there is still a lot more we can do. In fact, knowing that we achieved 87% diversion our first three days is testament to what can be done, not just at the Toronto Ribfest but maybe also at other events around the province.

For more information, email Barry Friesen.