One person’s junk … can be a child’s treasure

Compass Early Learning and Care is diverting waste by turning it into children’s toys. With our landfill approaching capacity, we need more creative projects like this one.

In a small warehouse and office space just outside of Peterborough, a plethora of discarded, rejected and obsolete objects are being collected. The warehouse is filling to the rafters with items that might otherwise have ended up in the local landfill: used muffin tins, old bike tires, discarded roller blade wheels.

But these objects are getting a second lease on life: local childcare and education provider Compass Early Learning and Care is repurposing them into educational materials for children. 

The recycled toys are called “loose parts,” a term that was coined decades ago to describe common objects that children can manipulate and play with as they learn about the world. Loose parts differ from conventional toys because their purpose is not immediately apparent to children, giving them more freedom to engage with the items creatively.

“Children naturally see possibilities in things that we may only see as singular,” says Angela Hoar, who coordinates Compass’s loose parts program. “Sometimes, when I offer them a material, I don’t even know what they can do with it. And I watch the children come up with 10 or 15 really cool ways to engage with it in an instant.”

Hoar points out that children are naturally drawn to the objects that adults show an interest in, and that anything can be a toy as long as children are given the chance to use their imaginations and think creatively.

A glimpse inside the Compass loose parts warehouse and gallery. Even the most common object can capture a child’s imagination, as long as it’s offered in a creative way, says Angela Hoar, who coordinates the loose parts program. (Photos, top: Courtesy of Compass Early Learning and Care. Photo, bottom: Will Pearson)

While the theory of loose parts predates our contemporary environmental consciousness, it’s clear now that the idea also responds to an environmental imperative.

“We’re really thinking about sustainability,” Hoar says. “We’re making sure that we are redirecting stuff from landfills and incinerators, and offering it back to the children.”

Compass has partnerships with local businesses to accept their used items and other waste at the loose parts warehouse. Rocky Ridge donates used bottles, for example, and B!KE contributes old bike parts. Once objects arrive at the warehouse, Hoar and volunteers process the items to make sure they’re safe and then find creative ways to present them to children to play with. 

Hoar estimates that about half of the toys and educational materials in Compass classrooms are now sourced from the loose parts warehouse, but the goal is to increase that amount. And once she grows the collection enough, Hoar says Compass hopes to start lending its loose parts to other childcare providers and even the local school system, which could make a sizable dent in the amount of single-purpose toys purchased and used by these institutions. 

Peterborough is running out of landfill space

Hoar estimates that Compass’s loose parts program has diverted thousands of pounds of materials away from the landfill. That’s not insignificant. But it equals about one tonne — and that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 47,000 tonnes of garbage that got thrown into the Peterborough landfill in 2019.

Like landfills across the province, Peterborough’s Bensfort Road facility is approaching its capacity. The landfill opened in 1981 and expanded about ten years ago. Millions of tonnes of garbage, from both the City and County of Peterborough, have been buried there to date. 

According to the City of Peterborough’s waste diversion manager Dave Douglas, the local landfill has about 13 to 15 years of capacity left before it is full. “So the more material we can divert, the longer we can use it,” he writes.

Peterborough’s waste diversion rate is currently over 50 percent, Douglas says. That means over half of the waste disposed of by local residents is diverted from the landfill — either through the blue box program, yard waste pickup and composting, or periphery programs like battery collection, mattress collection and scrap metal drop-off. 

Douglas says the long-term goal is to reach a diversion rate of 80 percent, and that the municipal green bin composting program expected to commence in 2023 will be significant in reaching that target.

But the city’s diversion rate doesn’t tell the whole story. It only accounts for the city’s residential sector, which only produces about one-third of the waste generated in Peterborough.

So while about 7,200 tonnes of waste was diverted from Peterborough’s residential sector in 2019, waste from other sectors contributed to the 47,000 tonnes deposited in our landfill in the same year.

This is partly because the province only requires diversion for the residential sector. And since depositing waste in a landfill is often less expensive than recycling it, institutions and businesses can’t be counted on to voluntarily divert their waste.

“The single biggest factor in Ontario’s poor waste diversion record is the lack of attention to nonresidential waste,” stated a 2017 report from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

In October, the provincial government released a draft copy of new regulations that will govern blue box programs starting in 2023. Among the changes, the financial burden of operating blue box programs will shift from municipalities to the producers of recyclable materials — the companies that manufacture and use paper and packaging. Ontario municipalities have long lobbied for this change, which could incentivize companies to produce more recycling-friendly packaging, or less packaging altogether. 

But the new regulations do not make significant changes to sectors other than the residential one. That leaves the largest producers of waste to continue operating under less demanding regulations. When it introduced the new regulations last year, the province acknowledged that the institutional, commercial and industrial sectors contribute significantly to Ontario’s waste, and stated that it “intends to move forward to reform” the waste framework for non-residential sectors in the coming months. 

What is Peterborough’s waste plan?

Over the next few years, Peterborough will have to start planning for when its landfill reaches capacity. Douglas says a full review of all possible options will be required in 2024. 

Our community will likely be making these decisions alongside the rest of the province. According to a 2018 report from the Ontario Waste Management Association, Ontario’s overall landfill capacity is expected to be reached by 2032, assuming the province continues to export waste to the United States at its current rate (about one-third of Ontario’s waste is exported to Michigan and New York State, where it is landfilled). 

But there are other options. This week, Peterborough County Council will receive a report promoting the idea of an energy-from-waste incineration facility. The report suggests that such a facility could eliminate the need for landfills altogether.

At least one city councillor, Henry Clarke, has expressed enthusiasm for that idea.

But critics of waste-to-energy incineration argue that it de-incentivizes a more important goal: reducing waste to begin with and reusing materials.

Whatever decisions get made in the coming years regarding Peterborough’s waste management future, initiatives that help to reduce and reuse, like the loose parts program at Compass, will likely continue to be the most effective and economical way to respond to the problem of waste.

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