Getting to zero

A passion for reducing waste is at the heart of a local consultant's business

Mary Jean O'Donnell, a waste reduction consultant, points to the pile of garbage that is typical of a local landfill. "This is 'away'—where it goes when people say they're throwing something away."

If there’s one thing Mary Jean O’Donnell is passionate about, it’s the idea of eliminating—or certainly minimizing—the waste that people and industry generates.

Her e-mail address—[email protected]—may be one of the best expressions of that. But so is one of her favourite expressions as she stands near a pile of refuse at a local dump.

“This,” she points at a pile of refuse at a local dump, “is ‘away.’ When people say they’re throwing stuff away, this is where it ends up.”

O’Donnell, through the consulting company she’s operated since February 1999, is passionate about helping organizations take action to eliminate the waste they generate.

But while she’s optimistic about how to make that happen, she’s also realistic.

“People don’t do things out of altruism,” says O’Donnell, who graduated first from SCITS high school in Sarnia and following that, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in geography from University of British Columbia.

It was in B.C. that O’Donnell went to work, although the idea of a geography degree turning into a career related to the environment might be considered a stretch at first glance.

“I first got involved in the environmental club,” she says, referring to her university days at a time when there were no formal recycling programs in existence. “I got involved and really became fascinated with the whole idea of garbage and what it meant.”

From there, O’Donnell essentially became obsessed—in a good way—with the subject.

“I was really blessed with some wonderful teachers,” she says. “They basically let me study the subject and I often say what I ended up with was a degree in ‘garbology.'”

Once graduated from UBC, O’Donnell began working for the university, eventually becoming director of operations at one of its campuses.

When she launched her own business, O’Donnell gradually became known for her “infectious enthusiasm.”

And her results.

One of her clients, Mountain Equipment Coop, which is headquartered in Vancouver, was able, with O’Donnell’s help, to eventually reduce its waste by more than 90% in a process that took about eight years.

“It doesn’t happen over night,” she says today. “In the short term, there were some very quick returns, but you have to be very creative to get to the point where they are today.”

And then there was Vancouver International Airport, which has reached 38% diversion of its waste stream. When O’Donnell began her work there, the airport was diverting just 20% of its waste.

With 1.5 million passengers a year coming through the facility, O’Donnell says the waste reduction strategy is, quite literally, a moving target.

“Part of the work is going in and analyzing the system, discovering how and why the waste is generated and then developing that understanding of how to either eliminate the waste or divert it to a recycle program,” she says. “What we do is help them with those choices.”

Since moving back to Sarnia in 2009, O’Donnell has worked with a number of local hotels as well as Bluewater Power and the City of Sarnia.

O’Donnell’s company typically hires contract staff “as needed” for various projects she undertakes.

One thing she doesn’t do is get discouraged when she sees things going on that run counter to her ethos about reducing/eliminating waste.

“Because I’ve been doing it for almost 25 years, nothing bothers me anymore,” says O’Donnell. “What I do is try to do something positive every day. And I try not to judge what others do. Yes, there is always something that can be done but we try to take one step at a time.”

Even something like having recycle or trash bins in the right place can make a difference, she says.

“It may seem like a boring thing, but it has to be done. Watching what people do when they come up to a garbage can—we call it ‘structured observation’—is part of what can make a difference.”

It’s also a seemingly never-ending pursuit, something O’Donnell has dedicated much of her career toward making a difference.

O’Donnell can be reached online at

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