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Shallow: Something, Something, Recycle

July 10, 2011
Picture of a truck dumping garbage in a landfill.

Due to overwhelmed landfills in 1989, we were supposed to cut waste by 50% by the year 2000. Are we no longer as concerned about our dumps as we are about global warming?

Canada’s soiled reputation as a leading environmentalist country owes much of itself to its resource development initiatives. We frame our global warming dissonance around our oil sands, industrial carbon emission rates, and other things apparently completely beyond our control. Our economic initiatives have become unattractive realities that give our identity an edge, just like our seal clubbing tradition and our belligerent claim to our own arctic waters. It doesn’t matter if we’ve become ranked one of the least attractive countries for energy development due to environmental reasons.
And it also doesn’t matter that according to our oil-bucks Prime Minister we have virtually no choice but to drill the Arctic or we will lose it to the Russians, or worse still the Americans.
We can afford to do that, as long as we’re not-American enough to recycle.
At least westerners can.

A 2008 survey conducted by Angus Reid Strategies concluded that fifty-eight percent of Canadians claim to recycle their waste appropriately, apart from Saskatchewan and Manitoba where average recycling rates are seventy percent. Impressive numbers, considering that in certain provinces (such as Québec) curb-side pickups are only available to about seventy percent of the population. Recycling and waste management systems vary dramatically from province to province, as do the results. Alberta, the province to receive the sharpest environmental criticisms for the past decade, boasts the best deposit-return program success rates nationwide at eighty-two percent overall recovery. The Albertan beverage container recycling program is also the only one to include all forms of beverage container (including milk), and unlike Québec return-to-retail (and its twenty-five percent loss rate) Alberta manages all this exclusively through province-wide depositories. A 2007 Statistics Canada study also concluded that “Recycling behavior was most strongly associated with the type of recycling program that was available to the household.”

While it might not seem feasible to compare the handling our soda cans and juice cartons to the sort of damage petroleum industry development is known for, it is an issue we as citizens are equally if not solely responsible for. The consequences for a failure in waste reduction have been stressed as urgent priorities in Canadian waste management policy for over two decades. In April 1989, the Canadian Council of Resource and Environment Ministers concluded that by the year 2000, Canadian waste output (in total) would have to be reduced by fifty percent in order to deal with over ten thousand overcrowded landfill sites nation-wide. Since then the Canadian population has grown twenty-seven percent, and as of 2005 we produce forty percent of the country’s total solid waste via ordinary household consumption. Relative to year 2000 goals, in order to maintain low environmental damage at landfill sites we would now have to cut down on 1514 tonnes of waste daily instead of 1352 tonnes. A decade ago. Somewhere between then and fifty-eight percent of us recycling only thirty percent of our waste, population growth and up to a quarter of recyclable waste never being recovered by recycling programs in certain provinces, we’ve fallen short. Two-thirds short.

So what is environmental policy missing in regards to effective waste management? The other two R’s: Reduce, Reuse.
Domestic recycling itself requires a great deal of energy that often is not replaced by the direct economic value of the finished recycled product itself. While many industries directly benefit from recycling, other large businesses who’ve been fingered for contributing negatively to littering issues (like McDonald’s Hamburgers) have funded studies examining the cost-effectiveness of recyclable materials themselves versus reusable and durable options that reduce consumption, and have consistently concluded the superior value of “reduce and reuse” to “recycle”. While recycling itself makes up only about a third of Canadian domestic waste output, Statistics Canada also finds it comprises over fifty percent of the 1.5 billion dollars Canadian municipalities spend annually on waste management.
In a North American market facing ever-increasing costs of living, those who remain skeptical of environmental consumerism most frequently cite the costs of buying ‘green products’ (or those made up mostly of recycled materials) as their primary deterrent. At the same time, these same Canadian consumers are more than happy to spend money on tonnes of packaging daily, all destined for the same expensive recycling process that drives up the cost of green products. And a third of the entire waste stream to landfills in Canada is packaging-based. The financial impacts of household product packaging disposal to our waste management systems ought to be seriously quantified by the government if it intends to keep anywhere remotely near its own waste reduction goals. Although packaging constitutes only one component of excess waste found in our landfills, it is an obvious one that remains to be directly addressed by any meaningful legal objective. Our landfills are brimming with garbage produced for the purpose of quickly being discarded; grocery bags, plastic, paper and styrofoam complimentary products, food and goods packaging, all non-essential products that are costing our cities hundreds of millions of dollars annually. If there’s a way for Canada to regain its former reputation for concern for the environment, it would be by having the least wasteful domestic consumption rates among leading nations.

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