Monday, October 17, 2005

Waste Reduction Week

October 17 to 23 is Waste Reduction Week in Canada. Despite our best efforts to reduce our waste through recycling programs, Canadians still rank as some of the biggest garbage producers in the world. The problem is that as fast as we figure out a way to recycle one kind of waste, we are introduced to a new generation of consumer products. These new products create more waste that also requires disposal of some kind.

It's a vicious cycle. In order to break it, we need to revisit the 3Rs of waste management. They are, in order of importance, reduce, reuse and then recycle. I'd like to put "rethink" and "refuse" at the top of that list.

We live in a society of excess. We have more, do more and eat more than any previous generation. The result is that we are the most overweight and indebted generation in history. According to Australian economist Clive Hamilton, this gross consumerism is driven by a need to grow our economies.

"But how does the economy achieve growth in a time of abundance, when everybody has what they need?" wrote British journalist William Leith. "By making them want what they don't have, of course."

Consider one of our most trendy accessories - bottled water. I was sitting in a coffee shop last week, when a man approached the woman sitting at the table next to me and began handing her a glass of water. Before he could place it on the table, she waved him off in panic.

"Not THAT kind of water," she said. "Bring me bottled water, please!"

While her somewhat dazed partner went back to the counter to fulfill her demands, I had to ask her, "Why bottled water?"

The woman explained that she never drank water from the tap, even at home, because water sits in the pipes a long time and she heard that there might be lead in the pipes. I was tempted to ask her just how long she thought water sat in plastic bottles, but I thought better of it when I realized that I was carrying my own bottle of water with me, (albeit one that I had refilled several times from my kitchen tap.)

For generations we all drank water out of the tap without so much as a second thought. Suddenly, all that has changed. As Maude Barlow writes in "Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of The World's Water Supply", bottled water has become one of the fastest growing (and least regulated) industries in the world. Global volumes have grown from 300 million gallons in the 1970s, by Barlow's estimates, to a staggering 40 billion gallons in 2004, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. The majority of this water (an estimated 90 percent) is contained in plastic bottles, all of which have to be disposed of.

Only about half of these bottles ever find their way into recycling programs. But even these bottles aren't recycled into new ones. The problem is that the melting temperature of these plastics (mostly polyethylene terephthalate or PET) isn't high enough to destroy bacteria, so the recovered material is "down-cycled" into other consumer goods such as carpets and insulation. Virgin plastic is required for each new bottle of water that we buy, contributing to the estimated one trillion pounds of plastic that we produce every year. Keep in mind that plastic is made from oil, a non-renewable resource.

And then there's the economic cost associated with buying bottled water. According to the American Water Works Association, one bottle of water costs about the same as 1,000 gallons of tap water delivered to your home faucet.

And that's just bottled water. Multiply this by the thousands of new consumer products that are introduced every day to boost the corporate bottom line and it quickly becomes apparent that uncontrolled consumerism is not sustainable.

Consider the success of single-use products. In just a few years, everything from single-use dusters to single-use toothbrushes have become must-haves for consumers, while creating a billion dollar industry in the process.

We have to be smarter than this. So in honour of Waste Reduction Week, I think it's time to stop, rethink our priorities and then refuse to buy into gross consumerism.


Waste Reduction Week

The International Bottled Water Association

Maude Barlow's booklet, "Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of The World's Water Supply", is available online at Council of Canadians


William Leith's book, "The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict" (Random House, 2005) is a brilliant portrait of how excess is ruining our society and our health.


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