Sunday, April 01, 2007


These days it's hard not to feel defeated. We are constantly bombarded with really serious stuff. Global climate change is imminent, countless species appear to be facing extinction, while the demand for landfill space and energy supply grows exponentially. With so much bad news in the headlines, it's easy to forget that we've actually made some substantial progress over the last twenty years. Maybe if we focused a little more on the good news, we might be able to regain the one thing that seems to be missing these days, and that's hope.

Since hope supposedly springs eternal, and spring's finally here, it's time to reflect on the positive changes we’ve made in the last two decades.

For starters, there's ol' blue. Curbside recycling in Ontario began as a corporately funded strategy to keep the provincial government from enforcing refillable quotas for soft drink containers. Once the corporate funding ran out it quickly became a losing proposition. Municipalities were stuck with the bill of paying for the convenience of having taxpayers divide their garbage into two piles instead of one. However, recent improvements to the funding formula, made possible by Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO), means that industry now pays for half the cost of residential curbside recycling programs.

With steady funding and more stable markets for recyclable materials, municipal governments have been able to expand their waste recovery programs. The past few years has seen the introduction of curbside green bin programs, which effectively take the stinky stuff out of the waste stream and turn it into valuable compost. The result is that many municipalities are diverting as much as 70 percent of their waste stream. That's progress.

That's also an amazing educational opportunity. The success of the green bin program has apparently translated into a greater understanding of the value of organic materials. Twenty years ago you couldn't give compost away. Today, consumers are clamoring for the stuff that they put out at the end of the driveway last year, to spread on their gardens this year. What this is effectively teaching the average homeowner is that they don't have to rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticide to maintain their lawns and gardens.

This awareness has translated into 125 municipalities that have already passed pesticide bylaws. That number will continue to grow as politicians get the message that the unrestricted use of pesticides is about as socially unacceptable as public smoking became a few years ago.

And that's another amazing sign that we're making real progress. Twenty years ago you could smoke virtually anywhere, anytime. Anyone who didn't like it could literally leave. Slowly, but very surely, one municipality after another passed local bans on public smoking. Eventually, these bans reached a politically critical mass and today we have a province-wide ban. It really is only a matter of time before pesticides meet the same well-deserved fate.

And then there’s the compact fluorescent light bulb. Twenty years ago, a single CFL bulb cost as much as $ 20. To make matters worse, the bulbs were so oversized and ugly that they didn't fit in most fixtures (nor would you want them to.) The light they radiated was harsh and cold. Today, CFL bulbs cost about one-tenth the price they did twenty years ago, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes and radiate a much more natural light. You can even (finally) purchase CFLs that can be used with a dimmer switch. These efficient little miracles can be used just about everywhere and effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to Energy Star, "Every CFL can prevent more than 450 pounds of emissions from a power plant over its lifetime." Who says we aren't making progress?

Which brings me to the most hopeful sign of all. We've quite literally seen the light. The issues that are making headlines today aren't new. They've been around for 20, 40, or 50 years or more. What is different is that we are finally waking up to need for serious change. And that's the most hopeful sign of all.

It's only a matter of time before we see the kind of government action, tougher regulations and product innovation that is so desperately needed. The truth is that when the people lead, eventually the leaders have to follow.


For more on Waste Diversion Ontario,

Energy Star offers a complete buyer’s guide for compact fluorescent bulbs and other energy-efficient products and services.


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