On the grand scale of things, perhaps our greatest distinction is that we are the only species on the planet whose waste isn't completely recycled as food or shelter for other beings. Whether you call it trash, garbage or waste, this massive by-product of our creative abilities is a major problem.
"In nature there can be no waste," states the Waste Reduction Week Municipal Resource Kit. "Everything produced is used as a resource by some other living organism. There is a continuous cycling of the elements."
And therein lies the heart of the matter. Our many accomplishments have led us to believe, rather erroneously, that we are completely separate from nature. This misunderstanding stems from our proven ability to isolate and protect ourselves from the vastness of the planet we inhabit.
History tells us we've been leaving our mess behind for thousands of years. (Where would archeologists be without all those ancient bits of broken pots and other trinkets to analyze?) Until the later part of the last century, we always managed to find someplace to put our leftovers.
But even our big beautiful planet has its limits. Given the sheer volume of garbage we discard, it's not surprising. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians discard 31 million tonnes of waste annually, which makes us the second largest producers of garbage in the world. That's about 2.7 kilograms per person, per day. Only our American cousins throw out more stuff than we do.
Curbside recycling has been successful at diverting some of this waste, but it's important to note that blue box programs are only for residential customers. This sector contributes 40 percent to the total waste stream. The remaining garbage comes from commercial, industrial, construction and demolition sources. When you factor everything together, we divert less than 25 percent of our garbage.
In the hierarchy of waste management - commonly known as the 3Rs - recycling is considered to be the third best option. That's because it doesn't reduce the amount of stuff we throw out. Recycling merely allows us to capture some of our waste and use it to create new stuff to throw out.
Consider this: before curbside programs we threw everything in the garbage can. Now we have the option of dividing our waste between the garbage can, black bag, blue box and green bin. It's better than nothing, but it does precious little to address the real issue, which is our unbridled and unsustainable use of the planet's finite resources.
Recycling also creates a whole new myriad of problems. For example, recycling paper creates millions of tonnes of non-recoverable, toxic sludge we classify as fertilizer in order to allow us to dump it onto farmland.
The first R, reduction, calls upon us to use less. Given that our global economy is driven by the need to continuously expand, it's small wonder that the idea of reducing our wastes (and by implication our consumption) has not really taken hold.
Likewise, the second R, reuse, is counterproductive to the need to increase corporate profits. For example, refillable bottles went the way of the dodo bird when the soft drink manufacturers calculated that it was a lot cheaper to subsidize recycling programs (which puts the onus on the consumer) than it was to collect and refill bottles (which puts the onus on the producer). This is precisely why the soft drink industry paid handsomely to set up Ontario's highly successful blue box recycling program.
As history has proven, we are so much smarter than this. October 15 to 21, 2007, is Waste Reduction Week in Canada - a great time for us to take a long hard look at our wasteful ways. The best way to begin to reduce our waste is to figure out what we're throwing out. Conduct a waste audit at home, at work and/or at school, set real reduction targets and monitor your progress.
For great resources for municipalities, schools, businesses and individuals, including the WRW Municipal Resource Kit, to find out what's happening across Canada, or to link to other resources, visit www.wrwcanada.com.