Tuesday, January 15, 2008


In the wake of the Season of Gluttony and Excess comes a timely and cautionary tale out of Naples, Italy. A few short days before Christmas it was announced that there was no room at the dump. With no place to put the southern region's waste, garbage collectors stopped picking up trash on December 21st. As of last Monday, an estimated 100,000 tonnes of trash had accumulated on streets throughout Italy's Campania region.

What's interesting about this story is that the current crisis didn't just happen. Officials have spent more than 14 years and approximately 2 billion euros (or about 3 billion dollars Canadian) looking for a solution to its growing garbage problem. A massive new garbage incinerator scheduled for completion at the end of 2007 is still not ready. Meanwhile, the reeking piles of rotting waste continue to mount, moving the crisis from one of gross political mismanagement to a very clear and present health danger.

What makes this situation truly dire is that southern Italy is not alone in this crisis. Cities and regions throughout the developed world are all writhing in the painful, awkward agony of excess. The people who don't want a dump in their backyards are the same people for whom the dump is being built - those endless crowds of people that pile of out Wal-Mart on any given Saturday, or Sunday for that matter, bags of stuff gleefully in hand.

The bottom line: How much stuff is enough? We shop because we can, not because we need. We shouldn't be so excessful.

The problem is that as a society we are addicted to cheap consumer goods. Instead of wasting billions of dollars on new stuff, and many more billion dollars looking for a place to dispose of our old stuff, we need to fess up to the real problem. It's garbage in, garbage out. If we really want a long term solution to the garbage crisis, we need to stop making it in the first place - granted that this is something that this so much easier said than done.

Meanwhile, the piles are getting higher and we're running out of options. 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.

The solution we're increasingly relying on is waste diversion such as the blue box and green bin programs. But even after 20 years of trying, we're only now closing in on a 50 percent diversion rate. It's important to note two things: this is only 50 percent of residential waste that is being diverted and the total volume of what we're discarding is increasing. We're not getting better at reducing our waste, we're just getting more sophisticated at sorting our waste into piles.

To further complicate matters, recycling markets can be volatile and unpredictable, as Toronto recently discovered. Last month The Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Association suspended operations at its Mississauga facility, thus placing the city's aggressive diversion targets in jeopardy.

Other jurisdictions are trying to promote incinerators (or the more politically correct "energy-from-waste" facilities) as a solution. What they don't own up to is the fact that burning trash doesn't eliminate the need for a landfill, it just makes a smaller and much more toxic pile that needs to be disposed of.

As the citizens of Naples are now discovering, the battle between politicians and the multi-billion dollar waste industry is a dance without end. When the music stops, the bags of garbage will still be at the curb waiting for pick up. And when there is no place to take them, the issue of waste management stops being a political issue and becomes a very real health crisis.


How much stuff do we really need? The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled online video that looks at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. It exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It'll teach you something, it'll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever. Well worth checking out at www.storyofstuff.com.

The Grassroots Recycling Network goes way beyond simple 3Rs. For more information about extender producer responsibility, zero waste and other ways to reduce our impact on the planet (and our garbage), visit www.grrn.org.


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