Sunday, October 19, 2008

Waste Not

Ontario’s blue box program is probably one of the most successful public awareness campaigns ever launched. It may also be one of the most disastrous.

It’s estimated that 95 percent of homes currently have access to curbside recycling programs. Of those, a whopping 98 percent use their blue boxes to recycle waste items on a weekly basis. In addition, the increased availability of curbside organics recycling means that we are able to divert more and more of our waste. As a result, municipal diversion rates in many Ontario cities exceed 50 percent, with some reaching even further. In 2007, the Town of Markham boasted a 70 percent diversion rate – the highest in the province.

All this makes us feel wonderfully responsible and eco-friendly - and therein lies the problem. For starters, curbside programs, as the name suggests, are largely restricted to residents with curbs. Despite all promises to the contrary, residential recycling programs for apartments, townhouses and other multi-residential units are still in their infancy.

For example, in 2007, Toronto boasted a single-family residential diversion rate of 59 percent. Factor in the multi-family residential rate of only 13 percent, and Toronto’s total residential diversion rate drops to 42 percent.

It is important to note that the key word here is residential. With only 30 to 40 percent of our waste being generated at home, our total diversion rate is less than 25 percent. According to the Waste Reduction Week handbook, “The remainder (is) coming from commercial, industrial, construction and demolition sources.” In total Canadians produce more than 31 million tonnes of waste annually, or about 2.7 kilograms per person, per day.

Here’s the real kicker. This is the garbage that is discarded after we have purchased and consumed products. The U.S. EPA estimates that for every tonne of waste that we discard – either into the blue box, the green bin or the black bag – we produce an estimated 72 to 73 bags of manufacturing wastes such as mine tailings, sludge and other by-products to produce raw materials. Using the EPA’s ratio of 98.6 percent to 1.4 percent, that 31 million tonnes of waste translates into a total waste stream in excess of 2.2 billion tonnes annually. While many of these industrial wastes are generated offshore, we bear the responsibility of their production because we purchase the consumer goods that these processes ultimately create.

Now, back to where we started. Compare the 2.2 billion tonnes of manufacturing wastes with the total of 824,000 tonnes of wastes diverted by Ontario’s Blue Box program in 2004, and it becomes clear that curbside recycling is little more than a band-aid on a much bigger problem.

In addition to generating billions of tonnes of waste, producing goods (whether as raw materials or finished consumer items) uses a tremendous amount of energy. Manufacturing and industrial processes account for about 14 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions and the transportation sector (which ships all those consumer goodies to a Big Box store near you) accounts for another 26 percent. It’s worth noting that this is an increase of 30 percent from 1990 to 2004.

What doesn’t make it to the blue box ends up in the landfill. Once in the landfill, what doesn’t end up leaching into our groundwater system will eventually decompose. This process not only makes our landfills stink, it produces vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane – the latter being 24 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the former. Environment Canada estimates that landfills account for 38 percent of Canada’s total methane emissions.

More than a hundred years ago U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt said, “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our natural resources, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us."

Canadians are part of the 20 percent of the world’s population that currently consumes a whopping 86 percent of the world’s resources (up from 80 percent in 1990). We are so far past the point of responsible consumption that we may never find our way back.

But where’s there’s life, there’s hope. October 19 to 25 is Waste Reduction Week in Canada. It’s time to begin.


Waste Reduction Week

The Grassroots Recycling Network has information about Zero Waste and Extended Producer Responsibility.


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