Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Trash Talk

They’re at it again. Slinging trash and insults back and forth like a bunch of school kids in a food fight. It’s Trash Wars 2009 and the whole thing is starting to read (and smell) like a really bad sequel.

For starters, there’s the City of Toronto, slowly drowning in the rotting wastes of 2.5 million people, thanks to a strike by the city’s 24,000 civic employees. The strike comes exactly seven years after the 2002 garbage strike that left city streets reeking of garbage for months after that 16-day strike was ended by back-to-work legislation.

To the east, there is the Region of Durham. One day after the Toronto strike began, Regional politicians voted (by a narrow margin of 16 to 12) to build a $ 272 million garbage incinerator. At the June 24th Council meeting, a record number of 70 citizen delegations spoke in opposition to the project, citing an unacceptable risk to human health from the dioxins and other toxic materials that the facility will eventually vent into the atmosphere.

In response to the Durham incinerator decision, one blogger wrote, “People have to stop living their lives as if they are the only ones on this planet. We MUST take responsibility for our waste. This project will spew dioxins and heavy metals into the air, not to mention nano-particles we don't even know about. It isn't an "acceptable" risk to me. ZERO WASTE is what we should strive for.”

What's interesting about these stories is that they are hardly unique. 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 out of 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 the packaging that it is delivered in), plus 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.

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.

The really scary thing is that this only represents so-called “finished waste” – the stuff we put out at the curb as garbage or recycling. The EPA estimates that this finished garbage only represents 1.4 percent of the total waste stream. The remaining 98.6 percent is made up of manufacturing wastes (sludge, mine tailings and other industrial garbage).

According to business writer Polly LaBarre (How to Lead a Rich Life, Fast Company, March 2003) “The United States spends more on trash bags than 90 other countries spend on everything. In other words, the receptacles of our waste cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world’s nations.”

Before we get too smug, it is important to note that Canadians produce almost as much garbage as our American neighbors.

Whether it’s stacking our trash on the curb for somebody else to pick up, or burning it to pollute land, air and water, the culprit is the same. We – both individually and collectively – produce too much trash. When asked for whom the garbage dump (or incinerator) is built, the answer is you and me.


It’s an idea whose time may finally have come. The Grassroots Recycling Network has a vision of the world where waste is valued as a resource. Zero Waste means not only 100 percent recovery of society’s discards, but also a redesign of the products and packaging of our lives such that everything produced for our consumer economy is non-toxic and designed to be recovered for re-use, recycling or composting.

The Zero Waste Alliance provides assistance to industry sectors and organizations for development and implementation of standards, tools and practices that lead to a more sustainable future through the reduction and elimination of waste and toxic materials.

Seeing is believing. Edward Burtynsky’s stunning documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, is a journey through the world of industrial wastelands. Check out www.edwardburtynsky.com.


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