Recycling Conundrum

Dale sent me a great article that talks about how I feel about recycling. It was in The Eye Weekly today. Here it is:

The least effective ‘R’

By Kelly McManus

Toronto is patting itself on the back over its bulging blue boxes. But recyclables are still trash, even if they don’t go straight to the dump.

Standing in the viewing gallery at the Dufferin Transfer Station’s sorting facility, I’m looking at mountains of blue box trash. Crushed cans, plastic bottles, newspapers and corrugated cardboard zoom along through a maze of conveyors and bins, all of it separated, piled, squashed and squeezed out the other end as multi-coloured bales of junk.

At one point in the assembly, electrically charged aluminum cans leap into the air, arcing in the dull indoor light like hopeful little salmon, glinting as they leave behind the torrent of plastic bottles and old bags.

This is one of two stations that process the contents of Toronto’s blue boxes for sorting, bailing and shipping. The city’s recycling and compost programs – designed to decrease the daily loads of Toronto garbage heading out in big diesel trucks to Michigan landfills – have helped the diversion rate skyrocket from 27 per cent in 2001 to somewhere around 44 per cent in 2006.

In hard tonnes, those percentages mean, for one, that we’ve increased our capture rates for recyclables by 25,000 tonnes annually; they also mean that in 2005, our blue box program saved over 150,000 tonnes of recyclables from the dump.

Those are good things, right? Well, yes. And no.

Our bulging blue boxes are worrying environmentalists and researchers, because recyclables are still discarded trash, even if they don’t go straight to the dump, and recycling that trash instead of sending it to a landfill still generates carbon emissions and industrial waste.

“We need to consume less, period,” says Dr. Charles Hostovsky of the University of Toronto, “and recycling can take away the incentive to reuse packaging.”

Toronto City Councillor Gord Perks agrees. “In many ways,” says Perks, who has worked with Greenpeace and the Toronto Environmental Alliance (and was Eye Weekly’s Enviro columnist until 2006), “getting the blue box has foreclosed the discussion about reduction and reuse.”

Ah, reduction and reuse. Remember the good old three Rs, reduce, reuse and recycle? Well, not all Rs are created equal. The fact is recycling is the inferior R, like the weak-chinned younger brother who never quite lives up to the standard of his older siblings.

Consider the enormous energy required to recycle our blue box garbage – energy that runs dump trucks and fork lifts, transfer stations and mechanical sorters. We ship those materials, break them down and create new products, creating carbon emissions, by-products and new wastes. For every tonne of aluminum we recycle, for example, we generate six tonnes of carbon dioxide. Recycling old paper materials gives us not only new paper materials, but paper sludge and waste, ink and paper fibres that have to be disposed of by landfill or incinerator.

The problem, environmentalists say, is that reduction and reuse – vastly preferable approaches to garbage – are things we, as citizens, must do largely on our own: making choices to avoid buying excess packaging or choosing to reuse our old glass bottles, for example. Tossing things in the blue box, by contrast, becomes nearly automatic, and we don’t think about the energy-intensive industrial impacts of recycling.

As Dr. Hostovsky puts it, when we walk our single-portion soup cans and 250 ml water bottles to the curb in a recycling bin, we “see ourselves as environmental stewards,” like we’ve done a wonderful, selfless thing. “To some degree,” he says, “what the blue box system does is alleviate the individual’s guilt about convenience items.” According to Hostovsky and other environmentalists, we shouldn’t be placing those materials in the blue box because we simply shouldn’t be using them at all. “People get a false sense of security [from recycling], but we’re still consuming at an unsustainable rate,” Hostovsky says.

He’s right: we’re consistently spewing out more garbage on a yearly basis. We may have made some serious inroads with our garbage-diversion programs, especially here in the GTA (remember, this city accounts for one fifth of all the garbage produced in Ontario), but since the early days of the blue box, garbage production has been on the rise. Ontario’s annual trash tonnage has actually increased by more than 50 per cent, from eight million tonnes in 1993 to 13.3 million tonnes in 2005.

Now what do we do? Recycling isn’t the ecological Holy Grail we’ve come to think it is. So how do we get to the point where we start seriously reducing our total trash tonnage, recycling included? Environmentalists point out that convenience packaging is so pervasive that consumers aren’t given real options to dramatically reduce waste.

Perks and Hostovsky both cite Germany’s Green Dot movement, an ecological revolution that began with frustrated consumers literally ripping away excess packaging and handing it back to the checkout at grocery stores. That kind of action can increase awareness, but its real aim is to have producers stop creating that wasteful packaging in the first place.

Can we force manufacturers to reduce wasteful packaging? “That’s the central failure in waste-management policy in Ontario for the past 20 years,” says Perks. “We’ve failed to put the responsibility where the power really is.” Perks is talking about “extended producer responsibility,” the idea, implemented heavily in Europe, that a manufacturer should see the total costs of a product through its full life cycle – so the company that makes the car engine, paint tin or plastic bottle should not only pay to create it, but should cover the costs of disposing of it, too. As a result, industry inevitably finds ecological solutions to packaging and waste in order to save money on disposal.

The obstacle for Toronto activists and politicians is that the next giant step forward in responsible waste management undoubtedly lies in policy making at federal and provincial levels. “The city [of Toronto] is reaching a point where it’s maxing out in its powers,” says Dr. Mark Winfield, director of the Pembina Institute’s Environmental Governance program. “Laws about the design and use of materials are the next step. But, fundamentally, [Toronto] lacks the legislative tools, the scope of jurisdiction to get at the base issues underlying waste management.”

We need to decrease the waste we produce, period: landfill and blue box waste combined. Imagine the future of the Dufferin Transfer facility if we truly started to produce less residential waste. Imagine that on top of slashing the total annual truckloads of waste heading to the landfill, we started sending less and less recyclable material to the transfer station, too. Imagine we did this because we just stopped using single-serving cans and cereal boxes, bottled water and double-wrapped Styrofoam meat packages.

Is it tough to imagine? As environmentalists point out, “not doing” is an important next step for us – not buying products that use too much packaging, not recycling as much material because we’re making do with less.

Diverting kitchen scraps or tuna cans is only going to take us so far, and recycling is just the beginning – not the end – of our environmental responsibilities.

I don’t really have anything to add. This is a great article and it expressing what I have been saying about recycling for the past few years. I am also a fan of the way Germany went aobut reducing their waste. It worked- they reduced by 2/3 in a very short time ( a year, I think).



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5 responses to “Recycling Conundrum

  1. What?!? You can’t leave me hanging like that! What did Germany Do? How did they do it? Where can I read about it???

    Any suggestions as to how to best protest overpackaging? Where should it be directed – the store where you buy it, or trace it back to the producer?

  2. Jen

    I have to point out that categorizing ‘Europe’ generally is painting with a rather broad brush. I’m currently teaching in France (just outside of Paris), and there is not only a lot of recycling that I see going on, but a lot of trash creation, too. Trips to the shops are even more frustrating than at home, I find, bulk being something that I have yet to come across except in one store, and many things being just as needlessly packaged as anywhere else.

    On the same track as the above comment, do you know of any organizations which are combating those companies that are actually producing the packaging? (Seems like a hopeless battle in a way, though, when you think Canada is home to one of the largest packaging manufacturers in the world – who I won’t name, but here’s a hint: they make a shiny product that is used to cover things when baking.) I would also think that as far as protesting goes, a large box full of needless packaging sent to the main offices of a corporation might be a good start… or would likely be screened as potential bomb threat. Oh sigh, it’s so difficult sometimes.

  3. Andrew, you can find out more here: Sorry, I thought I had posted about the German system before because I talk about it all the time.

  4. Jen
    Thank you so much for all your comments and support. I’m sorry I haven’t responded to all of them, but I’m glad to have you on board!

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