It’s time to rethink our approach to garbage

In Mexico City, politicians recently banned the ubiquitous plastic bags that citizens use for everything from groceries to soft drinks. But that will only go part way to reducing the 12,000 tonnes of garbage the city produces every day.

In Mexico City, politicians recently banned the ubiquitous plastic bags that citizens use for everything from groceries to soft drinks. But that will only go part way to reducing the 12,000 tonnes of garbage the city produces every day.

Only six per cent of Mexico City’s garbage gets recycled now, but the government has an ambitious plan to recycle, compost, or burn for energy 85 per cent of it by 2013.

Mexico City’s waste-management situation illustrates the importance of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. And we should add another R: rethink.

People in Canada are getting better at this, but we can do more. We recycle just over 20 per cent of our garbage. And, according to Stats Canada, each of us produced an average of 837 kilograms of non-hazardous solid waste in 2006.

That’s a lot of garbage going to the landfill, and it’s a lot of resources and energy being wasted. Some European countries, such as Austria and Switzerland, are now recycling more than half their wastes, so there’s a lot of room for improvement.

After all, whatever we throw away represents a waste of resources and money — not to mention time.

Beyond the waste problem itself, landfills produce about one quarter of Canada’s methane emissions – and methane is a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide. Some cities are now capturing that methane to burn for energy rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere.

Reducing the amount of trash we create in the first place is the best place to start tackling our waste-management problems. Not only does it mean we send less waste to the landfill, it also means we use fewer resources and less energy – as it takes energy to produce and transport packaging and disposable items.

Every day, more people, stores, and cities are finding ways to cut down on use of disposable plastic bags, but we still create a lot of unnecessary packaging and products. Planned obsolescence — the absurd practice of producing goods that won’t last so that the consumer cycle can continue — is still very much with us.

We can all avoid buying products that are over-packaged or that are “disposable” – and encourage producers to be more responsible. When we consumers take the time to let stores, businesses, and governments know that we want less packaging and that we want goods that last, we will make a difference. Our changing attitude about plastic bags is a perfect example.

Reusing offers opportunities to get creative.

People have always re-tailored clothes to give them new life. Think of the other ways you can use products that no longer function in their intended role. But reusing is an area where some difficulties arise, especially on a larger scale. Reusing waste by converting it to energy is a growing trend.

The most common method is burning the garbage and using the heat to produce energy. Although the technology is improving, it still has its problems; burning waste creates emissions, for one. Other methods are also being explored, including breaking down the waste with microorganisms to produce methane and carbon dioxide for biogas.

Recycling is one of the first things that come to mind when we think of waste reduction.

Most of us urban Canadians dutifully take our paper, plastic, and bottles and cans to the blue box recycling bins.

Again, if we use fewer products that must be thrown away, we’ll have less stuff to recycle and send to landfills. But we should all be aware that our efforts to recycle are not in vain.

If we work to ensure that our communities, schools, and workplaces have good recycling and composting programs and that producers and retailers take responsibility for their products, and if we all improve our own efforts to recycle, we will reduce our need for landfills.

Individual action is important, but legislated solutions are also effective. In Switzerland, people buy stickers that they have to attach to garbage before it is picked up.

The more garbage you put out, the more you have to pay. Switzerland now has the highest rate of recycling in the world.

We can all do our part as citizens, but as can be seen in Mexico City and Switzerland, a push by governments can go a long way to creating the kind of large-scale change needed to get our waste-management problem under control.

This column is co-written by scientist/broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.

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