Recycling is broken

It seemed like a good idea at the time -throw away stuff guilt-free because others can use it. Now it looks more like wishful thinking.

image: Laura Lezza/Getty Images

Manufacturers encouraged the scheme because they wouldn’t have to deal with the mess caused by excess packaging. We, the conscientious consumers would be left to handle the flood of plastic, glass, tins and cardboard.

We rose to the challenge, earnestly sorting our trash. If each of us would just recycle, we could lick this problem. In doing so, we let manufacturers off the hook. It’s a familiar shift of responsibility to consumers. If each of us drive smaller cars and turn off the lights we can reduce global warming.

The failure of the recycling program is becoming painfully evident. Canada is faced with lecturing from thuggish Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, who is threatening war on Canada if we don’t take back tonnes of Canadian trash that have been rotting in a port near Manila.

It’s a national embarrassment. More than 100 shipping containers were sent from Canada to Manila six years ago. They were labelled plastics but they turned out to be garden-variety, stinking Canadian garbage including soiled adult diapers. Canada is in violation of international treaties that prohibit exportation of mislabelled containers.

More and more majority world countries are turning their noses up at our trash. China doesn’t want it either. In 2017, China announced that didn’t want any “foreign garbage.” Without China as a dumping ground, stuff is piling up around the world with nowhere to go except monstrous ocean gyres, landfills, and incinerators.

China correctly notes that there is no “globally recognized standard for scrap materials and recyclable materials.” It turns out that what’s one person’s trash is another person’s trash.

But we do a better job in British Columbia, right? The director of Recycle B.C., Alan Langdon, thinks so. He says that China’s prohibition will have little impact on B.C.’s operations. “We’ve actually been processing all our plastics here in B.C. for the last three-and-a-half years, therefore no real impact,” said Langdon, “The paper and cardboard that we are sending over, we right now have the cleanest material in North America, so we’re still able to meet standards and have it accepted by China.”

It sounds encouraging until you realize that for ten years Vancouver sent as much as 500,000 tonnes of garbage a year to Cache Creek. For the last two years, Vancouver sent 150,000 tonnes of municipal garbage to landfills in Washington and Oregon. In addition, 260,000 tonnes of garbage were burned annually.

We can’t claim to be trash virtuous in Kamloops. We risked being kicked out of the Recycle BC program last year because of the contaminates we put into our recycling containers. Last year, city inspectors found banned items in our bins at twice the provincial rate. Banned products included glass, soft plastics and food. The provincial rate is 10.8 per cent.

There is a way of reducing the amount of materials ending up in our trash. It’s called “polluter pays.” It works like this: tax manufacturers who insist on making unnecessary packaging, and use the money to help deal with the mess.

 

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End this war against our planet

The war against our planet began so long ago that it’s hard to imagine a time when military merchandise hasn’t been used to wreak havoc; not just on the battlefield but against the very ecosystems necessary for our survival.

earth

The application of technology to the battlefield began in earnest with World War II with atomic bombs, rockets, and poisonous gas. The machinery developed in wartime has been grinding ever since –to the extent that we don’t know what a planet at peace looks like.

The exact start of the war against the planet may be debatable. Rebecca Solnit suggests: “Nineteen forty-five is sometimes designated Year Zero.”

The devastation of World War II was a precursor of what was to follow. Sixty million were killed in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific — 2.6 per cent of the earth’s population. The Soviet Union lost 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages and 24 million citizens. What the bombs missed, homelessness, displacement, poverty, and disease claimed. Many died in combat but millions more starved to death.

London lost one million homes and 30,000 were killed in one year alone. The bombing of Germany created firestorms and leveled cities. One survivor of the attacks on Dresden recalled the horror of seeing charred bodies and melted glass:  “We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burned to death, burning people running to and fro.”

The destruction of historic sites and cities exceeded anything that the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS could muster combined. As bad as things were, they were about to get worse.

“From one perspective, what we call the world had never been more devastated. From another, however, the world was in magnificent, Edenic shape. No great garbage patch swirled around the Pacific, and albatrosses, sea turtles, and dolphins in remote reaches were not strangling on plastic they mistook for edible matter; we had not yet discarded the billion tons of plastic that will litter the earth for the foreseeable future, because plastic was a relatively new material just entering mass production,” says Solnit in Harper’s magazine.

Elephants and rhinos thrived in intact ecosystems. The Bengal tiger and the snow leopard were fine. The Atlantic cod fishery off the coast of Canada seemed inexhaustible.

War economies accelerated. The technology of war spun off seemingly benign products: plastics, fuels, fuel-guzzling vehicles. Ever more energy use accelerated the tonnes of garbage we throw into the air, water and land.

Anyone who is not delusional, amnesiac, or distracted can see what militarization has wrought. Those who are blind to the obvious pretend that: “pumping billions of tons of carbon into the upper atmosphere has no consequences, that the extraction processes — from mountaintop coal removal to fracking to pulling petroleum out of remote fragile places such as the ocean floor — are harmless.”

The war will end one way or another. The earth will prevail regardless of which side we are on.