For the first time in my career, issues surrounding waste management have now become part of mainstream discussion. Whether it be my neighbors asking me “Can this really be recycled?” to growing concerns surrounding single use plastics, people (both the public and policy makers alike), care now more than ever regarding what is happening to our waste. We as Canadians recognize that issues surrounding waste require our immediate attention, and that our waste disposal behavior (both good and bad) can have significant impacts on the sustainability of our environment.
So with this in mind, I thought it would be prudent to revisit the topic of “What is the goal of our waste management system?” While this is a topic I have written about several times in the past, proposed legislative changes – not only to Ontario’s Blue Box program, but waste management legislation across North America, makes it a timely topic for discussion. Now, more than ever, we need to clearly define what our goals are, and whether our existing approaches are helping move us towards achieving those goals.
So, what is the goal of a waste management system? This seemingly simple question is actually surprisingly difficult to answer, as it depends on who you ask and what is being prioritized. While we may hear terms like “Circular Economy” and “Zero waste” banded about, what do they actually mean? Are they intended to be aspirational or achievable goals? What is the time frame and the boundaries we use to define a circular system, and what do we choose to prioritize when different stakeholders have competing objectives? I am reluctant to answer these questions, as I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer other than – “it depends”: On who you ask, what you ask and why you ask. With that in mind, before proceeding with our discussion, I want to remind everyone about the three pillars of sustainability: A sustainable system must consider economic, environmental and social dimensions. By definition, we cannot consider a system sustainable if it does not address these three components. This is a critical consideration when deciding what a goal of a waste management system could (or should) be.
Ontario (and Canada) has a recycling problem
Historically, the emphasis of waste management has been on residential recycling. The Blue Box, a ubiquitous symbol of recycling that has been a fixture in our homes for the better part of four decades in Ontario. In fact, my very first memory as a budding environmentalist was washing out peanut butter jars before putting it in the recycling (less to do with concerns surrounding contamination, and more to do with a fear of attracting insects). For many Ontarians, the Blue Box is symbolic of recycling and sustainability, and it is something that we have been extraordinarily good at – which as it turns out, is actually a really bad thing.
During the summer of 2019, York University conducted a study to gauge what the public thought about various waste management initiatives. Participants were asked to rank, from best to worse, which end of life scenario resulted in the greatest environmental impact (shown in figure).
Canada has become a victim of its own success – both households and policy makers now conflate recycling with sustainability. If it can’t be recycled, it is characterized as being “bad”. The “waste” problem is often framed as “We aren’t recycling enough”. Just last year, Deloitte made international headlines when they published a report indicating that Canada was only recycling 9% of its plastics. The response from the public was almost visceral – Households and government demanded change, with consumers even going so far as to say that they would be less likely to buy a product if it could not be recycled at the end of its life. Canadians are voting with their dollars and the message is loud and clear “We want recyclable products”.
While the sentiment and intent is in the right place, the approach is not. Not only is recycling not the most preferred outcome, it can actually have adverse economic, environmental and social impacts. Contrary to intuition – not everything that can be recycled, should be recycled. The decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is actually what is compromising the long term sustainability of the system.
Reduce, Reuse and Rethink
I will go on record and say that I think if we pursue an approach premised on prioritizing recycling above all else, it will be destined for failure. Shifting financial responsibility onto producers will not magically fix what is broken, and I think it naive to assume the financial incentive will result in fundamental shifts in producer behavior.
To echo a position I have shared in the past, the province needs to embrace a “macro approach” when it comes to sustainable materials management – Viewing end of life waste management as separate from other stages of a products life cycle is too myopic in scope.
Past emphasis on recycling rates and the recyclability of materials is no longer compatible with the changing nature of packaging. Recycling should not be the main objective, but rather, emphasis should be placed on promoting sustainable outcomes.
If a particular packaging type cannot be readily recycled, but abates more carbon at a lower cost (i.e. avoided food waste), should that be discouraged? Will forcing producers to pay 100% of the cost of recycling light weight plastics result in technological innovation and new end use applications? Or will it result in a bill in the hundreds of millions for Ontarians?
At present, the way waste management systems and legislation are designed is “siloed” – Blue Box is a distinct entity from the Green Bin, which is a distinct entity from waste electronics etc. While this may be a necessity from an operational perspective, it is imperative to take a step back and look at the entire waste management system. There is an opportunity cost to whatever decision we make – a dollar spent on one end of life management option is a dollar not spent on another. As such, our priorities should be designed to reflect what we want to achieve in waste management as a whole. Policies and legislation need to enable the province to work towards that goal in an economic, environmental and socially sustainable way. Measuring success in terms of diversion or recycling rates is no longer good enough.
Dr. Calvin Lakhan is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. Lakhan's current research are broadly divided into four areas: 1) Evaluating the efficacy of municipal policy instruments used to promote waste diversion; 2) Optimizing the recycling system to achieve increased diversion while minimizing material management costs; 3) Examining the role of race and ethnicity as antecedents to recycling behavior; and 4) Encouraging pro environmental behavior among minority and marginalized groups, with a specific examination of how structural inequality manifests itself in impeded access to recycling/waste services.