A few days ago we learned that a mountain of plastic waste has accumulated on PEI. China abruptly stopped importing our recyclable waste, and suddenly we find ourselves left with a 100 tonne hill of garbage with nowhere to go. The story presents us with an opportunity to look at how we understand buying and selling – the fundamentals of economic activity; of how powerful our consumption patterns have become, and how we could use it as an opportunity to question the wisdom of our actions.

Most people attach virtue to the business of recycling, and feel that we are doing our part for a sustainable future (whatever your idea of that murky term means) by dutifully rinsing, sorting, bagging and lugging our plastic waste curbside once a month. And I don’t want to dismiss the importance of us learning to use the Earth’s limited resources in continuous cycles: it is one part of us learning to live successfully on this planet – as a friend of mine puts it – “as if we want to stay”.

When I think back to my childhood, we didn’t recycle, but we didn’t make a lot of garbage either. Life was simpler, things were designed differently, and the relentless encouragement through advertising to consume more stuff was largely absent. I do however, remember the introduction of the “3 Rs” when for the first time, the limits and dangers of humans ruthlessly mining the Earth for minerals and other resources was becoming clear.

We were encouraged to “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” We had also bought in to an economic paradigm that pursued growth with an endless fervour: we needed, for economic health, to have “good growth; strong growth; sustained growth”. An expanding economy is incompatible with the instruction to reduce and reuse, for those activities do not lead to more consumption, indeed quite the opposite. With a truly concerted effort, economists were acutely concerned that the 3 Rs would become “Reduce, Reuse, Recession”. To live simply with less, and to repair things and make do with what you already have (a hallmark of Island life for generations) is counterproductive to doing your part to grow the economy. So collectively, at the encouragement of governments and most economists, we largely abandoned the first two “Rs” and focused on the third, more compatible one, recycling. This allowed folks to continue to consume overpackaged, non-durable items we didn’t really need, and feel that they were being responsible citizens as long as they hauled those exploding blue bags to the curb every month.

With growing mountains of recyclables accumulating all over the world, including here on PEI, with nowhere to put them other than a local landfill, it is time to look at whether this is a sensible way for a mature global society to manage our affairs.

Until very recently, humanity was a fairly insignificant player on this Earth; we were small in number and affected only the immediate area in which we lived. In a few thousand generations – the blink of a geological eye – we have gone from unimportant member of the global village of species, to dominant player. 100 years ago there were just over 1 billion people living on this Earth, now we are over 7 billion, and the technologies we have developed allow all these people to extract resources from our home planet at a rate that is growing exponentially.

We are only now beginning to recognize that this fantastic expansion, built on human ingenuity, and which has brought us so many benefits, is also causing us some serious problems. Climate change, reliable access to water, extinction of other lifeforms, and mountains of recyclables and garbage are all signs that we need to review our collective goals. Is further growth necessarily a good thing? And if we’re not sure about that, what are we going to do differently? These are not small or easy questions, and our willingness to look at them will be a sign of the level of collective maturity we have attained.

As children, our primary purpose is to grow: we need to increase our size in order to function well in the world, but at a certain point we stop, and just as well, or getting in and out of cars and buildings would become problematic. Many people now believe that humanity has passed adolescence, and that rather than look at how we can further grow physically on this finite planet, that we need to pursue some other goal if we want to create a secure future for our children. Against the backdrop of a rising mound of plastic, the conversation around the challenges of confronting planetary limits is profound and potentially uncomfortable, but for the sake of future generations, it is a talk whose time has come.

-Peter

 

5 Comments

  1. W.Wilkins 17 January 2018 at 1:58 pm

    I suspect most Islanders agree that “consumption patterns” and the “wisdom of our actions” are fundamental to our survival. But, if this is actually so, why is this fundamental challenge not an integral part of the public school curriculum?

    Sure, it’s a topic that bounces through certain subjects and grade levels and there are a few teachers who have worked diligently to champion the cause. But, what there is not, are mechanisms (or expectations) to report on the degree to which all students graduate with sufficient actionable knowledge to address the environmental challenges they face.

    In the absence of a comprehensive (and courageous) pedagogical strategy, how can we expect to realize a social remedy?

     
  2. Peter Rukavina 17 January 2018 at 3:39 pm

    Your predecessor, Sharon Labchuk, once made the cogent point that the beauty of the Prince Edward Island landscape comes at the expense of a lack of beauty elsewhere.

    I bought a take-out lunch at a local grocery store yesterday, and my sandwich came in a plastic clamshell container. Given that the sandwich was made the same day, and that I purchased it at 10:30 a.m., and consumed it at 12 noon, the useful life of that clamshell was 4 or 5 hours at most.

    The clamshell is recyclable, and, like many, I’ve long taken this to be a sort of “get out of jail free card” – not waste at all, but a temporary way station on the life of the plastic therein. But, as you point out, that’s not the case when there’s no market for the waste.

    But in a sense that’s beside the point: I could have easily taken a reusable container with me to the grocery to carry the sandwich to the office, and then the container and its future life would have been of no concern.

    As it is, the manufacture of the clamshell container happened somewhere far away and did not besmirch the beauty of PEI, and the presumed recyclable follow-on life of the clamshell container will happen somewhere off PEI, similarly out of view.

    When Island Waste Management was originally formed, I thought that the ideal site for its plant was on the Experimental Farm in the heart of Charlottetown; instead it was located out of view off the highway in the hills of Central Queens.

    As a result our waste is magically transported away for us, and the 100 tonne pile of unrecycled recyclables isn’t a 100 tonne pile that we need to confront in any way other than as a folktale.

    When I used to hike with my mother on the Bruce Trail in Ontario, the sign at the trailhead said “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” Responsible wilderness campers follow a similar credo. It would be a useful construction to treat the Island in the same way, to treat everything we truck onto the Island as having an invisible cloud of production and waste impacts floating around it, and to work to reduce the size of the load and of that cloud.

     
  3. JANICE MARTELL 17 January 2018 at 8:01 pm

    I believe I would be a prime offender when it comes to plastic. Since Walmart started to charge I will either pay the 5 cents or avoid the store altogether. I really believe to eliminate plastic bags it would have to be a complete Island ban as not to pit one retailer against another. That being said, the money saved by retailers should be spent on green spaces, cleaning streams and lakes etc. I don’t want to give up my plastic but I would if legislated just like the seat belts. I know we could never make a dent in the big scheme of things but we could care for out little piece of heaven. I would like to add a link that is worth the read. Looks like you may have to copy and paste the link.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/20/plastic-bags-symbol-waste-recycling

     
  4. Barb. Macmillan 19 January 2018 at 2:52 pm

    Wendy’s Res.-great founder–ketchup put in very hard plastic cup–why????

     
  5. Elizabeth 27 February 2018 at 1:06 pm

    My partner works in Waste and recycling here in Calgary and the amount of unrecycleable waste is shocking. We recycle everything we can but it’s really irresponsible ….even organic products are wrapped in plastic that ends up in a landfill. We have decided to start cutting out products that can’t be recycled. We use glass water bottles and are preserving stuff ourselves in glass. I laugh when people say the reason they switched from glass to plastic is cost. It truly is the cost I’m looking at.

     

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