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with waste reduction comes lifestyle change

Caught up in the post-Thanksgiving, pre-Halloween season – not to mention local government week – you may have missed the fact this is also Waste Reduction Week in Canada.

Yes, such a thing exists. The goal is to make us mindful about just how much stuff we accumulate and throw away. And we dispose of a considerable amount of waste: 1,670 lbs (760 kg) each every year, the equivalent of eight adult men.

Enter Waste Reduction Week, which came to Canada in 2001 courtesy of a coalition of 13 recycling councils and sister organizations from across the country. It’s rolled out each October by the same group. The program’s goal is to inform Canadians about the environmental and social ramifications of wasteful practices.

The message is sinking in – many of us are mindful of over-packaged goods, for instance – but it’s a slow process, says Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario.

As individuals we’re starting to make some changes, smarter choices. On the whole, however, Ontarians are generating more waste than ever. That has much to do with industry rather than individual actions, but the two are connected, she notes.

In the case of excess packaging and products such as single-serving food items, business takes its cue from consumers: if we stop buying such goods, or shift our dollars to less-wasteful choices, they’ll take note. In the meantime, industry is also encouraged to reduce how much waste they generate behind the scenes as part of the manufacturing process.

That’s not just good for the environment, but also for the bottom line, cutting material costs and, at the end of the process, disposal fees, she stresses.

Much of the impetus will be on us as consumers, however. Change will come because we demand it. Otherwise, well, don’t hold your breath.

It’s a matter of choices. Moving away from our penchant for disposable items, for instance. Using quality, long-lasting equipment that can be serviced and reused rather than discarded minimizes waste. This practice supports quality manufacturers. Higher initial costs are often justified by lower replacement and disposal costs as equipment is in use for a longer period.

Choose reusable products rather than single-use items. Simple measures such as reusing ceramic mugs instead of using disposable cups, using cloth shopping bags rather than disposable plastic ones, using rechargeable batteries or reusing items such as file folders and interoffice envelopes mean less waste and lower costs.

When you purchase products keep in mind what will become of them at their end-of-life. Materials that can be fully recycled, or that are made of recycled materials mean less energy consumption in remanufacturing and less materials in the landfill.

We’re starting to think in those terms, but haven’t fully embraced the concept. We are rather wedded to our North American consumption patterns.

“I think consumers are becoming more savvy, more conscious of their choices,” says St. Godard of our tendency to differentiate between products on the shelves. But we’re not ready to really shine a light on how we live, she adds. “I don’t think that we’re really examining our consumption habits.”

Take the issue of single-serving packaging. Convenience often trumps environmental considerations, especially in such common tasks as packing a lunch for your kids.

“We aren’t at the point of saying ‘do I really need this? Should we consume this?’”

If things are going to change, we’ll have to change our mindset to reflect those thoughts. We have to take responsibility for what we choose from the store shelves – industry will respond accordingly. Our buying power will influence how business is done.

In the meantime, however, there are some small steps that can make a difference. From that reusable coffee cup for the drive-thru (though putting it in park and walking inside is better still) to actually remembering to bring those reusable shopping bags with you when you get groceries, it all adds up.

“It’s the low-lying fruit. Easy changes that you could consider doing today,” says St. Godard, noting making such things a habit, part of your routine, is key to sticking with them.

Collectively, that’s taking more responsibility for the piles of waste we send off to the landfill, where it’s out of sight and out of mind … well, at least until it starts getting full and we need to find another hole in the ground to “deal with” our crap. Here in Waterloo Region, we’re going through just such an exercise, attempting to extend the life of the existing landfill site and pondering about what to do next.

It’s with that bigger picture in mind that we can start making small changes – we wouldn’t want to sacrifice too much of our lifestyles – that lead us down the road to better things.

“We’re blessed where we have many choices, many freedoms. We can’t ignore the responsibilities,” she says.

As Waste Reduction Week winds down, she urges us all to look for the one small thing we can do.

“Small changes add up. You can make your own difference.”

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