While more mindful of what we throw away, most of us give little thought to what happens to our trash once we haul it down to the curb. We pay our taxes and expect someone to make it go away.
Behind the scenes, however, things get more complicated. Officials are always looking for ways to divert trash from landfills, extending their serviceable lives at a time when building new dumps is next to impossible and better options such as incineration meet with roadblocks.
Expanded recycling programs help divert our trash, but they too are rife with problems, from contamination rendering items fit only for landfill to collapsing markets for products that aren’t really recyclable on a useful scale, and the commensurate falling prices for items collected in the blue box. Items that were formerly shipped off to China and points east, much of which just added to the pollution burden and ended up dumped in the oceans, no longer have even that dubious outlet, further burdening already money-losing municipal recycling programs.
Enter Ottawa’s plan to ban single-use plastic items such as drinking straws and cutlery.
While certainly adopted now due to an upcoming election, the move is in keeping with a movement towards curbing the use of items such as plastic grocery bags that end up in dumps and, frequently, into our waterways. The European Union, for instance, passed regulations this spring to ban single-use items such as straws and Styrofoam containers by 2021.
Other jurisdictions have moved to what are known as extended-producer responsibility (EPR) programs that see makers and large users of such items – the likes of grocery stores and fast-food chains – paying most or all of the costs associated with collecting and recycling their products. British Columbia, for example, has such a program, and Ontario is considering something similar.
We’ve seen something like this with eco fees on items such as electronics and tires, the money intended to deal with those goods after we’ve discarded them. For the most part, however, we don’t pay up front for the lifecycle of the products we buy. Neither do the makers of goods such as batteries (full of heavy metals), corrosive cleaners (toxic chemicals) or aerosols (particulates).
Typically, the costs of waste collection – later augmented by recycling – and pollution have simply been what economists call externalities: someone other than the manufacturer picks up the costs. That someone is the collective we: our taxes pay for waste management – curbside garbage collection, recycling facilities and landfill sites – and for the health care costs that come from a polluted environment. Individually, we pay with our wallets and with our health. The particulate matter in the air so prevalent on smog days comes with a cost not paid for by the manufacturers pumping the stuff out of their smokestacks.
With plastics, much of them end up in our environment, particularly waterways. Only about nine per cent of Canada’s plastic waste is recycled each year, leaving 2.8 million tonnes in landfill sites, or worse. And as we find it increasingly difficult to ship our problems offshore, some domestic action is required. Thus we have the federal government’s single-use plastic ban under consideration.
Having to find alternative goods and paying more to cover disposal could act as something of a deterrent, making us think twice about buying some goods, both because of the cost and because of our new awareness that items don’t simply disappear after we dump them.