By Donovan Makus
From Kindergarten onwards, we hear a familiar phrase echoed repeatedly: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Stressed from a young age, I think I can safely say there is widespread agreement that this short statement echoes worthy principles. Even from a purely pragmatic perspective, getting recycling deposits back is nice, and who wants to buy unnecessary items, let alone find a place to store them? Expanding outwards, from a more global view, we only have one planet, and it’s not in our long-term best interests to neglect or degrade it. Considering this, I was somewhat surprised when I opened my news app and read that Strathcona County, my municipality, would be phasing out soft, plastic recycling pickup, and require that glass be transported to an eco-station. In an era of green politics and environmental responsibility, it seems strange that a municipality would move in the opposite direction. Yet closer examination of the waste disposal industry reveals some deeper issues that lead to this announcement.
For most of us, garbage is something we try to keep out of sight and out of mind. Sequestered in black bins and bags, it can safely rot and decompose out of sight, and ideally, out of smell range. Once a week we, or someone else if we’re lucky, hauls out the garbage and leaves it to be taken away, following a pre-set schedule which also allows us to deposit our recycling on the curb every now and again. Most of us try to avoid “The Dump,” myself included, but thanks to various jobs over the years, I’ve completed many trips to dispose of waste that is unsuitable for roadside pickup. Edmonton boasts a world-class dump, and while that’s not exactly something to put on the Welcome to Edmonton signs, its ability to sort household and commercial waste for recycling is noteworthy enough to attract international attention in the waste management business. While some waste will inevitably end up secreted in the landfill, we’ve come a long way from the days when all waste was simply dumped, covered with soil, and topped off with a golf course placed above it, as is the case for the Mill Woods and Rundle Park golf courses. While the diversion rate, a measure of how much waste is kept out of the landfill, has fallen in recent years due to commercial waste, the majority of garbage is still kept out of the landfill. This is not the part of the waste management chain where the problems arose for Strathcona County. To find the cracks in the global recycling system, you must look further afield to the vast network of companies and countries dealing with that waste after it is long forgotten.
The law of conservation of mass states that in a closed system, matter cannot be destroyed or created, merely changed from one form to another. When we consider that Earth is, practically speaking, a closed system, and we haven’t figured out how to dump garbage en-mass in space, we are left with a problem, particularly for hazardous waste. While some of our waste, such as organic waste from food, can be left to rot safely, other pieces of garbage, such as batteries, old electronics, or some types of commercial waste, require additional processing. This past summer, as part of the Environmental Science Field Ecology course (ENSC 318), I was able to visit one of the few hazardous waste disposal dumps in the world: the Swan Hills Treatment Centre. Deliberately located in the middle of nowhere, this facility is the final resting place for all sorts of hazardous waste; everything short of nuclear waste ends up here. During our tour, the operators of the plant were candid with us in regards to the challenges they face, namely ones of indifference and penny-pinching. The facility boasts an impressive incineration capability, as well as deep well storage and the ability to encase hazardous waste inside concrete pods, but all of this comes at a price, one many are unwilling to pay unless it is legally required. “Dilution is not the solution” is a catchphrase in waste management, but practically, it often ends up being the course of action taken. If you have a hazardous waste product, such as toxic heavy metals, you merely dilute it enough to get it under the legal limit, and dispose of it. To go back to the law of conservation of mass, once we’ve removed a heavy metal from a mine to use it in something like a battery we’ve concentrated it, and since we can’t undo the mining process, at least not economically and easily, we’re left with a problem of disposal.
For years, this problem was solved the old fashioned way many of us are familiar with and use: “out of sight, out of mind.” Much like a mess can be jammed into closets or back seats, leaving us with at least some clean space, we dealt with these plastics and hazardous waste products by sending them far away. Innovations in the global shipping business made it possible to cheaply ship tons of garbage to less developed countries, such as China, where attempts were made to reuse the commercially useful waste, and the rest dumped. Sometimes called “garbage imperialism,” this process allowed us to keep our own landscape pristine at the expense of some distant place. However, as countries developed and gained an appreciation for the toxicity of these products, they began to clamp down on this practice. The sudden shift in Strathcona County’s policy is a reflection of a long-overdue shift in Chinese policy, with a new ban on the importation of 24 types of waste announced. This ban is an example of the globalization of our world, but it also serves as a wake-up call. Pollution doesn’t respect borders as we do–a practice exploited by governments who placed heavy polluters just upwind of their boundaries, allowing them to boast of their excellent environmental record, and reap the economic benefits of the industries while dumping pollution into neighbouring districts that have little power to oppose the construction of polluting plants. This short-sighted move ignores the fact that pollution does not respect human borders.
In the end, we’re left with only one sustainable course of action, one alluded to in the familiar 3 R’s: reduce the quantity of waste generated in the first place. As much as we all like having the newest technology, buying a new iPhone and getting rid of the old one isn’t such a good course of action. This doesn’t mean we all need to return to the land, living hand to mouth in the wilderness–although if that’s what interests you, who am I condemn it? This is similar to how an occasional donut in a sustainable, good diet won’t hurt most people, but a huge donut every day likely isn’t the best policy. Small changes, as simple as deriving maximum utility from the items we already own, really make a difference. It’s a cliche at this point, but it bears repeating that we only have one planet, and considering we’re trapped between the frigid expanse of space on one side and the fiery core on the other, we should strive to make our little slice of habitable space one that lasts.