This post covers responsible consumption and disposal, what really happens to your “garbage” in landfills, and some of the innovations taking place around the world to reduce plastic and textile waste.
Responsible consumption and disposal has been on my mind lately for reasons personal and professional. Personally, I recently overhauled my apartment and threw out a lot of unnecessary items that I realized I’d been hanging onto “just in case”… before I had the enlightening realization that a future maybe isn’t reason enough to have present clutter.
Professionally, in the community foundation movement we’ve started rallying around the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – 17 targets that include the lofty goals of reducing poverty, ending hunger, halting climate change, improving gender equity, building more inclusive cities, and protecting life on land and in the water.
My first entry-point was last year when I got to accompany the Canadian delegation to the UN’s Habitat III summit in Ecuador (an amazing experience, even moreso that it only takes place every 20 years).
SDG #12 sets the platform for responsible consumption and production, and of all the goals, I think it’s the easiest for anyone to start with – whether as an individual who cares, or as a responsible corporate or government entity. Nothing has value to you when you’re dead. And possessions don’t make us happy – it’s the people in our lives and experiences we share that do. So we, the world, need a complete overhaul of mindset. And it’s the wealthy countries, with the spending power to influence (decrease) global production trends, that should lead the way.
I know this is a heavy topic… and it’s heavy on Mother Earth too. For we are such a wasteful species. Let me illustrate this to you with some of the facts I’ve uncovered. Like me, you may be dismayed to learn of the waste and damage we have caused to date. (But keep reading – I’ll highlight some hope at the end).
For starters, a recent study out of the U.S. found that humans have produced as much plastic as the weight of 25,000 Empire State buildings since 1950! The Huffington Post reported that if you were to spread out all this plastic ankle-deep, it could cover an area the size of Argentina, the eighth-largest country in the world! The same study found that only 9 per cent of that plastic had been recycled, 12 per cent incinerated, and the rest – a whopping 79 per cent – has ended up in landfills, oceans and other natural environments.
What are the implications of all these plastics in the landfill? Most plastics take up to 400 years to decompose (and some chemicals up to 1,000 years). The toxic chemicals in plastic can leak into the ground and pollute waterways, harming wildlife and people. In fact, Environment Health News reported that the carcinogenic chemical known as BPA was found in 90 per cent of premature babies.
It’s a similar story with clothes that wind up in landfills. With cheap manufacturing in developing countries substantially lowering the cost of clothes production, this has resulted in lower prices for the developed world. The result? For decades North America and Europe (in particular) have gorged on temporary clothes for cheap, fleeting thrills. Consumers in North America are buying and disposing of five times more clothes now than we did 25 years ago, author Elizabeth Cline covers in her book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2013).
To appease their conscience, people (myself included) often donate their used and unwanted clothing to local charities, which sometimes make their way into appreciative hands. But half of the clothing donated in North America ends up overseas in developing countries, The Huffington Post reports. There, donated clothes undermine local jobs and fashion, reduce people’s earning power, harm the economy and local culture, and end up homogenizing and mainstreaming cheap “fashion” even more.
You might be surprised to know that when natural fibres (cotton, linen and silk) or semi-synthetic fibres (like rayon) are buried in a landfill, they produce potent greenhouse gas methane when they degrade. But unlike organic foods, clothes can’t be composted (even if made of natural fibres) due to all the chemical processing they’ve gone through during their interactions with bleach, dyes, screenprints, etc.
Do we really want a world where everyone’s clothes are made out of toxic, poor-quality materials? A world in which cultural influences are no longer visible? I sure don’t.
(If you’re interested, the Netflix documentary, The True Cost, explores the sickening treatment of garment workers in more detail. (“I believe these clothes are produced by our blood“…))
With all this in mind, I was curious to know how waste and recycling is managed in my city… and what more can be done – in Ottawa and around the world. Here’s what I learned:
- Almost all residential waste from Ottawa is processed and disposed of in Ottawa, while most commercial and institutional waste is exported, much of it to northern New York state. Source: City of Ottawa.
- Because about 50 per cent of Ottawa’s garbage is organic material, the City of Ottawa implemented a “green bin” program in January 2010 to collect organic waste and convert it to compost. The City keeps 10 per cent of the converted compost for community-based tree planting and gardening, while the waste management facility keeps 90 per cent, sharing compost with Ottawa farmers. The green bin program is expected to divert 70,000 to 80,000 tonnes of waste from Ottawa’s landfills. Source: Ottawa Life.
- The City of Ottawa also runs a paper and plastics recycling program. In 2016, 21,700 tonnes of paper and plastics collected in the black and blue bin curbside recycling program resulted in $9,765,000 of revenue, according to the City. The materials collected are sorted at a Material Recovery Facility, baled, and shipped to the highest bidder.
It always gets me excited when we can leverage economics for environmental (or social) good. Especially as behavioural change is easier to achieve when there’s an incentive behind it.
Looking at innovations in Canada and around the world:
- There are textile recycling companies across Canada.
- Companies are exploring “closed-loop technology” for fashion, where instead of going from single-use to landfill, textiles would loop from factory to store to buyer’s closet to secondhand retailer to textile recycler, and then back to the textile factory to start the lifecycle over. However, commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still five to 10 years away, Newsweek reports.
(Part of the trouble, they note, is that once cotton is dyed, treated or blended with other materials, the process no longer works).
- A company called etee has developed alternatives to plastic wrap – a reusable, natural and biodegradable organic cotton and reclaimed leather-based product that offers spillproof properties and keeps your food fresh in place of plastic. The company says you can expect 120-150 uses.
- Also see RePack.
- Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are working with the Plastics Environmental Council (PEC) to encourage manufacturers to add certain chemicals during the production phase, which would help the plastic to biodegrade in landfills, and produce methane and gases that could be converted to energy. Learn more here.
- The Guardian reports that large companies have developed plant-based alternatives to conventional, petrol-based plastic, and that smaller companies are focusing on developing recycling technology to tackle the plastic in our oceans and landfills.
- The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation is doing a lot of research and work to promote the concept of the “circular economy”, which is based on three principles:
1. Preserve and enhance natural capital by controlling finite stocks and balancing renewable resource flows.
2. Optimize resource yields by designing for remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling to keep components and materials circulating in and contributing to the economy.
3. Foster system effectiveness by controlling and reducing land use, air, water and noise pollution, release of toxic substances, and climate change.
So where does this leave you, me, and our planet? Are there equal parts waste and damage, hope and opportunity? I would like to think yes… and just for now. Because watch us unite as responsible citizens to tip that scale.
So here’s my request…
Let’s each consider how we can reduce our own consumption – in general, and especially with textiles and plastics.
Buy less. (Take it from the best-selling Marie Kondo: how many of those items truly “spark joy” for you?).
Create a revolution with our wallets by buying from eco-conscious suppliers and avoiding the cheap, mass-manufactured knockoffs and lure of possessions we really don’t need. Money talks, the market listeners, and the conscious shopper is more powerful than you realize.
Recycle more mindfully, and start to protect our planet as we would our own bodies and families.
You can be environmental leaders, while elevating your reputation and bottom line profits. From sourcing from renewable and sustainable suppliers, to using longer-lasting materials that are less likely to break down, optimizing your production mechanics, minimizing waste and maximizing recycling output, you can set the stage for “greening” the manufacturing world.
You can ethically source your suppliers to support those that are making the above changes to protect our planet. Again, money talks, and yours can do so at a large scale for maximum influence.
All of the above, plus consider policies you can introduce to “green” your procurement processes to give preference to responsible suppliers with sustainable and eco-friendly practices.
Create business conditions and incentives that will encourage more businesses to adopt environmentally friendly practices.
Use your purchasing power sustainably. Buy within your country to support local jobs, strengthen the national economy, and take a stance against the mass manufacturing of cheap, low-quality goods and poor labour conditions.
Set a principled example throughout government. Ensure your workplace policies and practices minimize waste and support recycling.
Introduce policies that pivot the country from depleting finite resources to pursuing renewable energy sources.
Work with the private sector to align their values, practices and commitments.
Work with the education sector to ensure that environmental responsibility is part of the core curriculum not just a periphery undertaking.
Make it easier for citizens to make eco-conscious decisions that are affordable, to minimize waste, and to recycle more easily in their own homes.
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Rather than continuing to lead Mother Nature to her demise, we can set the standards – personally and professionally – to support our planet and species in health and longevity.
It’s time to think beyond our own lifetime.