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Why do we have a waste management problem?

lettre waste management

by Amélie Côté, Équiterre’s Analyst in responsible consumption and reduction at source, Équiterre

Quebec’s waste management system is a major collective failure. But the good news is that we are not doomed to bury our heads in the sand… or our garbage in ever-expanding landfill sites.

We have a fantastic opportunity right now to help fix our broken waste management system. May 25 is the first day of public hearings for the Bureau d’audiences publiques en environnement (BAPE) consultations on residual waste in Quebec. It’s a very exciting time for people like me, who have been working to improve our waste management systems for years, but the BAPE hearings should also be of significant interest to every citizen.

The Ministry of the Environment recently authorized increases in landfill capacity because as a society, we have not been able to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill sites and incinerators over the years.

We’re unfortunately still focusing on how to manage our waste rather than asking ourselves the hard questions of why do we create so much waste in the first place and what we can do to reduce our waste at the source. There is still too much focus on managing the symptoms rather than on treating the disease itself.

Why are we throwing so much out?

We’ve all heard some stats on how far down the wrong path we’ve gone and how much work remains to be done.

For example, 21% of the materials sent to landfills or incinerators are in fact recyclable.

We throw out 1.5 million tonnes of organic materials per year and 79% of food waste occurs throughout the production and distribution chain (that is, from the farm to the grocery store).

And 95% of the clothing and fabric that we throw out is in fact still suitable for use! Of the 287,000 tonnes sent for disposal in 2019-2020, 272,650 tonnes could have been reused.

So why are we throwing so much out? The short answer is that it’s often easier and cheaper to throw stuff out than to reuse, repair or recycle it. And that’s the crux of the problem.

It’s also alarmingly convenient to keep expanding mega-landfill sites, in order to dispose of what we no longer need. But what in fact is this “garbage” that’s filling the sites? It’s wooden furniture that could have been handed down from one generation to the next. It’s toasters that could have been repaired. It’s lightly used clothing that was produced at great human and environmental cost.

Reduce, reuse, repair

Let’s get real: our production methods and our consumption habits are simply not sustainable. Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) is the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources. This year, EOD for the world as a whole is August 22. If the rest of the world consumed as we do in Canada, EOD would be March 18.

There’s no shortcut to transitioning to a less wasteful society. We need to reduce at the source. We need to reduce our consumption of things we don’t need and eliminate unnecessary packaging, we need to prioritize reuse and buying second-hand, and we need to ensure that Quebecers can access repair services.

It will be a big feat, and will require a lot of political courage. We need strong legislation and significant financial investments.

Cutting households some slack

The solutions that these BAPE hearings will propose will go beyond merely asking citizens to step up to the plate. Considering the magnitude of the problem, we cannot simply rely on Richard putting out his recycling bin, Jenny going zero waste and Susan getting into the composting habit. It’s time to stop blaming individuals for the systemic problems that our institutions need to help fix and to insist that other segments of society do their part as well.

Over 50% of the materials sent for disposal come from businesses, institutions and the construction, renovation and demolition sector.

Changing our perspectives

These BAPE hearings offer a golden opportunity to not just see this sad state of affairs for what it is, but to roll up our sleeves and tackle the problem head on to develop a waste management system in which we can take pride.

After all, what’s old is new again. We must value what we currently have to effectively build a more circular economy.

But when it comes to our approaches to our complex waste management problems, a more apt saying would be: in with the new, out with the old. Let’s put our old unsustainable approaches out with the trash!