By Alexander Hay 


It is perhaps unfortunate that giving people the information they need to make better-informed decisions or to change their behaviour rarely—if ever—has that effect. We instinctively resist change. Nowhere is this more of a problem than when it comes to waste. We know that we are excessively wasteful, in fact, Canadians are the most wasteful per capita on the planet. We know that we must do better, yet we don’t. 

All change is risk. As Canadians we are among the most risk-averse people in the world, as well as the most wasteful, what hope is there for us, if we are to change our wasteful behaviours?

The question deserves a little more un-packaging, literally. When the City of Toronto introduced recycling, our waste production increased. Our self-restraint was loosened, as the guilt of throwing things away to an overflowing landfill was removed; that extra plastic packaging was being recycled, wasn’t it? 

Well, not really. So much of it is contaminated with food waste and other non-recyclable material that a significant proportion is diverted to landfill anyway. We can’t even pay other countries to take the plastics off our hands without inciting threats of war! Unlike India, where plastic waste is re-used in a paving compound for a more durable road surface, or Denmark, where recycling has actually reduced the amount of landfill, Canada has entirely bypassed “reduce, reuse and upcycle,” as milestones on the road to an aspirational ‘zero waste’ future.

Why is it, then, that countries like Denmark were able to reduce landfill with the introduction of recycling? It’s a matter of culture. Danes, like many peoples, have a sense of sufficiency. They simply tend to buy only what they require and then work toward reducing their trash.  For example, a Danish island has decided to move to zero waste

Canadians, on the other hand, are too often driven by consumption and use it to define success. We seem to equate value with quantity. When we buy commodities, they are often packaged in multiples. At a big box store, three individual, non-recyclable containers of a simple shampoo, for example, might be packaged in a non-recyclable plastic-coated cardboard open box, wrapped again in non-recyclable clear plastic ‘bubble pack’. We’re too easily seduced by the sense of convenience and saving, forgetting the inevitable inconvenience and cost of the waste materials we’ve purchased.  Toronto residents produce a half million tonnes of trash per year, and the cost of collection and disposal is around $170 per tonne. We need to change. 

This is more than a question of behavioural change, it’s how we think about and perceive the world, what we value and respect. It’s a question of culture. If we are going to get serious about waste, we need to change our culture.

Cultural change is not easy in a country where self-centred attitudes prevail, but it is possible if we learn to pursue three things in concert: enhanced awareness, contextual change, and supply change. When the three are aligned, change becomes the convenient behaviour, and this in turn, becomes the culture. 

         Enhanced Awareness is achieved partially through enlightening everyone, but most effectively by educating youth and young adults not yet preoccupied with the demands of their own dependents. SustainEd, for example, is doing a marvellous job of explaining the waste and energy cycle, and general issues around sustainability. Its programs are accessible and very real for students.

         Contextual Change is about how we manage waste day to day. Let’s say, for example, the grey garbage bin is reduced in size by half and all paper waste is placed, not in the blue recycling bin, but in a separate bag for collection on garbage days. Leaving only plastics, metals and glass in the blue bin, to be collected once a month.  Participation in projects like the glass container exchange system, available at some grocery stores, or the deposit/return system for alcoholic beverages are very effective, because when people bring their rinsed empties to the store, they are rewarded with a credit against the cost of their next purchase.

         Supply Chain addresses the issues of contamination and landfill by requiring that all products, including containers and packaging, be recyclable. When you buy a new washing machine, perhaps the supplier should be obliged to take the old one away free of charge, and assume responsibility for its recycling.

Canadians are starting to talk about each of these things, but they need to be coordinated around a common policy. Isn’t it time to deal with our own issues—in our communities and our nation rather than passing them on to others? This is a country of exemplary innovation, public spirit, and belief in social justice. 

Perhaps we should apply these ideals to how we live and affect the world around us. We need to correct our bad waste behaviour, talking about it isn’t enough. We need to effect coordinated change that makes waste management not a burden, but rather the norm, part of our culture. We can do better and must do better, for the sake of our children and the world they will inherit.

About the author: Dr. Alec Hay, Founder & Principal of Southern Harbour, Register of Security Engineers & Specialists; is recognized as a global leader in Infrastructure Resilience and Protection Planning and Future Readiness for public and private sector organizations around the world.