On Recycling

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Anyone who sat through high-school science class in the seventies will recall—in addition to all the hype about global cooling—the war on packaging that followed the 1973 oil shock. "It takes more energy to manufacture the packaging for batteries than you get out of the batteries themselves," our teachers admonished us. Gratuitous single-use packaging came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the disposable society, providing much of the impetus for the recycling programs that are now ubiquitous in North America and Europe. For two generations, citizens everywhere have dutifully sorted their household waste, in the knowledge that their civic and environmental rectitude is directly proportional to the quantity of refuse they can divert into their blue bins. Whatever we might think of the ecological value of recycling, there's no denying that its psychological value lies in assuaging the guilt of affluent consumers. As the Spectator's Lionel Shriver put it this week, "I recycle—then lie to myself that I’m saving the planet."

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So the news this month that China will no longer accept the world's recycled materials has landed like a bombshell in our collective psyche. We read with trepidation not merely of the accumulation of thousands of tonnes of recyclable materials in municipal warehouses but of the inevitability of their ending up in local dump sites. As Matthew Keliher, manager of solid waste for Halifax, tells the Globe and Mail, "The recycling market was ruthless before the Chinese ban came in and, now that half that market has dried up and the supply is just overwhelming, it's even more ruthless to get our material out." Exacerbating our anxiety is the hard truth that there are now 8 billion tonnes of plastic garbage in the world—or roughly a tonne for every living person—and the knowledge that alternative technologies like bio-plastics are not yet economically or environmentally viable.

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What does it all mean? It means that the I'm-okay-because-I-recycle chickens are coming home to roost. Just the thought of sending recyclable materials off to landfill is sure to trigger pangs of guilt in millions of Western consumers, many of whom have long since stopped thinking about what happens to their waste after garbage day. This is a guilt reflex that can and should be exploited, since consumer demand can work its magic without negotiating a Paris accord on recycling or imposing a plastic tax. "We don’t need to find another benighted country where we can mound our waste out of sight, the better to continue to kid ourselves," Shriver insists. "We need to design standardized containers for our food and drink that themselves get re-used, like milk bottles of yore." Surely it's not entirely naïve to imagine that the global demand for bottled water—presently running at a mind-boggling 200-billion bottles annually—would dry up if thirsty consumers knew that every one of those single-use plastic containers is destined for landfill.

Here in Canada we have an opportunity to do what we should have done years ago, when we quietly began shipping our recycled waste en masse to China. We can take some of the revenue from the feds' new carbon tax—a measure unlikely to change consumer behaviour or reduce CO2 emissions but guaranteed to generate "a ton of cash"—and use it to subsidize the expansion of Canada's domestic recycling industry so that it can recycle our "low grade" plastics alongside the more profitable "high grade" milk jugs and juice bottles. We might also consider subsidizing waste-management jobs for students, and perhaps underwriting them with funds earmarked for the feds' new "Canada Service Corps."

Supporting a national recycling strategy in this manner should attract broad public support, given that recycling is an entrenched habit of mind and a celebrated civic virtue. And it would be the opposite of green-washing, which, in 2018, would be no small achievement.