Ontario can’t easily change culture of waste
The Ontario government says there is too much garbage going into the province’s landfills, so it has come up with a solution. If green-bin-type garbage were banned from landfills, the government reasons, the problem would be significantly reduced.
If the ban goes ahead, the government will be getting its fingers deeply into how we manage our homes. It’s one thing to be encouraged to use a green bin, quite another to be ordered to do so. In Ottawa, with green bin use at 50 per cent, this is going to split the public right down the middle.
For those who believe the world can be perfected by the actions of government, the Liberals’ plan for a “waste-free” Ontario will be desirable and long overdue. Those who think it’s not government’s job to tell us what to put in our garbage bags will be less impressed.
The government’s interest in micro-managing our lives doesn’t stop at the garbage bin. There is also concern that too much food is being wasted. Please, everyone, clean your plates and don’t let those vegetables in the fridge get so decrepit that you have to throw them out.
The government’s new approach on garbage is a bit of a Rip Van Winkle moment. Thirteen years ago, the Liberals set a target of 60 per cent of waste being diverted from landfills. Then it took a long nap, only to wake up and find out its dream had not come true. The government could hardly repeat its target of 60 per cent waste diversion, so now it is shooting higher. The goal is to divert all waste from landfills in what the government calls a “circular economy.”
That’s a tall order, given that we live in a throwaway society. Rotting food is only part of the problem. Our economy is driven by consumerism, and products that last a long time or can be repaired are bad news for sellers of new goods. Appliances, furniture, electronics and clothes are all meant to have a short life before they are pushed aside by the latest thing.
To effect such a major societal change, the government would need to show some compelling benefits. It falls a little short there. The landfills will only last another 20 years, they say. This is well beyond the worry horizon of the average person.
How about the greenhouse gas argument, then? Pushing up Ontario’s organic garbage waste diversion rate from 38 per cent to 48 per cent would be the equivalent of removing 64,000 cars from the roads. OK, but there are 12 million cars in Ontario. We’re talking a mini-change here.
If none of that works for you, the increased waste diversion is being touted as a job creator. Think of all the new jobs that will be created in the recycling and compost sectors. Don’t think of all the old jobs that would be lost doing what we do now.
So there are those benefits, but what about the cost? That’s the point on which governments seldom want to dwell. Organic waste diversion is costly, as the City of Ottawa has demonstrated with its ineffective green bin contract. For businesses, diverting a tonne of organic waste is about 50 per cent more expensive than sending it to a local landfill. Who will ultimately pay that cost?
And then there is the issue of the effectiveness of a ban on food garbage. There is no way to police it, short of hiring an army of garbage inspectors. Nova Scotia banned organic waste in landfills 20 years ago, but organics still make up half of what ends up in their dumps.
There is no doubt we live in a wasteful society, whether it’s food, excessive packaging or disposable consumer goods. Ultimately, changing that is up to us as consumers. An organic garbage ban is a big hammer, but it’s unlikely to hit the nail on the head.