Two bamboo toothbrushes on a tropical plant leaf

A journey toward zero waste sounds a lot harder than it actually is. (Photo: Marco Verch via Flickr)

Since the 1970s, the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra that became ingrained in every schoolchild’s brain has served as a double-edged sword. While it moved us toward greater environmental awareness, it also led us into a false sense of security that cleared our conscience and empowered us to consume and waste more. In the midst of today’s climate emergency, it’s time to rethink the three Rs.

In Canada, residential food, yard and paper waste per person increased by 30 per cent between 2002 and 2012. Today, we generate about two kilograms of waste per person per day — one of the highest rates in developed countries. Toronto alone trucks 40 tonnes of compacted garbage out of the city to a nearby landfill every 10 minutes. Despite the latest push away from plastic bags, we have clearly failed at reducing consumption and reusing disposable goods. The more effective we seemingly became at dealing with waste, the less it mattered how much we produced. Out of sight, out of mind.

We are essentially exporting environmental degradation and harms to human health.

Out of sight is part of the problem because we don’t see what happens next — and it isn’t pretty. More than 85 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste ends up in landfills, and not necessarily our own. Since Canada doesn’t actually do much processing of recycling, a lot of that waste gets shipped out of the country. In 2018, Canada exported 44,800 tonnes of plastic waste. Once exported, it’s harder to track what happens next. Many times, where demand is low or the waste is contaminated, it gets burned in the developing countries where it ends up. We are essentially exporting environmental degradation and harms to human health.

So where does that leave us? The three Rs placed the bulk of the onus on individuals to try and change their habits toward renewable, sustainable practices. While that is certainly one piece of the puzzle, habits are hard to change, and it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We need to amplify more important Rs that not only take into account corporate responsibility but build on this country’s impressive innovation and ingenuity.

We should no longer be aiming for disposability as the gold standard.

That starts with rethinking and redesigning products before they’re made. Design decisions can help reduce and prevent waste at its source. We should no longer be aiming for disposability as the gold standard. Instead, long-lasting, reusable, non-toxic products that incorporate recycled materials should be our modus operandi.

That’s one of the central tenets of a circular economy, which has already taken over parts of Europe and Scandinavia, and which Canadian megacities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are in the process of embracing. Unwanted materials became raw materials for something else. Goods are made to be recirculated and waste is gradually weeded out of the system. It’s a journey toward zero waste that sounds a lot harder than it actually is.

Across Ontario, several businesses are also taking this message to heart. Package- and plastic-free stores are popping up around the city, where you can find products redesigned to drastically reduce waste. Products like stainless steel food containers, bamboo toothbrushes and wraps that use beeswax to keep food fresh are all examples of businesses stepping up to do their part to protect our planet.

These, however, are in the minority. It will take strong legislation and enticing economic incentives to convince more companies and new innovators to consider how they make their products with the planet in mind. But first and foremost, it will take an acknowledgement that a new generation of Rs need to be at the forefront, reflecting our new and urgent reality.

This op-ed was originally published in the Hamilton Spectator.