COLUMN: Recycling unlikely to save the world

I’ve become convinced that recycling is not going to save the world.

I say this because after embarking on a very unscientific and crude examination process, I’ve come to the conclusion that because recycled materials like plastic, aluminum, paper and kitchen waste are now a commodity, there seems to be an awful lot of it around. My recycle bins have never been stuffed so full of, well, stuff.

In our house, my wife and I have a staging area for our recyclables on the corner of our kitchen island. I’m usually the one who transports it from the island to its various containers in the garage. It has become quite a process.

I’ve become mystified at the frequency of trips I’m making to the garage of late. Simple consumer items are often double and triple packaged in that impossible-to-tear plastic, tiny items come in packaging that is absurdly oversized, and bigger items, like TVs, come with so much packaging it requires disposal over the course of several weeks.

I try to keep it all in perspective though, knowing that consumerism is growing globally. In India, 15 million new cellphone subscribers are signed up every month. In China, the middle class is growing so fast that country builds cities the equivalent of Greater Vancouver every month. I wonder if those countries recycle.

In Canada, I appreciate the fact that most of this stuff is ending up in transfer waste stations for reuse (at least I hope it is), but I can’t help but think that the raw materials and energy needed to produce this packaging must be at record levels.

What ever happened to the call for reduced packaging by retail corporations and their suppliers?

It faded swiftly, and has since been replaced by a radical new plan that will change how recycling materials are collected, processed and marketed.

According to the Packaging and Printed Paper Stewardship Plan, put forth to the provincial government last month by Multi-Material British Columbia, a group of retailers and manufacturers largely responsible for the incredible amounts of garbage and recyclable materials that society creates, the change will shift all costs of blue box recycling from civic taxpayers to industry with the goal of reducing packaging.

In a nutshell, the new waste management system will see manufacturers and stores pay 100 per cent of the costs of recycling their products and packaging, but will also retain ownership of the recycled material.

In my opinion, there are two flaws in this approach.

At first glance, it would seem reasonable that in order to reduce packaging costs, retailers and manufactures would simply reduce packaging amounts. But if there is value in recycled paper, newsprint, cardboard, tins and other recyclables, where is the incentive to stop producing it?

Mega-corporations like Tim Hortons and Loblaw, both of which are stakeholders in Multi-Material B.C., aren’t dummies – they won’t incur a cost if there isn’t a potential profit in it.

It only stands to reason that if recyclables are profitable, the more that is produced the more profit is made, especially if there is a monopoly.

What we can also reasonably presume is that under this new system, expected to take full effect in spring 2014, consumers will be forced to pay more for packaged materials, packaging itself won’t be reduced, and that industry will profit from it.

Not exactly a stunning win for the environment, especially since much of that material has the potential to still end up in the landfill at additional cost to taxpayers.

Putting recycled materials and costs in the hands of retailers and industry can be manufactured to look like a good idea, but I’m not buying it.

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