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Who is responsible for waste management?

When I was growing up, around 60 years ago, recycling as we know it now did not exist. However, we did recycle, or rather, reuse.
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When I was growing up, around 60 years ago, recycling as we know it now did not exist. However, we did recycle, or rather, reuse.

Milk was delivered to our house in bottles (so was bread by another delivery), which we returned empty to the delivery driver (houses might even have cubbyhole boxes by the side or back door for milk products). Old cloths were kept as rags for cleaning; paper towels and the like were unknown. Groceries were packed in paper bags but using one’s cloth shopping bags was not unusual. Large retail purchases may be boxed but more likely to be taken home or delivered unwrapped, although a blanket would often be used to cover and protect it during travel. These were easy, practical, habitual steps we took. We knew no other.

But 50 or so short years later, it’s different. Consumer products are considerably more plentiful, varied and available. Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is a catchphrase for shopping. Costs of production and product legal liability are higher. Human consumption in developed countries like Canada and the U.S. has skyrocketed. We are truly a land of plenty and consumers of more than we produce. Significantly increased packaging and waste are inevitable consequences, for which our lands and waters are paying a high price.

What’s to be done? In the Jan. 16 edition of the St. Albert Gazette, columnist Ken Allred told us: consume less, package less. Quite right.

The first – overconsumption – is harder to fix. Our wealth, abundance and easy access to “new and improved” products feed our compulsion to consume more. It only took about one generation, mine, to kick-start the consumer revolution and a few other related ones. It may take another hopefully gentle revolution to change our consumer behaviour.

The other – waste, packaging and its outcomes, recycling plans and programs – is easier to fix. And we did.

Good recycling programs have been introduced in most communities in Canada and Europe (in the U.S. and elsewhere, not so much). But these programs are now challenged. The markets for recycled products are changing, an inevitable outcome to continued overproduction and consumption. Recycling costs are up and recycling technology is also being challenged.

World population has grown too big for the resources available to sustain it, even if we used these resources wisely. Developing countries tend to show higher population increases; developed countries tend to show higher consumption and waste increases. Either way, we have a serious problem, which cannot be fixed quickly, at least not without draconian, government-directed measures to ease population pressures and reduce consumption.

As consumers, we do control the market; indeed, we are the market. Producers know this, but they also now how to influence and manipulate the market. That’s actually good business.

However, consumer leadership and habits also influence the products available to us, the amount purchased and the packaging for our purchases, including if packaging is needed at all for some products. That’s the crux of recycling initiatives. It then puts the onus on producers to responsibly manage volume produced and product packaging, which can lead to less material we need to waste and recycle. Producers can take heed of responsible selling and end-of-life outcomes of their products, or consumers with their governments will help them. It’s called “extended producer responsibility.” It’s effective, efficient, and consumer shared and driven.

Roger Jackson is a former civil servant and a St. Albert resident.