Winnipeg needs to clean up its garbage problem

Spring cleanups are great events, but we need more radical action to beautify our city and protect our natural environment, says Susan Huebert.

Spring cleanups are great events, but we need more radical action to protect our environment: Susan Huebert

Neighbours survey garbage on Furby Street in Winnipeg during an April 2019 cleanup. The city's problem with litter is only getting worse, says Susan Huebert. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Canadians have a garbage problem, and we need radical change.

The issue is not a lack of ability to produce waste, as is obvious from the 69 shipping containers of garbage that might even now be on their way back from the Philippines and the vast quantities of refuse all around the country.

The problem seems to be that, despite decades of public awareness campaigns and efforts to help people take responsibility for the garbage they produce, many Canadians are still amazingly careless about how much garbage they produce and what they do with it afterwards.

I know that from personal experience. Earlier this month, as I have in previous years, I took part in a volunteer cleanup of Omand's Creek in Winnipeg, which runs near Polo Park and other shopping areas.

Based on what I saw this year, the situation has not really improved and has possibly become worse. From shopping carts abandoned by the water to plastic bags wrapped around bushes to straws, all kinds of garbage seems to accumulate in and around the creek each year.

A volunteer picks up litter during a cleanup near Omand's Creek in April 2019. At another cleanup in the area earlier this month, Susan Huebert says she saw everything from abandoned shopping carts to plastic bags wrapped around bushes. (Travis Golby/CBC)

A new issue came when the organizers from the Green Action Centre had to instruct us on what to do about any needles we might find (someone would come with containers for safe disposal of the needles).

Meanwhile, plastic bags and bottles, paper receipts, unidentifiable bits of debris, and even a construction sign all went into bags destined either for recycling or the garbage dump.

Going beyond cleanups

The volunteers were able to pick up a lot of garbage during the official cleanup, but even that was not enough.

The next evening, while walking a dog in the area, I found several pieces of garbage which I picked up and threw out. Either the garbage was outside the cleaning area or other people walking through later in the day had carelessly dropped what they were carrying.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg attends the 'Friday For Future' rally in Berlin on March 29, 2019. Winnipeg needs someone like her to champion our garbage cleanup efforts, says Huebert. (Michael Kappeler/The Associated Press)

What we need, obviously, is not just cleanups (though they're satisfying events). We need a change in public behaviour — and maybe someone to champion the issue.

In Europe, climate action has a champion in teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who has been staging school strikes and speaking with world leaders to protest adults' inaction on climate change. Perhaps Winnipeg needs someone like that for garbage disposal.

The City of Winnipeg website notes that between 2011 and 2016, waste collection on a per capita basis decreased by 22 per cent, while recycling and composting had both increased, with composting statistics rising by 221 per cent.

Still, we cannot afford to become complacent when the health of the natural world is at stake.

Commit to cleaning up environment

Many people were likely shocked in 2018 when scientists announced that the world likely has only 12 years left before a potential climate disaster. While garbage in waterways might not be the first thing that comes to mind regarding climate change, care for one aspect of the environment can translate into action in other areas.

Leaders like Greta Thunberg or their Canadian equivalents can inspire radical action, but their impact is limited unless others join in to help.

What if Winnipeggers from each neighbourhood decided to hold a creek cleanup once or twice a year and then expanded their efforts to protecting the rest of the natural world? This city could soon become one of the cleanest municipalities in the country.

Substantial change is necessary to preserve the natural world, but small actions can inspire greater ones.

In recent years, the concept of "reduce, reuse, recycle" has become a call for ordinary people to get involved in helping to combat pollution and climate change. Individuals can help by making the decision to avoid plastic or to buy bulk foods, and these actions can be effective in reducing waste.

Still, people can do even more, such as picking up garbage each day as they go about their business.

Substantial change is necessary to preserve the natural world, but small actions can inspire greater ones.

After committing to keep Winnipeg's creeks clean, people should take radical next steps to help reverse the threats to our natural world.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Susan Huebert is a Winnipeg writer for children and adults, on topics ranging from science to current events and social justice.


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