Manitoba·Opinion

Pandemic proves companies can change in an emergency — so what about that climate crisis?

Canadian companies' quick shift in production during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that with the right leadership and legislation, fast changes are possible. It also shows we could change our recycling and waste habits to curb climate change.

Canada must invest in processing and using its waste, Joanne Seiff writes

If businesses can change dramatically for a health emergency, they can do the same to deal with climate change, Joanne Seiff says. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Many Canadian companies' quick shift in production during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that with the right leadership and legislation, fast changes are possible.

It also shows we could change our recycling and waste habits to curb climate change.

Pre-pandemic advertising campaigns about our dirty recycling and the rejection of contaminated recycling sent overseas for processing misses Canada's biggest problem when it comes to trash.

Our recycling system is flawed and as individuals, we can't fix it. We can all make an effort and recycle more, but putting the blame on individuals makes us feel guilty without enabling large-scale reduction, reuse or recycling.

A ban on single use plastics is a start, but Canada can do more.

Fixing our society's throwaway culture needs to start at the beginning. Instead of rewarding supply-chain management that enables the consumption of endless new things, we must require manufacturers to address their entire product life cycle with the environment in mind.

If a company produces or imports takeout plastic containers, government should require it to create a fact sheet. This should explain its entire "life," including use, reuse and recycling, as well as listing the energy it takes to produce it, and all of the waste and packaging it generates.

The fact sheet should indicate how the product can be used, reused and effectively recycled within the country, or even within each province.

If Canada doesn't have the facilities to reuse or recycle the product? One option is that the company can't market its product here. 

In the past, we shipped great quantities of used goods to other international processing markets. Many places don't want our trash and recycling anymore. It ends up in landfills.

Even if they do still want it, we waste an enormous amount of energy and potential by shipping it internationally.

The second possibility is that Canada allows those products, but also invests in programs that reuse and recycle them. 

There are already small-scale recycling and reuse programs, but if we need larger innovation, we've got to fund it. If government supports time-sensitive goals for processing our recycling, huge change might happen within short time frames.

Some waste needs innovative technology. Other options use less complex systems. 

In Fort Nelson, B.C., a Subway franchise owner felt he produced too much waste in his restaurant, so he bought some red wiggler worms. 

These worms ate through his paper and cardboard waste so successfully that he used them at the local landfill. During the first year trial, the worms worked through 70,000 kilograms of waste diverted from the landfill.

Worm composting isn't hard, and it produces nutrient-rich castings, ideal for use in farming and gardening.

Provincial and federal grants, used carefully, might help us stop shipping waste elsewhere and instead find ways to use it — to improve farming — at home. Both industry and agriculture might find composting cost-effective in the long run.

Sorting through recycling is done by hand in some places. While contamination and mistakes happen, if humans are involved, they can reassess what else can be salvaged, reused or recycled more sustainably.

The thing that keeps us from sustainability progress isn't dirty diapers or the poor design of recycling and garbage bins. It's a lack of leadership

This isn't a crazy notion — it's already happening in the municipality of Louise, Man., southwest of Winnipeg. The lifespan of the landfill was doubled just by sorting and harvesting recycling that had been mixed in with the waste.

Such sorting could drastically reduce our landfill needs, plus capture, reuse and recycle the enormous potential that is thrown out. It could result in more jobs, too.

We have individual responsibility when it comes to trash and recycling. Canadians should use less wasteful products, reduce single-use wrappers, and more. 

However, on a larger scale, Canada must invest in processing and using its waste. It saves energy, international shipping and processing costs, creates jobs and reduces the rate at which we fill the landfills.

The thing that keeps us from sustainability progress isn't dirty diapers or the poor design of recycling and garbage bins. It's a lack of leadership. 

The provincial and federal governments could change this trashy story. We have an opportunity during this stay-at-home time to think about how to fix this problem. 

It's time for those in charge to dig in and invest in legislation that makes real change.

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

Read more opinion pieces published by CBC Manitoba.

About the Author

Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.

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