Science·What on Earth?

Why environmentalists want us to stop decluttering

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at why decluttering may not be so good for the planet and why some people feel e-bikes are an undervalued sustainability option.

Also: Climate action turns the Australian election

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • Why environmentalists want us to stop decluttering
  • Climate action turns the Australian election
  • E-bike buyers deserve cash rebates, too, advocates say

Why environmentalists want us to stop decluttering

(Shutterstock)

Spring cleaning season is here, but before you start asking if your household items spark joy, some environmentalists want you to ask if your decluttering binge is just adding to the global waste problem.

"The reality is that most of the stuff that we get rid of in Canada goes to landfill," said Myra Hird, a professor at the school of environmental studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and author of Canada's Waste Flows. 

"Many people think that consuming is OK so long as we 'give away' what we no longer want."

Numerous studies have shown the mental health benefits of organizing and simplifying your space, and the urge to purge has only grown during the pandemic, when being stuck at home has pushed many of us to reckon with our immediate surroundings. 

But the problem is all that stuff has to end up somewhere — and often, it's the landfill. In 2016, 347 kilotonnes of textiles wound up in Canadian landfills, according to the 2020 National Waste Characterization Report produced by Environment and Climate Change Canada. 

Thirty-one per cent of the 10.2 million tonnes of waste generated by the residential sector was non-degradable, consisting largely of plastics, building materials, metals, glass (including dishware), electronics and bulky objects such as furniture and appliances. 

People are much more likely to throw out household items such as old lamps and couches than attempt to recycle or donate them, according to a 2021 survey by Habitat for Humanity ReStore and Angus Reid.

We have been conditioned to think of recycling as only what can go in the blue box, like cans and newspapers, said Julia Deans, the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Canada. Plus, she adds, there's the issue of convenience. 

"People think, 'I don't know where to bring it' or 'I would just rather have it out of sight.'" 

By donating to Habitat for Humanity's ReStore program, for example, Canadians last year diverted 43,000 tonnes of what would have otherwise been waste, Deans said. 

But even those who think they are finding a new home for their stuff may be overestimating its worth to someone else. 

Clothing is one example of this assumption, said Hird, noting that used clothing stores are overwhelmed with donations and that most of it goes to waste or is passed on to poorer countries, which are also overwhelmed with used textiles

Meanwhile, Goodwill stores in the U.S. pleaded with eager purgers in 2021 to stop donating their trash

So how can you declutter your home without creating waste? First, see if you yourself can reuse or repurpose the items. Shelves and dressers can be repainted and reupholstered, old textiles can convert to cleaning rags and some broken electronics can be repaired. 

Also, don't assume what you put out for recycling will actually be recycled, Hird said. In Canada, less than 10 per cent of the plastics we use are recycled. "Recycling is not the solution. Reuse is better."

If you still just want items gone, be intentional with your donations — don't just leave them on the curb or in a charity bin. Post items in your local "buy nothing" group, take part in community giveaway days, find someone in your area who is collecting used items for specific causes, like Ukrainian refugees, and contact charities directly to see what they will take (some will even come to you).

Finally, stop accumulating clutter in the first place by buying less. Not only does it often go to landfill, but product packaging is one of the worst offenders, making up half of the three million tonnes of plastic waste Canada produces every year.

And don't use decluttering as an excuse to buy more items, such as plastic organizing bins and trays to give your house a more spartan look.

"Decluttering can add to the burden in our landfills, but ironically, it can also lead to the purchase of more stuff," said Vancouver journalist J.B. MacKinnon, author of The Day the World Stops Shopping.

"It can be a hollow gesture if it's just another lifestyle trend or 'look.' It probably won't last if it doesn't involve bigger changes in values, such as practising voluntary simplicity."

Natalie Stechyson

Reader feedback

Andrew Mallett writes:

"I truly understand the need to decarbonize. But a lot of my family and friends in past discussions always end up in this unknown predicament. 

"I have been a truck driver for about 24 years and I remember the big [northeastern] power outage of 2003. I recall being stuck out in Bowmanville, Ont., waiting for a load out of St. Marys Cement. To pass the time we were looking for food at the Fifth Wheel truck stop. They had no power as well. I remember watching all the people stranded, out of fuel. I also remember the other truck drivers commenting about the huge power lines overhead from the Pickering Power Plant 'humming' … [even though] the source of the problem started somewhere in the United States.

"Has our government forecasted the future needs of clean energy solutions in generating and distribution and overall capacities? I mean, if everybody's going to be charging cars and buying induction ovens and changing out our home heating for electric options, shouldn't we be thinking about that, as well as improving our highways and transportation?"

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News recently launched a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! With Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, skyrocketing oil prices are forcing countries to rethink their energy supply. This week, What On Earth looks back to the 1970s energy crisis for lessons. What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: Climate action turns the Australian election

Historically speaking, climate action has not been a strong vote-getter, but it was decisive in last Saturday's Australian election. The rise of Anthony Albanese, leader of the centre-left Labor Party (second from the left in the photo below), to the highest office in the land is widely seen as a correction in the country's climate policies — and it has given hope to environmentalists around the world.

Back in 2019, Liberal Party Leader Scott Morrison became prime minister on a platform that largely downplayed the severity of climate change and emphasized the financial and social costs of curtailing fossil fuel production, notably coal and natural gas. Morrison has been such a staunch defender of these industries that he once mocked his political rivals by bringing a piece of coal into Parliament and telling them, "Don't be afraid." In the last three years, Morrison made only mild gestures toward reducing carbon emissions, becoming something of a "climate pariah" in the process. He attended the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021 — but only after a global pressure campaign.

Meanwhile, his years as PM coincided with some of the most extreme weather in Australian history; Morrison was roundly criticized for a lack of leadership during the horrific 2020 bushfire season.

In Campaign 2022, Australian voters decided enough was enough. While Albanese's party returned to power with a proactive message on the environment, analysts say it was the performance of the Green Party and "teal" independents — fiscally conservative candidates who support strong climate action — in Liberal strongholds that ultimately sent Morrison's party packing. As of this writing, the election commission was still counting votes in order to determine whether Labor would have a majority in Parliament — or whether it would need to count on Greens and "teals" for support.

(James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Addressing thousands of graduates at Seton Hall University in New Jersey this week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres offered stark advice: forget about a career in the fossil fuel industry. "Don't work for climate wreckers," he said. "Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future."

  • After years of declines, the number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico increased by 35 per cent this past season. Experts say it might be because they are adapting to climate change.

E-bike buyers deserve cash rebates, too, advocates say

(Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Cash rebate programs for electric cars, trucks and SUVs should be expanded to include e-bikes, say sustainability and mobility advocates. 

E-bikes, or power-assisted bikes, function like traditional bicycles but are equipped with a battery-powered electric motor to provide a boost when pedalling.

Erin O'Neil, who lives in Ottawa and is on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), has been scanning the market for a power-assisted adult tricycle, which can easily retail for $2,500 or more.

"E-bikes make it easier to be biking around, especially in a disabled body," O'Neil said. "But it's just not something on ODSP that I can afford." 

O'Neil adds she has little patience for the view that an e-bike is a luxury. For her, it's a means of independence. 

"It is not a toy," she said. "I live in an urban area and it is something that could definitely help me get around."

While the federal government recently expanded its electric vehicle rebate program to include SUVs and pickups — offering buyers up to $5,000 for cars less than $55,000 and trucks less than $60,000 — e-bikes and e-cargo bikes were not included.

"It feels really unfair, especially in a climate emergency, to see people get that kind of money to drive trucks and cars around ... and we're just sitting on the sidelines," O'Neil said.

With the birth of their second child, Jessica Barnes and her husband considered the pros and cons of buying a second vehicle.

"Often people will upgrade to a larger vehicle to accommodate a larger family, but we really did not feel good with that decision," said Barnes.

Rather than add another car to the road, the Ottawa family decided last year to spend $8,000 on an e-cargo bike with a front bucket to transport their two young children. 

While any future rebate would come too late for Barnes, she says governments need to focus more on replacing cars, not just the engines that power them.

"In order to incentivize people to buy alternative forms of transportation, there needs to be some kind of financial support."

As for her bike's $8,000 price tag, Barnes said she's still coming out on top compared to buying and owning a car.

"What's your insurance? What's the bill for repairs?" Barnes asked rhetorically. "I guarantee you, we're spending a lot less than a person with a car."

In response to questions about why the federal government gives rebates for buying new electric vehicles (EVs) but not e-bikes, Transport Canada says its zero-emissions vehicles program helps the industry move toward price parity between internal combustion vehicles and higher-priced EVs, with the eventual goal of increasing the share of EVs on the road. 

The department adds that it's investing $400 million over five years to support active transportation infrastructure across Canada.

While the government does not assist buyers of e-bikes, several provinces, as well as Yukon, have introduced rebates of their own. 

E-bike buyers in Nova Scotia can get a rebate of up to $500, while residents in Yukon receive a rebate equal to 25 per cent of the purchase price, capped at $750 for e-bikes and $1,500 for e-cargo bikes. Businesses in B.C. can collect up to $1,700 in assistance for an e-cargo bike.

Ontario does not offer any rebate for e-bikes, but in their election platforms, both the Liberal and Green parties are promising to introduce rebates.

With e-bikes being the fastest-growing segment of bike sales in Canada, the lack of a federal incentive program is a missed opportunity to improve sustainability, according to Brian Pincott, executive director of the advocacy group Vélo Canada Bikes.

"E-bikes stand a much better chance of replacing a car," said Pincott. "Sustainability isn't simply changing a traffic jam of gas-powered cars for a traffic jam of electric-powered cars. We actually need to offer opportunities for people to get out of cars."

Giacomo Panico

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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