Call it transformations, not garbage


by admin on November 18, 2009

By Gary Martin

I want to wade into the dump debate, a perennial favorite of this Wakefield, Quebec newspaper, and plant a seed in what we call ‘garbage.’

In this letter I am putting ‘garbage’ in scare quotes because it might be time to re-think ‘garbage.’ It seems to me that we create a lot of stuff and immediately throw it away. Let me suggest that hyper-consumerism, packaging and planned obsolescence are myopic and cowardly. However, I probably won’t change North American consumption patterns with a Letter to the Editor.

While I wait (scowling, arms folded, toe tapping) for capitalism to fizzle, maybe I can make another more practical suggestion. Note that I said “practical.” I didn’t say “easy.” And I have to point out that this idea actually came from discussions with a very low-key and often misunderstood visionary in our community who, incidentally, has the smallest ecological footprint I have ever witnessed.

Every single item in a landfill contains embodied energy. In other words, raw materials had to be extracted, transported, converted and/or assembled. After we used this stuff it was disassembled and transported again to one of these places nobody wants in their back yard.  We have figured out how to re-use some of it through ‘recycling’ which is a ridiculously expensive, inefficient and energy-intensive separation process tied to notoriously inconsistent commodity markets thanks to that pesky capitalism.

One of the main ‘recycling’ streams is plastics. Now consider that all plastics are petroleum products, and we are apparently producing as much petroleum as we can now (Google “peak oil” for that side of the story and more thrills than bungee jumping). Demand for both oil and plastics keep increasing, especially in emerging manufacturing nations like China and India. It is likely that we will run short of oil and then (new) plastic in a decade or three. Isn’t that amazing? Who would have guessed?

But luckily, because ‘recycling’ is inefficient and relatively recent, there are still tons of plastic snuggling safely, comfortably and accessibly in landfills, along with a host of other materials that will increase in value in proportion to the cost of energy in our near future.

I suspect this is why the Cohens, Ottawa’s premier recyclers, backed the Danford landfill proposal. Clever, clever Cohens! For the record, and with respect to Andre Carriere, the Danford landfill opponent, I think burning ‘garbage’ to create energy is as misguided as making ‘garbage’ to start with. It is an interim strategy. We can do better.

Allow me to make another suggestion before I once again step down from my soapbox. Instead of ‘garbage’ maybe there are only endless transformations. And, in the context of this argument, the biggest transformation we can make might be the way we think about ‘garbage.’

Gary Martin is still a student of green building in Masham.