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Through the looking glass: There is no planet ‘b’

What would you say if I told you that in one minute of reading this article we have lost one hundred acres of forest? After absorbing that, how would you then respond if I told you that an estimated one million sea creatures are killed by used plastic dumped into the sea each year? Sadly, I didn’t pull those statistics from a forgotten edition of Britannica; that is still our world today.

I can’t recall a time that I wasn’t concerned about global warming, the rain forest, the destruction of our natural resources, or bell bottoms making a comeback. As a teenager, when my young nieces asked for paper to craft, I found myself pulling papers out of the trash and lecturing them about the hazards of their negligence. During family camping trips I would hoard plastic bags to ensure they weren’t burned in fire pits. I refurbished my clothes and kept my trash to an absolute minimum. I’m not sure when my fanaticism reached its fevered pitch, but it hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down. When designing our home one of the main considerations was space for recycling.

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Having endured my obsession since birth, my children are quite used to the regimen and do their best to avoid the psychosis of me finding a pop bottle in the trash. To my great elation I have discovered that my children have also inherited, by way of strict conditioning, my obsessive endeavour to single handedly, or rather small groupedly, save our planet. Together with their friends they attack, ridicule and harass anyone who inadvertently miss the two point shot into the recycling bin and hit the garbage bin conveniently placed next, or often attached, to the same bin. Employing tactics to rival the best bullies the offender is forced to retrieve their submission and make things right. Satisfied that I have instilled a sense of earthly pride in my family I can relax. Box checked.

Imagine my surprise and subsequent horror when I discovered that my mindset is not so common among the adults of the world. Of all the waste that leaves our homes on a yearly basis, a scant 25% makes it to a recycling center, which leaves 75% of our waste still finding its way to the over populated landfills on our planet. After finding a cool cloth to drape across my forehead and a foot stool to hold my shaking feet, I decided to investigate.

The city of Edmonton has an incredibly impressive waste management system. Recycling everything from paper to aggregate, it boasts North America’s largest collection of modern sustainable waste processing and research facilities. A few moments on their website provides the most inexperienced of recyclers, a very comprehensive list regarding the dos and don’ts of recycling. Some areas of Alberta encourage recycling by charging for more than a bag or two of garbage but keeping the recycling free. Other than encouraging nighttime garbage depositing at the neighbors, the premise is good.

The ease and convenience of recycling in the larger centers compared to rural areas can be quite drastic, which likely explains the larger numbers of folks who recycle in the city in contrast to the country. Let’s compare: John in Edmonton finishes his morning coffee. He gathers one bag of various recyclables and deposits it on the corner right next to his trash and heads to work. Done.

Mary in rural Alberta finishes her coffee, throws on her yard work attire (not because she doesn’t work, but rather it is Saturday and the only feasible day she can complete this task) and enters her garage. Having long given up hope of parking a vehicle in it, her garage is reminiscent of a professional recycling center which houses separate containers for magazine paper, card-stock paper, poster board, box board, cardboard, newspaper, colored paper, glossy paper, tins (without lids or with lids attached), clear glass, colored glass, plastics with symbols 2 through 5, milk jugs, juice containers, beer cans, pop bottles, etc. Mary loads all the separate containers into her truck (while a car would lessen emissions and reduce cost to her, she can’t fit all the bins in anything smaller than an SUV) drives to the landfill, unloads the containers, finds the appropriate bins and tosses only the items the landfill accepts. Climbing back into her vehicle Mary drives to the recycling center to unload what the landfill didn’t want. Remember, this is rural. These two facilities are likely many miles apart. As the items are tossed into the bins Mary pulls the items that were mistakenly thrown into the wrong bins and should have been at the landfill. From there Mary hurries to make it to the grocery store where the plastic bag recycling resides, hoping to have time to grab some groceries and head back to the landfill with the misplaced items before it closes.

The 25% is starting to make sense. The conclusion I am left with is an inconvenient truth that would make Al Gore cringe. I don’t think it’s that people don’t care or aren’t educated, I think it’s more an issue of convenience. Most people know that aluminum produced from scrap cuts energy use and air pollution by 95% compared to that produced from bauxite, but if those cans are what stands between them and a Saturday afternoon on a hammock chair with a good book, it’s tough to make a case for that can. It’s fairly common knowledge that recycling paper saves trees, water, oil, landfill space and energy, but can it compete with a weekend excursion with family? I guess that would depend on the family.

Is it just a matter of convenience? San Francisco provides almost as many recycling bins as coffee cups. In Japan there are numerous recycling bins in various locations but not a single trash bin to be found, making tossing garbage quite inconvenient. Texas provides solar powered trash compactors, making it fun to watch and reducing the amount of space taken up in landfills. It’s no secret that when we make it easier for folks to contribute, they do. The fact that a plastic pop bottle will sit in a landfill for close to seven hundred years before decomposing is a lost plot if people can’t find a recycle bin to put it in.

Is it a matter of money? It used to be that recycling was a wealthy habit. A small settlement informally named Dharavi in Mumbai, India would beg to differ. Over two hundred fifty thousand impoverished people are employed in the recycling industry, which is the top contributor of the economic output of over one billion dollars per year. Sadly, the employees still live in poverty, but that wasn’t the point.

Maybe it’s a matter of education. There are still people who believe that our climate change is not anthropogenic. Subscribing to historical data, which cites seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat over six hundred fifty thousand years. However, in 1950 we got past the glacial indecision and managed to break a record that those seven cycles had been unable to accomplish; the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide rose above three hundred parts per million. Currently we are at a record high of over three hundred eighty parts per million. All the white bears say “YEAH!” Our prize? A mammoth sized ecological footprint that will ensure the following of the most inexperienced alien tracker.

As large corporations are bound by laws and new environmental codes, we can only hope that an occasional sacrificial Saturday has some merit. The three R’s have evolved over the years. What the Dalai Lama knew as Respect for self, Respect for others, Responsibility for your actions, eventually topped the charts as Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While both deliver a profound message, they also subscribe to an equally profound consequence in the event of ignorance. Often the realization is a little too late.

Jennifer Barry is a writer for The Spectator Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @rsqdog 

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