Musings on garbage

by Stan Hirst

Sitting at my kitchen window and staring out at the North Shore street view on a promising spring day, I was struck by three things –

  • how profoundly our lives have been impacted by something measuring just 0.000000089 metre in diameter;
  • how fortunate I am to be living in a society where something as mundane as garbage removal continues efficiently during a pandemic (obviously not true for many cities to judge from television news);
  • how sloppy we all can be when it comes to understanding what recycling entails and why something is recyclable or not.

I have just watched a lime-green recycling truck make two passes up and down the street outside, and twice have I observed the operator expertly flip one or more non-recyclable items out of a recycling bin back onto the sidewalk. How hard can it be for the home-owner to check the instructions from the District and take the trouble to comply?

Purely coincidentally, the Canada Post carrier strode by this morning and left the latest copy of Discover magazine, to which I have subscribed for 15 years and which contributes to my deep-seated nerdiness. In this month’s edition, Associate Editor Anna Funk writes compellingly about the very thing I’m on about here, i.e. it takes a bit of care, attention and responsibility to get the recycling thing right. Here are a few societal defects Ms Funk expertly points out when it comes to modern recycling.

Dumping any old thing into the recycling bin

Recycling centres do have ways of separating recyclables from non-recyclables , but it creates a lot of unnecessary work and expense. The National Waste & Recycling Association in the US estimates contamination rates to be as high as 25 percent; I would expect Canadian numbers to be similar. The recycling centres have to deal somehow with the additional trash. Asian countries have soured on the practice of importing plastic waste from the west, so many western recycling programs now have little option but to send contaminated recyclables directly to incinerators.

There are throwaway items that are almost never recyclable but which end up in bins in large volumes. Common culprits are disposable paper cups – their plastic-based lining that makes them liquid-proof is difficult and expensive to separate from the paper. Other common offenders are paper towels, Styrofoam, glass from windows and mirrors, plastic bags, greasy pizza boxes and anything contaminated by food residues.

Disposing plastic bags into a single-stream recycling bin

If recyclables are placed in a big plastic trash bag and put it in the recycling bin then the result will be the whole kit and caboodle ending up in the landfill. If recyclables are held in a plastic bag for tidiness and efficiency then, on collection day, they must be placed loose into the bin standing on the curb. The empty plastic bag can then be recycled separately or, better yet, reused.

Plastic bags handed out in supermarkets and stores are recyclable, but only if they wind up in a clearly designated “plastic-bags-only” receptacle. Many supermarkets and big-box stores have collection bins near their entrances. Some even have separate binds for different categories of plastic bag.

Sadly, soft filmy plastics (like the hygienic covering wrapped around meat cuts) and cellophane used as wrapping for muffins and cookies from the coffee shop are real trash. Does it matter if they are mixed in with the genuine plastic bags? Very much so – they create unnecessary work for the recycling centre staff, and the soft plastics clog up the sorting and packing machinery.

The sad truth about tote bags

Reusable grocery bags are probably the most popular way we mortals seek to minimize our environmental footprint. I am the proud owner of 13 tote bags (although that has more to do with an obsessive personality than recycling efficiency). I was therefore dismayed to learn from Discover Magazine that we are deluding ourselves as to the environmental friendliness of our beloved totes.

In 2018, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency undertook an assessment of the environmental impacts of different types of shopping bags, They compared bags of a variety of types, from the thin plastic kinds to what are generally considered the most eco-friendly – organic cotton totes. Their conclusion was that it takes exponentially more resources to make a tote bag compared with cheap polyethylene. They analyzed how many times each type of bag would have to be used to equal the environmental impact of a plastic one. Paper bags and plastic-based reusable totes required between 35 and 84 re-uses. A cotton tote bag would have to be used more than 7000 times. Organic cotton bags would require some 20,000 usages. Alternatively stated, if one used an organic cotton bag twice a week, you would have to keep at it for 192 years to justify the net environmental impact.

How could this depressing conclusion be valid? Conventional cotton has been genetically engineered to resist bollworms, a worldwide cotton pest. Some estimates indicate that the application of biotechnology has increased cotton yields by 60-100 percent. Such technology cannot, however, be used on certified organic farms. Without the use of pesticides a higher proportion of the organic crop is lost to pest damage, so it takes a lot more organic cotton plants to make a cotton bag than it does conventional plants. Besides, cotton – even the inorganic types – is already highly water- and chemical-intensive.

Replacing [perfectly good] existing usable items with newer and more sustainable versions

Like it or not, we live in a connected society of which advertising is the key component. The average participant in our current urban culture is subjected on a daily basis to thousands of messages via electronic, social and printed media which exhort one to buy, buy, buy. But if those new goodies on offer fail to meaningfully replace something which is already doing an adequate job, then we have messed up.

It behoves all of us to keep one basic fact in our cerebral control centres. A new product requires resources to make and to ship to consumers. Most new products, especially gadgetry and clothing on frenetic offer have very likely been manufactured a long way away and then shipped halfway around the world in a CO2 belching container ship to reach us. Give the planet a break – rather reuse those must-have gadgets, electronics, clothes, plastics and the like. If you already have 10 water bottles then you really do not need an 11th, even if it is labeled “eco-friendly” and has a cool green logo.

The same goes for cars. Aiming to double fuel efficiency by replacing a perfectly well-functioning well-used vehicle with a newer one or, better yet an electric one, comes with large environmental costs. It requires a tonne, give or take a few hundred kgs, of expensively mined and processed materials to make a new car.

Fooling ourselves with labels

Sadly, we are all suckers for the commercial messages which assail us from all sides. We must be gullible else why would the advertisers persist? Advertising is expensive, so it must be proving lucrative for the purveyors of the goods. Some environmental labels have stood the test of time as consumer bait; “organic” is one, “locally grown” another, and “GMO-free” is widely used to sell products to consumers who really have no idea what the terms imply.

Precise labels may serve a valid purpose in connecting buyers to products which match their preferences and beliefs, e.g. “vegan”, but some are much vaguer and in need of careful interpretation. One such descriptor is “organic” where consumers do not realize or bother to investigate the environmental implications, e.g. organic cotton has very high water and land cultivation demands which the cotton bag purveyors don’t mention.

The final word

I’ve lived in a few places in Asia where lime-green recycling trucks did not exist. Come to think of it, neither did garbage bins or recycling boxes. Plastic bags did certainly exist – in their zillions, and the discarded ones clogged every drainage ditch and every sluiceway, and wound up floating along all the drainage canals and even out into the open ocean. I recently read that sixteen African countries have now levied a tax on disposable plastic bags or else have banned their use and importation entirely. Progress indeed. Perhaps we should follow.



  1. Thanks, Stan! This is a thoughtful and educating piece. You present a helpful perspective. It’s time for me to rethink a few of my “green” practices and choices.
    Lillian and I once made a dozen or so small, cotton produce bags out of an old sheet. Been using them for years. Perhaps I can turn an old t-shirt into a tote bag.
    Meanwhile, “repair” has long been one of my favourite “R” words.
    Thanks again, Stan.

  2. Very sensible Stan. I’m not one to get terribly upset about plastics (like plastic bags), if they can be disposed of properly. The carbon in plastic is locked in, basically (although manufacturing them can be problematic). We take carbon in the form of oil or gas or coal out of the ground, use it in the form of plastic, then bury it in landfills — still not in the atmosphere. Meanwhile we get use of a convenient product. If we can manufacture plastic without many emissions, what’s the problem? The point of the exercise is to stop disrupting the natural carbon cycle by putting too much carbon in the form of CO2 into the air and oceans.

  3. I find the author’s conclusions very depressing. Good analysis but lacking in solutions. We are all grappling with the household and shopping decisions as we periodically emerge from our silos in the expectation that someone will take away what we take out. Major expenditures have largely been put on one side until we can establish our income levels and look at our aging profiles. Will we be around to make those environmentally friendly big dollar purchases? Some hopes!

    However, my real reason for writing is to take issue with the comments on water bottles. By clicking the link below you will see below two bottles, one recently purchased at the hardware store and easily sanitized but expensive to produce using the author’s analysis of where the various components come from and with high priced labour. The other wooden bottle was purchased in Kathmandu. The retained smell indicates that for many years it carried Tibetan tea, an acquired drink. I think that perhaps this indicates its origin. It is carefully crafted by poor artisans and obviously durable. I have no idea of the type of wood, but we know that wood is not plentiful in Tibet. So maybe our local artisans should get to work with newly designed, environmentally friendly, bottles based on wood from trees grown especially for that purpose! Mr Author, think outside of the box (wooden of course!).

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