It was a peaceful climate justice protest organized by a high school student inspired by activist Greta Thunberg. A man approached us to say he fully supported what we were doing; and in the next breath said he hoped we didn’t think the carbon tax was going to make a difference. A fellow protester asked him what approach we should take: “Reduce, reuse and recycle. Just like we’ve always done.” Our visitor then jumped into his car and drove away.
These comments highlight an uncomfortable reality that people may be reluctant to accept. There are limits to recycling and thus limits to what we can do as individuals. A provincial discussion paper on reducing litter and waste states that an estimated 10,000 tonnes of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes each year. Ontario’s Blue Box recycling program recovers only about 28 per cent of all plastic packaging in the province.
The carbon tax is designed to mitigate the effects of climate change, an issue that requires a collective response. Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot urges us not to succumb to the notion that our individual behaviours alone will drive the necessary changes:
“The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume. One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilizing against the system that promotes the great tide of junk.”
Frustrated by the knowledge that my efforts to consume ethically are important but insignificant, I joined a group of concerned citizens in my community. Our group is working with municipalities to ban single use plastic water bottles in all municipal offices and field operations in the County of Haliburton; encouraging local businesses to decrease their use of single use plastics and promoting the use of re-usable water bottles.
Bottled water is one of the most blatant examples of the problems with single use plastic. If you have ever been in the grocery store lineup behind someone purchasing several cases of it, you’ve probably wondered why people buy it. ‘Blue Bayfield’ and the Council of Canadians outline some of the problems with bottled water. When you purchase bottled water, for example you are paying a markup of anywhere from 200-3,000 per cent. In addition, the production and transportation of bottled water uses a significant amount of fossil fuels thereby contributing to climate change. Finally, less than 5 per cent of bottles are recycled, as so many end up in landfill sites.
Before our citizen’s group had really mobilized, the municipality of Dysart proposed a ban on single use water bottles in their offices and field operations and they plan to install several water refilling stations in the community. Their leadership will likely nudge the other three municipalities in Haliburton County to take similar action.
Single use plastic items must be cut off at the source and while the alternatives are not always free of environmental impacts, governments and corporations need to take greater responsibility for stemming the flow. The provincial government, through a discussion paper, asks the public whether a ban on single-use plastics would be effective. CBC’s Marketplace asked Canada’s major grocery chains what they are doing to reduce plastic waste. Loblaws produced a list of minor accomplishments and Sobeys, after stating they would consider the request, in the end offered no response. Marketplace interviewed the owner of a small British grocery store that had drastically reduced its plastic packaging, demonstrating that something indeed can be done.
It’s important we strike a balance between making responsible lifestyle choices while working to change the system. A more sustainable world is possible when we join with others. It’s also more fun.