Why is Waste Management Important?
By: Elizabeth Cho McMillan
Waste management is how we dispose of our garbage. Waste management includes the actions we take to manage waste like recycling, waste reduction, and landfilling. If waste management is not done or done inadequately, waste may end up as litter and damage our environment and its inhabitants.
In Ontario alone, we sent 8.1 million tonnes of waste to the landfill in 2017, with an additional 3.5 million tonnes exported to the United States (1). Based on the rate we are currently landfilling, Ontario will run out of landfill capacity in just 12 years, even less if we can’t export some of our waste across the border (1). Although new landfill sites are being proposed, it can take up to 10 years to gain approval and even more to construct and begin operation (1). The diminishment of landfill capacity requires us to look towards other waste management solutions.
Not only is there the issue of physical space, but trash also produces gasses that can harm the atmosphere. When organic matter, like food waste is landfilled it produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Methane is 25 times more harmful than carbon emissions in terms of its warming potential (2). In Canada, landfills account for 20% of the nation’s methane (2). Diverting organic matter and food waste from landfills through composting will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Composting can also generate renewable energy, a double win for the environment!
Well what about recycling, don’t we recycle 60% of our waste in Ontario? A recent report actually revealed that Canada only recycles 9% of its plastic (3). This prompted CBC to investigate where our recycling goes and they found that only 1 of the 3 companies they tracked actually recycled the plastic, the others incinerated or landfilled the plastic (4). This disturbing lack of recycling shows that we cannot rely on the crutch of recycling as our preferred waste management solution as we have in the past.
So if we are running out of landfill space, landfills are polluting our air, and our recycling is often not recycled, what can we do? There is certainly hope! There is a guideline to follow called the 5 R’s, the new and improved version of the 3 R’s. The 5 R’s, also known as the Waste Hierarchy are refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle. Since it is a hierarchy, they are listed in order of priority or importance, with refuse as the most important and recycle as the lowest. Being a conscious consumer will help you uphold the 5 R’s. Think about what you are buying and its impact by asking questions like- Do I need this? Does this use sustainable packaging? Our collective actions and efforts in reducing our consumption will decrease the amount of waste sent to the landfill, reduce emissions, and decrease our reliance on the inefficient system of recycling.
The role of being a conscious consumer also comes with the responsibility of holding companies accountable when they are not following best practices for the planet. While individual actions are important, we also have to keep in mind that just 20 of the world’s top companies are responsible for over 30% of global emissions (5). Voting with your dollar and not financially supporting these polluters is one way to be a conscious consumer. But the greater responsibility lies in voting in elections for candidates that will hold corporations accountable for the damage they are doing to the environment.