Talking Trash

March, 15th, 2023

By: Dr. Calvin Lakhan

I recently had the pleasure of participating in an interview with CBC’s David Thurton regarding today’s lawsuit being brought against the federal government by plastic producers.

At the crux of the issue is whether the federal government was justified when listing plastic products as toxic under CEPA. A secondary challenge is whether the federal government has the legal authority and basis for enacting a single use plastics ban.

While exploring either of these topics in-depth is beyond the scope of this post, I did want to highlight a couple of issues that I don’t think are being addressed adequately in current conversations.

1) We need to stop ascribing value/moral characteristics to plastics. It is not “evil or bad” – it is a material that is ubiquitous in our everyday lives, which pose both positive and negative impacts depending on its application, use and management at end of life.

2) Not all plastics are created equal – I think we understand this on an intuitive level (i.e. accepting that single use plastics being in PPE was essential), however, most conversations about single use plastics bans lack nuance and characterize the issue as binary – the intent isn’t to ban all plastics, it’s to continue to utilize the ones that make sense, and find alternatives for the ones that are deemed problematic

3) As a tangent to the above, legislation isn’t a wizard’s wand that magically creates viable and affordable alternatives to single use plastics. In many instances, an alternative packaging format simply doesn’t exist. This conversation goes far beyond management of plastic waste, and encompasses a range of issues including package/product design, intended function, durability, affordability, accessibility and scalability.
4) Single use plastics is not the problem – it is a symptom of a much larger systemic problem involving global food and economic systems. Eliminating single use plastic food packaging would have deleterious consequences on remote and vulnerable communities, who do not have access to affordable or fresh alternatives. We tend to fixate on the potential environmental benefits of single use plastics bans, but fail to understand that there are unintended consequences that compromise food sovereignty and security.

5) We don’t have a plastics problem, we have an “us” problem – our behaviors, preferences and modes of consumption are largely rooted in a linear model, in which materials like single use plastics play a vital role. Bans may achieve a specific result ), but the underlying drivers of sustained behavior (attitudinal, normative and perceived behavioral control) are absent. 

6) I sometimes doubt the sincerity of these types of initiatives. While well intentioned, it is a feel good, but not necessarily a do good policy. Why ban single use plastics, only to export 300,000 tonnes of produce packaged in plastics overseas?

The system is broken, not the material.

March 11th, 2023

By: Dr. Calvin Lakhan

In a recent survey conducted by the university, respondents were asked to answer the following question “What does sustainability mean to you?”. It should be noted that is no right or wrong answer to this question, individual perceptions of what constitutes sustainability and what elements of sustainability are prioritized are inherently subjective.

Responses could be broken down into two thematic areas, which to a degree, overlapped with one another. One of the thematic categories referenced the intertemporal dimension of sustainability – “something that lasts, or can be preserved over time” – a sub-variation of this theme included references to “sustained and sustenance”, the idea of having enough to satisfy one’s needs. The second thematic category was the relationship between sustainability and the environment.  Respondent answers included environmental actions such as recycling, reducing waste, picking up litter etc. as being sustainable. While many respondents did not readily make the distinction between “examples of sustainability” and the definition of sustainability, the general conclusion is that people strongly associate environmental preservation, wellbeing and stewardship with sustainability.

This result isn’t surprising. Even within the world of waste management – issues surrounding sustainability are often evaluated through the lens of the environment, and it is not uncommon for stakeholders to conflate terms like recycling and diversion with sustainability. Conversations surrounding design for the environment and sustainable materials management have become central to policies surrounding minimizing the impact of waste. While both of these concepts are core to the idea of sustainability, a closer look at the language being used refers to very specific objectives of improving recyclability and recycled content requirements. Even the Ellen Macarthur US Plastics Pact 2025 declaration fails to discuss whether these goals are feasible, practical, economical, equitable or sustainable.

Harkening back to environmentalism 101, sustainability is comprised of three pillars: Environmental, Economic and Social. While we all know that unfettered economic growth has had deleterious consequences on both the environment and people, I’m not sure how many people stop to consider whether the pursuit of environmental objectives can also be unsustainable. In many ways, that statement seems antithetical to the what we know about environmentalism and our intentions, but conversations surrounding waste in particular seem to exclude a meaningful exploration of what are the economic tradeoffs of our decisions, who are impacted by these decisions and are the perceived benefits/costs equally distributed. What are the tradeoffs of reaching a 100% recycling rate? Do we even want to?

Truly sustainable solutions must be economically tenable, socially equitable, inclusive and impactful.