April 06, 2011

Filling those blue boxes is just not good enough

As published in The Erin Advocate

If your proficiency at diverting paper, glass, cans and plastic into blue boxes every week has you feeling like a proud environmentalist, maybe it's time to check the bar. It was raised, quite a while ago, and now some are suggesting that the Blue Box Habit is doing more harm than good.

The issue is illustrated in the "3 R's" slogan, proclaimed by governments and activists seeking to change how people deal with trash. "Reduce, reuse and recycle" has been etched on the public blackboard, but only the third part has really sunk in.

The idea was to first reduce the amount of waste we buy and create, then reuse whatever we can, and only then put material into recycling programs. Of course, it is still better to fill blue boxes than to ship it all to the dump, but it is still an expensive pile of stuff to process – a cost borne by taxpayers, not the companies that manufacture the waste.

There were some interesting comments on the topic after last month's showing of the film Tapped, about the bottled water industry. It was part of the Fast Forward Film Festival, presented by Credit Valley Conservation and the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE), which opposes the trend to single-use plastic containers.

The prime target is Nestlé, of course, getting its water virtually for free from high capacity wells in Aberfoyle, Hillsburgh and other small towns in Canada and the US. Should the provincial government simply charge high fees for water extraction, like they would for oil? Would that further legitimize the practice?

The Town of Erin might not mind a slice of that revenue – it would be like having a casino in your territory. Environmental benefits could flow from a huge increase in the price of bottled water: less consumption, less harmful plastic, fewer tanker trucks and less need to recycle.

Nestlé will seek renewal of its Hillsburgh license next year and there will be lots of opposition. If you want to get in on it, or help make bottled water an election issue, contact Liz Armstrong of CCAGE at liz@ican.net, Wellington Water Watchers at 519-780-5030, or go to www.wellingtonwaterwatchers.ca.

Nestlé has tried to purchase some good will in Erin and Aberfoyle with major donations to parks and recreation facilities, and the world's largest food processor makes much of its recycling efforts.

"Recycling is garbage," said Mike Nagy, one of the driving forces at Water Wachers, during the forum after the film. "It's a way of making you feel you're doing something good for the environment. You are not. Refuse, reduce, reuse. Because if you go by the theory that recycling is better, and I have 50 blue boxes in my driveway, I'm 50 times better than you, because I am recycling more. It's the reverse.

"We need to remove profiteering. If they get the water, and you want to buy it, it should be your right. But it should cost a lot of money. And it should be in returnable glass that you take back, not recycle. Fifteen years ago, we bought pop in this province in returnable bottles, and it's gone.

"The best thing that ever happened to the environmental movement was the blue box, and the absolute single worst thing that ever happened to the environmental movement was the blue box. It was a convenient way for industry to make you dispose of their products...and it costs the taxpayers a ton of money."

He said that since the blue box was introduced, we have not just recycled more, but the number of packaged products has increased dramatically.

Doug Hodgson, a farmer and environmental lawyer who operates Uphill Farm Organics at Third Line and County Road 50 in Erin, sponsored the film night and had the last word.

"Bottled water is a small piece of a much larger picture on water," he said, noting that 70 per cent of the fresh water in the world is used for agriculture. "Bottled water is really the low hanging fruit. If we want to do something about climate change, start with the easy stuff. Bottled water is a product we just don't need. Just drop it.

"The enemy isn't really Nestlé. The enemy is us. They're selling it to us for a buck and a half, but we're paying a buck and a half.

"If you want to change human behaviour, look at our tax laws. We need carbon taxes. We have to de-carbonize our economy. If you look at the bottled water industry, they're not paying for the damned stuff. All the costs are energy costs... So vote for carbon taxes. Double the cost of bottled water."