Citizens taking action ~ Vancouver, Lower Mainland, and beyond.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Enablers of our addiction to wasting

In his sales pitch for the Plasco gasification plant, Vancouver Sun columnist Harvey Enchin dismissed recycling programs as "schemes of social engineering."

Surely there can be no better example of social engineering than the campaign carried out during the past century by the producers of throw-away products and packaging. Their scheme succeeded in instilling a culture of waste in our society. This is a story that historian Susan Strasser recounts vividly in Waste and Want: a Social History of Trash.

The really sad thing is the way local communities have been unwittingly seconded as enablers of this social engineering scheme. Over the last 100 years we have institutionalized waste, making it not only a socially sanctioned practice but an unquestioned public function to which we commit large sums of public funds.

We didn't know what we were getting into when the first municipal waste collection programs were introduced in the late 19th Century. Our municipal "refuse" at that time consisted mostly coal ash and kitchen scraps. Only 7% was "rubbish" (simple manufactured goods). But social engineering changed our behaviour and today our cities must manage the bloated waste stream from products we have been convinced are essential to our lives. A typical household threw out 97 pounds of "rubbish" in 1900. Today it's 1,260 pounds.

For a century cities have been providing the rug for the profiteers from disposability to sweep their waste under. Now we are being engineered into seeing waste as a renewable energy resource. Even more incredibly, we are being convinced that our communities should pay companies like Plasco to make money from it.

Driving all of this is an atmosphere of "crisis" to convince us that we have no recourse but to burn our garbage. As I just wrote in an unlikely-to-be-published letter to the Sun, Metro Vancouver's own data show that there is no "landfill crisis" in our region. Are we so thoroughly engineered that we won't believe it?

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