The Hope Inside Canada's Garbage Cans

The Canadian government hopes to do away with trash altogether by making manufacturers responsible for products throughout their life cycle. Already, it's impressively far down the road.
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In Canada, redefining the word trash may send engineers back to their drawing boards -- and keep dioxins out of the food chain.

Fatalism is a form of compliance disguised as realism.
- Eileen Crist, from "Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse" in Telos

Sixteen years ago, I helped a group of Illinois farmers to fight the construction of a massive incinerator in the cornfields of Livingston County. One of those farmers was my Uncle Roy, and it was in a field adjacent to his farm that the 1800-tons-per-day waste-to-energy facility was to be erected.

We won. The story of the incinerator that was never built in Pleasant Ridge township is told in my book Living Downstream, as is its sequel - how gratitude for that victory, in turn, inspired the successful attempt to transform the family farm into a certified organic operation. Within a sea of chemically produced corn destined for gas tanks (as ethanol) and cans of soda pop (as high-fructose corn syrup), the fields plowed by my great-grandfather are now an island of healthful, locally produced, pesticide-free food. With no smokestacks on the horizon.

I like to tell both these stories when I am asked by my audiences how I, an ecologist who studies environmental links to cancer, can continue to have hope for the future. But now there is a bigger, even more hopeful story to tell about collective potential to make trash incinerators go away. It is a tale set in Canada, and it is already inspiring an environmental group in Maine.

But first, some background on the toxicology of trash.

In the United States, trash incinerators are both a leading source of greenhouse gases and a leading source of dioxin, which is inevitably formed in the incinerators' stacks as molecules of chlorine and carbon in the fly ash join together in a deadly union. The most potent carcinogen ever known, dioxin is the only substance in the Toxics Release Inventory whose annual emissions are tallied in grams rather than pounds.

The incinerator we defeated in 1994 was considered state-of-the-art - with leading-edge engineering and a public relations campaign that portrayed it as an environmentally enlightened solution to the trash crisis. Its air pollution control devices were claimed far superior in design to the primitive incinerators that came before. Nevertheless, it would be considered a dinosaur today; others like it, bedeviled by accidents and pollution-control problems, already stand as abandoned hulks, surrounded by dioxin-contaminated land.

Trash incineration is now being promoted once again, this time repackaged as a source of renewable energy. These new incinerators have state-of-the-art engineering, involving gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma incineration technologies. Undoubtedly, their dioxin emissions to air would be considerably less than those of the antiquated incinerators of yore. But technology that relies on burning plastics and other forms of synthetic materials cannot eliminate the creation of toxic pollutants - although it may improve on ways of capturing and concentrating them in the ashes, char, and slag that are left behind. And these, of course, still require disposal somewhere.

A known endocrine disruptor, dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant. Its half-life in soil can be as long as 100 years. Its half-life in human blood is more than seven years. Happily, as sources of dioxin have been identified and eliminated - including via the shuttering of many incinerators - blood levels of dioxin in the U.S. population have fallen impressively.

Meanwhile, the science around dioxin's ability to alter cellular signaling pathways continues to emerge. Most recently, evidence has become stronger for a link between dioxin exposure and breast cancer, a disease that strikes approximately 200,000 U.S. women each year, kills more than 40,000, and is responsible for $8.1 billion in health care costs. Both animal and human studies suggest that early-life exposure to dioxin poses the highest risk.

Because our main route of exposure to dioxin is food, all of us have a stake in the question of whether generating electricity through trash incineration is a genuine form of renewable energy or a wolf in sheep's clothing. And yet, the alternative to incineration - landfilling - doesn't seem attractive either. If we don't light garbage on fire and thereby send dioxin into our food, we throw it in a hole dug above our aquifers and thereby threaten drinking water. It's a nasty choice.

Enter Canada. Two weeks ago, Environment Canada - that nation's federal ministry whose mandate includes environmental protection - and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment convened a workshop to describe how Canada's federal, provincial, and territorial governments are implementing a plan to do away with trash altogether. Truly.

The concept is called "extended producer responsibility" (EPR), and its goal is to establish collection and recycling programs for virtually all products and packaging in the waste stream, from discarded packaging and broken table lamps to ratty mattresses and construction debris. The revolutionary aspect of the plan is this: the manufacturers or importers of the products are the ones responsible for implementing and paying for the programs. Not taxpayers. This approach thus shifts the responsibility for the generation of trash to the individual brand owner and away from the public sector (traditionally, municipalities).

Making trash disappear - and landfills and trash incinerators unnecessary - by making manufacturers responsible for products throughout their entire lifecycle, including the post-consumer stage, is the immediate objective. In working toward this goal, Canada is impressively far down the road. Already, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, which includes the ministers from the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, has approved a nationwide EPR action plan.

Matt Prindiville, Clean Production Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, attended the recent workshop in Toronto and came back to Augusta eager to implement the concept of extended producer responsibility on this side of the border. What especially inspired him, he told me during an interview in Portland last week, was the way in which removing products from the waste stream can spur on innovations in green engineering and create new business opportunities through the recycling and reuse of materials formerly headed to landfills and incinerators.

Indeed, a core objective, as stated in Canada's action plan, is to use the problem of trash to compel a redesign of all the stuff we buy. Extended producer responsibility provides clear incentives to manufacturers to "incorporate environmental considerations in the design of their products." Because consumer goods on the EPR list will no longer be buried or burned after the consumer is done with them, producers have compelling reasons to reduce the use of toxic substances in their products, enhance the ease of disassembly and recyclability, create markets for the "next life" of the materials used, and otherwise "reduce the overall environmental footprint of a product."

And this is how taking away the option of throwing something away at the end of the lifecycle can spur ecological thinking at the beginning of the lifecycle. In this paradox lies hope.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, newly published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us. /

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