Trash Talk

A time to band together

When I was young and still living at home, I would sometimes walk with my mother around our suburban neighbourhood near Ottawa. During the week, she timed her walks to start after the letter carrier had already made his rounds. As she went, my mother would pick up the dozens of elastic bands that he often casually discarded on the road. When we returned home, she would sit at the kitchen table and cut these thick loops of rubber lengthwise — in order to double their number — and then put them in a kitchen drawer, beside boxes that contained twist‑ties, bread clips, pens and pencils, as well as small pieces of paper, saved from used envelopes, that she repurposed for making lists. When I asked her why she did all this, she would reply simply: “Waste not, want not.”

This was in the 1980s, a decade of hyper­consumerism, bigger is better, and seemingly limitless supplies of energy. My father made a stable wage, and my mother’s behaviour, I am ashamed to say, embarrassed me. Why couldn’t she be like other moms, who bought new clothes rather than shopping at Value Village, who drove far more comfortable luxury cars, who filled their kids’ lunch boxes with disposable drink containers, ready-made sandwiches, and Del Monte pudding cups that my friends tossed in the garbage? These were women who went to the salon instead of cutting their own hair and who generally lived what appeared to be a carefree, illimitable lifestyle.

My parents were older than my friends’ parents and had grown up in Britain during the Second World War. Both came from impoverished families and had experienced relentless and debilitating food insecurity. It wasn’t until I was considerably older — and had learned more about the war, the decade of postwar rationing, and the trauma of sustained precarious living — that I began to appreciate my mother’s idiosyncrasies as something far more valuable.

Some forty years later, I see things very differently than I did as a self-centred teen. Whereas my generation once focused our anxieties on holes in the ozone layer, deforestation, and nuclear fallout, we now talk about global warming, biodiversity loss, carbon emissions, oceans filled with more plastics than fish, and the millions who must eke out a living by picking through the colossal garbage dumps of the world’s privileged. More and more people are aware of our environmental problems; reusing is not just for eccentric mothers anymore. Most municipalities across Canada have recycling programs, and studies show that about 30 percent of Canadians regularly use the blue bin. Yet our waste problems are only getting worse.

I wanted to write a book that would help lift the veil on Canada’s staggering — indeed, world-leading — waste generation, and what we can do about it. Canada produces nearly 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste annually, which includes everything from mine tailings and livestock manure to 777 kilograms of garbage per person (compared with the OECD average of 610 ­kilograms). With only 9 percent of our plastics actually being recycled, most of our refuse ends up in domestic landfills or is sent abroad to be openly dumped, landfilled, or incinerated. As I researched and studied the problem — in Alberta and British Columbia, in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Nunavut — I often thought back to my mother’s frugality, her fine-tuned skills of making do with what she had. And I would wish that I had paid more attention back then.

Today, I am trying to catch up with what my mother knew decades ago, to teach my own children how to repair and fix, scrounge and save, and be happy with less. My two teenagers, far more politically and ecologically conscious than I was at their age, wonder how my generation, in particular, allowed the earth to become a dumping ground. My shame and my determination to take responsibility and to leave them with a livable planet press upon me. So, yes, they too know about elastic bands. In our kitchen, we have large balls of them, recovered on walks they take with me after our letter carrier makes her rounds.