Waste not want not

October 23, 2019
Council Column

The old adage “waste not want not” used to describe the way of life for most people for most of human history. The phrase has a couple of related meanings: ‘don’t throw things away as you may need them later;’ or, ‘if you’re careful with what you have, you’ll save money.’

Prior to our current throw away culture, people valued their purchasing power more and most often took great pains to research the quality of the products they were buying, as they only intended to purchase them once. Things were repairable too, and repairability was a factor in people’s decisions to buy particular products.

For a long time, “waste not want not” was inherently built into the production cycle as it was clearly an ethic built into the consumer psyche. 

Post World War II, the Western World entered an era of unprecedented growth, urban and suburban sprawl, and rampant consumerism. Over time, the “lowest price” became “the law” as an ever greater percentage of the population wanted access to the full spectrum of consumer goods -- despite their limited means of income.

But, getting products to the market at low consumer prices meant driving quality out of the production system (and labour too) ultimately resulting in the off-shoring of work, the manufacture and importing of cheap knock-off products, the loss of repairability, and shorter and shorter lifespans (from manufacturing to landfilling) for consumer goods.

Simultaneous with this trend toward cheaper consumer goods was the evolution of the marketing industry: a new “industry” focused on convincing us we “needed” stuff through targeted ad campaigns and over the top packaging to make products “pop” on the shelves of our ever larger retail outlets.

In the 1970s, as the waste products of this more wasteful way of living started to accumulate, the idea of the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) was invented (along with Earth Day). However, the default emphasis of this consumer forgiveness ethic (i.e. we could still “buy, buy, buy” as long as we remembered the 3Rs) actual became recycling. The original message of the 3Rs morphed into the mindset that we can keep over-consuming as long as we recycle.

Well … as anyone paying attention to the news must know by now … the recycling industry is in chaos and we’re quickly running out of room to landfill our ever increasing waste. More critically for the consumer, those cheap consumer goods are starting to create significant waste management costs that aren’t built into the original sticker price but are becoming an increasing part of your property taxes and utility fees.

Like the rest of the world, this whole unsustainable consumer cycle has come home to roost in Quesnel, as our City’s landfill is fast filling up and the costs associated with expanding the landfill and meeting ever more stringent regulations for water protection and methane control (the most significant greenhouse gas created from landfilling organic materials) are set to escalate significantly.

Council has begun the arduous process of making sense out of a variety of scenarios that an expert consulting firm has provided to the City outlining options for the future of waste management in our area. All the options are expensive and all have significant implications for your property taxes, and garbage pick-up and tipping fees.

We’ll be informing and engaging the public in this process as part of our 2020 budget deliberations. But, in the meantime, we all need to reflect on that old “waste not want not” ethic, as there is only one sure way to avoid escalating waste management costs: stop producing unnecessary waste by making more informed consumer choices.

Mayor Bob Simpson


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