Unintended consequences: How Environmentalism is becoming a luxury that poor and marginalized communities cannot afford

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

The title of this article may seem like a bit of “click bait”, but the topic itself is one near and dear to my heart, but is often neglected in conversations surrounding waste. How socio-economic inequality manifests itself in the form of impeded access, or participation in waste management initiatives is a poorly understood topic. Much of the existing academic research on environmental justice has been on the unequal distribution of environmental hazards and benefits along racialized lines, where there are consistent indications that waste facilities and waste related hazards are disproportionally located in lower income areas (or those predominated by minorities). Perhaps more alarmingly is the epidemiological link between waste exposure-related health effects and low income areas.

But that isn’t what this article is about – My hope is to begin an uncomfortable conversation about a two tiered waste management system in Ontario (one for affluent “woke” Ontarians, and one for lower income groups making the daily grind), that by all indications is going to get worse, before it gets better.

I want to preface by saying I don’t think this is necessarily the result of deliberate, malicious design (or least I wouldn’t like to think so). Equitable access to a clean and sustainable environment is an issue that has garnered enormous attention, and I would expect this issue to grow in importance moving forward.

I just ask that from the perspective of waste management (diversion, recycling etc.), that we take the time to consider how changes in our industry affect, or are going to affect, the most vulnerable or marginalized groups of our society.

In all fairness, the connection between waste management and socio-economic inequality is not something that is top of mind for most policy makers. Generally speaking, there is an idea that a municipality will provide waste management services to a particular area, support that initiative through a combination of promotion and education efforts, and hope for sustained public participation.

The help provide some boundaries on this wide ranging discussion, I am going to break my comments down into three key areas: Economic Access and 2) Knowledge Access, and 3) Infrastructural Access

Economic Access

I was recently interviewed by the CBC, and almost inevitably, the conversation shifted to the perils of plastic packaging.

Given that I am actually an advocate of some single use plastics, I was trying explain how a cucumber wrapped in plastic isn’t the world’s worst idea, considering that it can help mitigate against spoilage.

That’s when the interviewer said something that surprised me a bit “Don’t you think consumers should be paying a little more to ensure that less waste is being generated?”

I actually didn’t know how to answer that question, largely because it depends on so many different factors. Do I think all consumers should be willing to pay a little bit more to avoid waste? No – absolutely not. I do however I think that consumers who have the discretionary purchasing power to make more sustainable choices should try and do when possible, but I ascribe no right or wrong in doing so.

What people can and choose to purchase is largely a function of economics –those of us that have the luxury of being conscientious consumers that can shop locally and participate in programs such as Terracycle’s Loop should be applauded.

However, it is important to recognize that the ability to do so is a luxury – in a focus group conducted of more than 1800 consumers in the Greater Toronto earlier this year, more than 80% of respondents indicated that price was the primary determinant for making a purchase. If possible, respondents indicated that they would like to make more sustainable purchases, but budgetary restraints largely impeded them from doing so.

More than 70% of respondents also indicated that they did not have the ability to travel outside of a 5km range to make daily purchases, and often shopped at specific retailers because of a mix of multiple factors such as: convenience, price, familiarity and purchasing agglomeration (one stop shopping).

In a 2019 analysis of consumer purchasing preferences in the Greater Toronto Area, households characterized as “low income” (household income less than $40,000 per year) consumed 18.4% more pre-packaged goods (namely grains, produce and frozen meats), when compared to families whose household income exceeded $100,000 a year. There is an inverse, statistically significant correlation between household income and % of prepackaged foodstuff of overall weekly purchases.

The expectation that households have the ability to readily switch between products based on packaging type doesn’t appear to be a realistic one. People might like the idea of Loop, or want to participate in more sustainability initiatives, but at present, they are priced out of “taking part”.

A particularly interesting phenomenon is that more than 30% of respondents indicated that they are increasingly feeling a “shame” factor from friends or family, who were questioning why they continue to make “unsustainable” choices in light of increasing awareness surrounding single use plastics (i.e. using plastic bags, seran wrap etc.). An anecdote provided during one of the focus group sessions included “A co-worker admonished me for purchasing frozen meat products for my children, alluding to the fact that fresh is better… obviously it is, but I can’t afford that every time and I was left feeling guilty”

While the results of these focus groups/surveys are merely a subset of the diverse range of experiences faced by Ontarians, the sample was designed to be statistically significant and stratified to reflect different demographic contributions.

What was not considered in this study is the potential impact on packaged good prices once a 100% producer responsibility model is implemented in Ontario. Given that lower income groups are the greatest consumers of packaged goods (both in absolute terms, and as a relative % of the overall purchasing basket), any upwards pressure in the cost of food stuff could have potentially adverse impacts.

Knowledge Access

Did you know that I could now schedule my used clothing bin pickup with Diabetes Canada? Or that the TOwaste App allows users the ability properly sort more than 2000 materials?

Even the University’s own Waste Wiki site offers users the ability to download thousands of resources related to waste.

While advents in technology that allow us to engage and communicate in new ways with city residents, we have to remember to ask ourselves: Who is my intended audience? And who is my tool designed for? We often erroneously presume that the majority of people are social media savvy and have the ability to navigate and use a smartphone, but research conducted by York University suggest that smartphone ownership among first generation immigrants is as follows:

Figure 1: Smart Phone Ownership

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Amongst the more than 1200 survey respondents, only adults between the ages of 17-44 reported owning and regularly using a smart phone. The average across all age groups was actually less than 50%. A perhaps more salient finding is that the majority of first generation immigrants using smartphones DO NOT have English as their primary system language (in fact, for ages 45 and older, smartphone users almost exclusively navigate using their native language)

Figure 2: Primary System Language

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Now, you may be asking yourself why does this matter? And what does this have to do with socio-economic inequality?

Simply put, these applications have largely been designed and tested with a demographic that assumes a person is: fluent in English, knows where to download and remove applications from the Play Store, possesses the technical proficiency to consent to location tracking, cookies etc. and lastly, cares enough to see out these types of resources.

In a 2016 study conducted by York University examining “Effectiveness of Recycling Promotion and Education Initiatives among First-Generation Ethnic Minorities in Ontario, Canada” (Lakhan, Social Sciences, 2016), focus group participants struggled to navigate online promotion and education materials and resources (such as the Waste Wizard). The following is an excerpt from this study:

48 of 77 focus group participants expressed difficulty in navigating to and within municipal waste websites (commonly coded phrases included “It’s hard to find the information I’m looking for”). Of particular note, The second most frequently coded response for this question was that the municipality’s web pages were often translated incorrectly (coded 33 times), making it difficult to locate the appropriate waste related resource. While the Google translate feature was available on each of the municipal web sites, the translation was often inaccurate (mistranslated words and phrases, grammar, etc.). 24 study participants indicated that this was actually insulting to them—anecdotes recorded during the sessions include “If you’re not going to do it properly, don’t bother doing it at all” and “It shows how much they (the municipality) care about us”. The notion of “us” and “them” was a recurring theme during the focus group sessions. There was a sentiment that municipalities catered to “white” households and ignored (or placed less emphasis on) the needs of ethnic minorities.

Returning to the conversation of equitable access, how do we ensure that all participants within the system are aware of the tools that are available to them, and by extension, how do we ensure those tools are usable and meaningful to communities?

As an anecdote, I am going to pick on my late father again. As I have noted before, he was a brilliant man who was a professor in Environmental Science, (but he wasn’t exactly the best environmentalist). In spring of last year, as he was cleaning his house post retirement, I told him he could now schedule a pick up on his phone for someone to come get all of his clothes for a donation – no need to leave the house. He just scoffed at me as he loaded bag after bag of used clothing in to my car, ordering me to drive to the Salvation Army. The tool that gets a person like my father to participate, someone who wouldn’t have previously participated if not for this app, is what’s going to be the game changer. Tech savvy recyclers are already taking advantage of these services, and it is unlikely that future increases in diversion are going to come from them. 

Infrastructural Access

Infrastructural Access to waste management services is something that is more difficult to readily quantify, but perhaps, is most insidious in that it highlights that services (not just those pertaining to waste management) are two tiered: One for the rich, and one for everyone else.

Having done extensive work in multi residential buildings throughout the Greater Toronto Area, I have been privy to see the unique challenges that building managers face when attempting to promote diversion. While these are not an exhaustive list of observations (ultimately, every building is unique), but based on data collected over a three year period (which included gauging self-reported recycling behavior among building residents), the following was observed.

1)     Very few buildings are equipped with floor level recycling chutes, with most older buildings having a “recycling room” that required residents to drop off their recyclables at a designated location (normally in a room in the basement). Only recently constructed condominiums have floor level tri sorters.

2)     Not all building managers have the same level of commitment in promoting and maintaining waste management services in their building. City Staff are routinely engaged with building managers to provide materials to residents instructing them about various elements of the City’s waste management programs. 

3)     Recycling/Waste rooms located in building basements or parking garages were seen as an inconvenience, and potentially unsafe

4)     Many “waste/recycling” rooms were seen as dirty, poorly lit and heavily contaminated, which significantly deterred participation among residents. As an extension of this, a household’s willingness to use the waste room was directly related to the building manager’s commitment to maintaining the waste room.

5)     Residents wanted to recycle, but found the inconvenience of both storing and transporting waste to the designated room acted as a deterrent

6)     Residents had much lower rates of recycling awareness compared to single family households, as it was a situation of “out of sight, out of mind”. In the absence of weekly/bi-weekly collection, people forgot about it.

The common thread across each of these observations is that the more affluent the building (ownership was a significant predictor of diversion behavior), the more building/site staff were committed to promoting and maintain a safe and accessible recycling room. It should be noted that this was not universally the case, and overall, building residents expressed strong positive attitudes towards recycling, but low levels of perceived behavioral control that ultimately deterred recycling behavior. Generally speaking, these behavioral obstacles were most prevalent in buildings characterized by lower income and/or immigrant families.

Figure 3 below is taken from as an excerpt from a study I had conducted examining the link between public space recycling and neighborhood income levels (2017)

Figure 3: Density of Bin Per Sample Area

1 – # of Recycling Bins Per Transit Stop

2 – # of Recycling Bins Per 1km sampled roadway/sidewalk

3 – # of Recycling Bins per sampled area

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While the scale makes it a bit difficult to follow, what the figure above shows is that the frequency of recycling bins in three public spaces (Transit Stops, Sidewalks and Parkettes/Playgrounds) is in direct correlation with neighborhood income level (greater income = greater density of bins).

It is important to note that incidents of illegal dumping or littering were not necessarily shown to be higher in these areas, but the purpose of this exercise was to merely determine whether “access to recycling” was equitable across all income groups. The answer, at least based on the time this data was collected, was no. Higher income areas have greater opportunities to recycle, at least with respect to the density of public space Blue Bins.

With respect to infrastructural access, it is very much a tail of two cities (although it would be difficult to say that was the result of deliberate design). Higher income households have greater opportunities to participate in diversion programs, experience more regular/predictable service and have access to supplementary tools and resources that are tailored more specifically to an English speaking audience. These experience further reinforce positive attitude attachments towards the environment, and may subsequently lead to recycling habituation. While this is a desired outcome, high income English speaking households already participate in household recycling at rates that exceed 90% – the next diverted tonne is unlikely going to come from these groups.

Stop and Think

I would strongly caution the reader from jumping to any conclusions based on this information – questions surrounding environmental equality is complex and multi-faceted, and I certainly don’t do any justice to them in this short article.

However, what I do want people to think about what our waste management system is going to look like moving forward. Will we all be using reusable ice cream cans and storing our mouth wash in artisanal metal bottles? I say that tongue in cheek, but conversations surrounding sustainability cannot be had without considering equitability and inclusiveness.

Both brand owners and policy makers cannot stop at saying “We found a divertable solution” and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Instead, we need to be thinking about how can we deliver this solutions at scale, across all income groups, so that everyone can participate in creating a circular economy?


About the Author

Calvin LAKHAN, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.