Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environment and Urban Change at York University

We have spent an awful lot of time and attention thinking about plastic straws. Where do they go? What should we do with them? What are the alternatives? Should we ban them? All of these are salient questions, and countless passionate and brilliant people have dedicated their time to thinking about the straw conundrum…….but is that time well spent?

I don’t ask this to diminish the importance of the issue or the work that has been done in this area. Rather, I want to open up the door to a broader conversation about how we (both as policy makers and consumers) prioritize waste management issues, and how we define the success of a waste management system.

Before I do this, an anecdote: There is a term in psychology called availability heuristics – think of it as a mental shortcut we use for making probability judgements based on how easily we can picture something happening in our mind. The example I remember from psychology class was when the professor asked what killed more people in Texas – Tornadoes or Asthma. Most of the class answered Tornadoes, but asthma kills 30x as many people annually. The disconnect between our guess and the answer was largely explained by the fact that Tornadoes are large news events that dominate headlines and permeate our consciousness…. asthma unfortunately does not.

Why am I telling you this? Because waste, or how we choose to characterize the waste problem, is rife with heuristics errors. What we see in our day to day lives or read about in the newspapers is what informs what we think the waste problems are, and where efforts and resources should be expended.

Have you ever wondered why we have such a preoccupation with printed paper and packaging waste? The reason for this is two fold: 1) The Blue Box is often our only regular form of participation in a diversion activity and there is an implicit understanding that packaging should “Go in the Bin”, and 2) Visible litter in public spaces is most often made up of improperly disposed of paper and packaging, which tends to earn the publics ire.

While printed paper and packaging is certainly an important waste stream, it represents a fractional amount of all waste generated. The vast majority of the waste harming our environments isn’t from residential sources, but from industrial, commercial and institutional sectors. PP&P is only one part of a much larger story surrounding waste, but it is what the public tends to focus on, particularly in terms of the ways they think about and interact with waste. One could also make a pretty compelling argument that there are waste streams that offer more bang for our environmental buck when diverted.

A great example of this is coffee cup recycling. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent trying to recycle coffee cups and address what was a very visible issue for consumers…. These efforts were largely a catastrophic failure, as recycling rates for paper laminate cups remain in the single digits. The rationalization for all of the effort, attention and resources was to find a more sustainable solution to an everyday problem (coffee cup waste). While well intentioned, I often wonder if that money could have better spent elsewhere, addressing other problematic (but less popular) waste problems. In my entire life, I don’t think I have ever seen somewhat bat an eyelash about decommissioned office furniture waste. For consumers, office waste is not a “me” problem – it is out of sight and out of mind, and not part of their waste world.

This article is the first in a series of articles where I will shed light on neglected waste streams, in an attempt to demonstrate that our current priorities may not be aligning with our broader objectives surrounding sustainability. This series will focus not only on the trade offs between various waste categories, but explore broader issues surrounding waste and sustainability, with a particular emphasis on the social components of diversion such as environmental equity and justice.

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.