The latest blog by our Waste Campaigner Emily Alfred.
In the last two and a half months, I’ve had many people ask me questions about what COVID-19 will mean for our zero waste movement. With such dramatic changes to every aspect of our lives, are our efforts to reduce waste, both in our personal lives and collectively through new regulations on unnecessary disposables, coming to a screeching halt?
Despite the current setbacks and challenges, this is not the end of a movement for zero waste in Toronto. The fundamental goals of reducing waste, building a circular economy and eliminating plastic pollution remain as important as ever. In this moment and as we look ahead to the future, 4 things remain the same.
1. Getting caught up in personal guilt isn’t productive.
Guilt isn’t a good motivator for ourselves to get things done, or for bringing others into our zero waste movement. Right now, our lives and daily patterns are different, and that might mean some changes to waste. For some people, it means less options to purchase items with their own reusable containers and bags. People are relying more on delivery and take-out food. We can all try to do our best, and right now, with other urgent concerns around health, income, housing and food security, we need to be easy on ourselves and each other.
We can all continue to take small steps to reduce waste during this time, and we can continue to put our collective energy into working for systems change.
2. One of our biggest obstacles to laws on plastics will continue to be powerful industry lobbyists.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, we knew industry lobbyists were one of the biggest obstacles to regulations on waste, including regulations on single-use plastics. Plastics producers regularly lobby governments, threaten legal challenges, or take municipalities to court over single-use plastic regulations (e.g. plastic bag ban in Victoria, BC). Over the last year in Toronto, local styrofoam and plastic bag manufacturers were meeting with Councillors and staff about single-use regulations.
And now during this pandemic, industry lobbyists are bringing out old arguments and exploiting fears of coronavirus to push back against plastic regulations that were already in progress. Industry claims that disposable plastic is the only safe option are simply not true. Studies have shown that the virus can live on plastic surfaces for as long as 3 days. Health experts have made it clear that good hygiene practices (soap and water) are essential, and properly sanitizing all surfaces (whether disposable or reusable) is key.
Pro-plastics lobbyists are using this crisis as an opportunity to roll back progress our movement has made. When it comes to passing laws to reduce and ban harmful disposables, industry lobbyists will continue to be one of our biggest obstacles and TEA will continue to monitor and call out industry groups that oppose needed environmental regulations.
3. Tackling waste builds community.
Toronto has many examples of innovative initiatives that reduce waste and build community, including neighbourhood and building-based green teams, zero waste businesses, and community groups and services like repair cafes and sharing libraries. During the pandemic, we’re continuing to see how zero waste and creativity can bring communities together: local sewing groups making face masks out of old pillowcases and shirts, gardeners sharing tips on how to grow veggies from food scraps, or a group refurbishing computers to ensure everyone has access to online learning and community.
To truly move towards zero waste and a circular economy, we must work together. We have to share, explore and demonstrate zero waste solutions and ideas to show what kind of future we want.
Above: Repair Cafe Toronto
4. Our waste system needs to be transformed.
There are limits to what individual waste reduction efforts can achieve. That’s why pushing for systemic solutions to our waste problems has been at the heart of our work at the Toronto Environmental Alliance. We continue to advocate for producer responsibility, deposit return programs, regulations to eliminate or restrict the sale and use of harmful packaging, and a shift towards a circular economy that conserves and keeps resources circulating locally instead of sending them to landfill or incinerator.
While some of the timelines might be changing for new bylaws and regulations, such as the City of Toronto's regulation on single-use items, collective advocacy to transform our waste system will still be as important as ever. We can still advocate for changes to our waste system, speak up against industry push back on regulations, and ensure that transforming our waste system is a part of a green and just recovery from COVID-19.
Above: photo courtesy of CUPE Local 416
Right now we’re at a turning point: when looking at how our communities and economy can recover from this global crisis, we must push for a green and just recovery. The current COVID-19 crisis shows us many pre-existing, systemic problems in our society and economy. Our governments’ recovery strategy must put us on a path toward a more healthy, just and sustainable future. Changes to our waste system can and should be a part of that pathway to recovery.
Emily Alfred is the Waste Campaigner for the Toronto Environmental Alliance.