This Earth Day, we need more than litter cleanup from Toronto’s mayoral candidates

Toronto Star

By Sarah Buchanan and Emily Alfred

In recent city elections we’ve been bombarded with images of overflowing and broken garbage bins, with many candidates capitalizing on these photos as signs of a city in decay. But there’s been little discussion of how to actually solve the waste problem at its source by reducing the amount of trash that goes into the bins in the first place.

This Earth Day, here’s our appeal to mayoral candidates: Instead of posing for photos holding garbage bags, talk to us about how you’ll make sure we won’t be fishing litter out of ravines every spring for the foreseeable future.

Toronto’s 2020 litter audit found that 95 per cent of plastic litter is single use packaging and foodware. We need a clear vision for how to shift away from throwaway cutlery, takeout food containers, and coffee cups towards zero waste options like reusables.

Reducing the amount we throw away is surely smarter than constantly fishing garbage out of public spaces (or letting it pile up, which is increasingly the case as Toronto’s austerity budgets impact city services).

Banning disposables already underway

The shift away from disposables is already underway. The federal government is banning a handful of common disposable offenders like plastic bags and disposable plastic cutlery. If a new mayor doesn’t support small businesses through this shift, Toronto risks getting left behind or shifting in the wrong direction.

So how can we move ahead with real solutions? One tried and true example is to require an option for customers to get their food or drinks in real dishware if they’re staying on site and back this up with grants and training to support small businesses to make the shift.

McDonalds and Starbucks have already shifted to providing reusable cups and dishes in France — why should Toronto settle for any less? Soon Edmonton and Banff will require reusable cups for on-site dining, including big events. As we approach festival season, imagine if our big celebrations weren’t followed by littered streets and mountains of garbage.

Systems based on reusable dishes also create more local jobs. Think dishwashing services, reusable takeout providers and all the people employed in a circular economy. U.S.-based ReThink Disposables’ work with hundreds of small restaurants showed that switching to reusable foodware saves businesses money.

In contrast, disposable so-called “compostable” foodware touted as a quick solution is actually more expensive, can be coated in toxic chemicals, and isn’t actually compostable in Toronto.

Single-use and takeaway items reduction strategy

Toronto has a “single-use and takeaway items reduction strategy,” which broke records for public engagement and support and received unanimous support from council. Despite promises to lead by example in city facilities and move the plan ahead, the strategy is now bogged down in delays and stuck in the “voluntary” phase.

This strategy needs a mayor who will champion and strengthen it. On top of overwhelming public support, University of Toronto research shows that it provides exactly the kind of support small businesses are asking for. While many businesses are sorting through options to comply with the new federal plastics rules, they’re seeking clear guidance on what makes sense from a financial, public health, and environmental perspective.

Let’s be clear: investing in basic city services like waste pickup is a necessary step after years of starved budgets from low property taxes. But Toronto’s decades-long debate on how to clean up the city will keep haunting us if we only look down at the litter on the ground and never up, at the plastic bag in our hands holding a plastic container and a sealed plastic pouch of plastic cutlery.

The volunteers out cleaning up their local green spaces are doing important work. Here’s hoping candidates help them by doing more than just dropping by for a photo and commit to real change to keep garbage from showing up in the first place.

Sarah Buchanan is campaigns director and Emily Alfred is waste campaigner at Toronto Environmental Alliance. TEA is a local non-profit advocating for environmental solutions to build a greener, healthier, more equitable city.

This article was reposted from the Toronto Star

It was originally published on April 20, 2023