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The Lays bag and the fire

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Last week, I wrote quickly about my stance against building an incinerator. I've seen some reaction to that and a few of you have written to me either agreeing or disagreeing. I'd promised to set out more of my thinking.

The problem that I see is not just a waste problem. It’s also consumption problem. Most of the climate damage that’s implied in the waste we generate is accrued well before we even think about how to dispose of material. The disposal itself is just a variety of bad options.

I’m looking as I write at a chip bag that I haven’t tossed out yet. That bag started life out as oil and aluminum in the ground. Those raw materials get shipped around the world in diesel vessels and trucks at various stages of refining and manufacturing both to make the bag and then to be filled with chips and shipped to stores where we drive to buy them. Those materials probably travel from continent to continent at the various stages of their manufacture. Maybe the aluminum is mined in South America, smelted in Iceland, then shipped to a packaging manufacturer in China to be shipped as bags to Frito-Lay in North America. The plastics certainly similarly move around the world. Oil is the basic material from which the bags are made, oil is the material that powers the shipping, and coal or oil are likely the energy source fueling the processing. 

There’s no indication on the bag that any of the plastic is from post-consumer sources. I’ll assume that at least some of the aluminum probably comes from post-consumer sources just given the ease with which it can be recycled – it’s cheaper to create aluminum pellets from recycled sources than from newly-mined ore, but there is still a carbon footprint as that is collected, shipped and processed. There’s dyes and inks in the packaging that themselves go through an entire manufacturing and shipping process before they’re combined into a bag at whatever packaging factory makes that final chip bag.

I haven't addressed here the carbon footprint of the chips themselves. This post is about disposal, and I never have a problem disposing of potato chips (especially salt & vinegar; my favourite are Lays). It shouldn't be ignored, though, that the agri-business that creates the potatos from which chips are made, and the processing of those, is an entire climate impact on its own.

We should be made to think about those product lifecycles by having to live with the consequences of its disposal. When we can simply burn it, and especially when that gets connected to a public good like energy generation, we don’t have to give it a thought. The more we toss, the more secure the energy source. It creates a built-in disincentive to regulations that ensure that packaging is as waste-free as possible, and that every possible diversion path is followed. It becomes very easy to ignore that the process of manufacturing that bag is resulting in carbon emissions that have heated up the planet to dangerous levels. 

When we have to live with the consequences of consumption – for example, by building then watching a landfill fill up – it’s more likely that we’re going to make the changes as a society that we need to make. We’re not going to be able to maintain our thoughtless consumption of stuff forever. We need to press manufacturers and governments to require that packaging for the consumption we do need is regulated to create as few greenhouse gasses as possible. We need to force producers to pay for even more diversion from the waste stream and build truly circular economies. That’s not going to happen if we have a worry-free way to just toss products that we never gave a second thought to buying.

Asking people to modify their buying habits and buy less stuff, and to build the costs of waste diversion into the price for products is a risky stance for a politician. But I don’t agree that an incinerator is a solution that will allow people to live the same lifestyle they do today as I've seen as a response to my stance. As I noted above, by the time we feed those end-products into the fire we’ve perpetuated producer and consumer behaviours that are accelerating a cascade of climate disasters that are already diminishing our lifestyle and health, and that will be even worse for our kids.

City staff have held out building another landfill as the alternative to building an incinerator. I would sooner go down that path, building something with a fixed capacity in the hope that we'll use that capacity only sparingly than build an ever-hungry fiery maw that fails to address the fundamental climate issue of our time.

Post-script: Anticipating some of the reaction to this post, I was a very impressionable high school student in 1987 when the Brundtland Report was released, and it continues to shape my thinking today. It's challenging and controversial to suggest that consumers are a part of the solution to waste and the pollution and GHG impacts of production. Many will assert that capitalist structures of production and consumption are more important to address than guilting consumers to use refillable laundry detergent, and I tend to agree. But I also continue to believe in the fundamental truth of Brundtland's statement as follows, the truth of which I don't think we can deny: "Living standards that go beyond the basic minimum are sustainable only if consumption standards everywhere have regard for long-term sustainability. Yet many of us live beyond the world's ecological means, for instance in our patterns of energy use. Perceived needs are socially and culturally determined, and sustainable development requires the promotion of values that encourage consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecological possible and to which all can reasonably aspire."

Post post-script: Probably the most accessible, entertaining and intelligent look at waste I've read was this summer's Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future by Oliver Franklin-Wallis. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic.

Posted November 18, 2023