Allison Hanes: Montreal's garbage crisis is ours alone to solve


Next time you throw out an empty milk carton, dirty diaper or plastic water bottle, pause for a moment to wonder where it will end up.

Will it be recycled and enjoy a new life as a park bench? Will it go to a landfill and take centuries to decompose? Will it be shipped across the globe and become someone else’s pollution? Or will it end up gyrating in one of the giant garbage patches choking our oceans?

When it comes to the trash we generate, Montrealers, like citizens of other industrialized, consumer-oriented societies, tend to toss and forget. But after decades of being blissfully unaware of the fate of our refuse, we are being forced into a reckoning.

Malaysia on Tuesday became the third Asian country to put its foot down over foreign trash. The country’s environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, showed off the contents of shipping containers snuck into the country and headed for an illegal dump before they were intercepted by authorities.

The provenance of the junk included the U.S., Australia and Britain, but some of it also originated in Canada.

While the Malaysian minister didn’t “declare war” like Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte, her public shaming carried a similar message that Canadians need to hear loud and clear: We don’t want your stinking, rotting rubbish anymore. (I’m paraphrasing.) Deal with your own mess.

Rightly so.

Since China closed its doors to the world’s waste just over a year ago (largely to contend with its own), industrialized countries like ours have not figured out what to do with all the excess packing and garbage we produce. This includes governments, manufacturers and consumers.

Governments in cities like Montreal and elsewhere provide garbage, recycling and organics pickup. But with few domestic markets for the raw materials they collect that could be recycled, they became reliant on shipping much of it abroad.

Manufacturers sell ever more products in supposedly disposable containers, whether it be water or spiralized zucchini.

And convenience-seeking consumers lap it up, mindlessly tossing the packaging in the bin, assuming it will be taken care of in a responsible manner. But often that’s not the case, as with the dirty adult diapers stranded in a Filipino port or the plastic detritus discovered in Malaysia.

China’s rejection of the world’s recycling was the first reality check that plunged municipal waste management practices from Montreal to Memphis into turmoil. Some U.S. cities have stopped recycling altogether (though they may still collect it). Others are incinerating rubbish. In Montreal, paper and cardboard started piling up in staggering amounts, exposing the weaknesses in long-running programs.

But it has also prompted a re-examination of strategies across the region. The Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal just wrapped up public consultations on the modernization of its waste management strategies. Hearings were held in Montreal as well as Laval and Boucherville, and over 50 groups made proposals. A report is due at the end of June that will be given to Recyc-Québec to (hopefully) act upon.

Community groups and citizens were asked for input on issues like reducing packaging, cutting plastics use, consignment programs, charging producers of large quantities of disposable waste, creating markets for recyclable materials and better public awareness programs.

From the mémoires tabled and the reports published to inform the CMM consultation, each one of these topics is fodder for a deeper analysis about how they contribute to a complex and multifaceted crisis. Because let’s face it: we can call it recycling or compost to feel better about our output, but everything we chuck is essentially garbage.

And now it’s ours to deal with — as it should be — instead of someone else’s problem.

The preliminary consensus to emerge from the CMM’s consultations is also the simplest and most obvious solution: we must cut the amount of waste we dispose of in the first place.

In other words: reduce and reuse before we recycle.

Montreal is already planning to tackle single-use plastics like straws and takeout containers, but we’ve been spinning our wheels for years over the fact we can return beer bottles while the Société des alcools du Québec doesn’t do wine bottle returns.

Though the CMM initiative is partly motivated by environmental concerns, it is also about the viability, effectiveness and cost of the most basic municipal services. The programs in place are outdated and deserve a rethink. Plus, there is much more we can and must do.

A renewed waste management strategy has the potential to benefit taxpayers, spark new economic opportunities, and save the planet.