The plain language of waste

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In this weekend’s La Presse, François Cardinal wonders why governments always play with words when making policy for what to do with our waste.

After several revisions to its policy on “residual materials” (read waste), the Quebec government has reinvented the language of waste management. Instead of “dump” we say “sanitary landfill”. We no longer “recycle”, we “valorize”. Yes, it’s as silly as calling bald people follicly challenged, but the sad reality is that many governments (Quebec is by no means the only one) aren’t just playing with names, they’re fudging numbers too.

In 1989, Quebec adopted an Integrated Solid Waste Policy, which targeted a 50 per cent reduction in the quantity of waste sent for disposal by the year 2000. Then in 1998 the province adopted its Residual Materials Management Policy, which sought to “recover 65 per cent of the 7.1 million tonnes of residual materials that can be reclaimed each year.”

I’ll leave it to Cardinal to explain the rest in the following loose translation:

“Instead of calculated the rate of recycling based on all waste produced, as we did during the previous policy, we suddenly decided to calculate the rate of recycling based on only waste that can be recycled.

Pouf! Just like that, we managed to eliminate 12 per cent of our waste by ignoring its very existence.”

Now with the latest Draft Québec Policy on Residual Materials, released last week, Cardinal says Québec is back to its old tricks. One of the new goals is to bring the amount of waste that remains to be eliminated by disposal down to 700 kg per person. But as Cardinal remarks, the operative word is “eliminated”. Indeed there is no obligation to reduce the amount of waste we, in fact, actually produce. It’s really only about what we send to the “sanitary landfill.”

The problem, in a nutshell, is this. Yes, Canadians are recycling more, lots more than they did ten years ago. But they’re also consuming a lot more, so it’s no surprise that we’re sending more waste to the dump. Cardinal leaves us with this thought:

“In the end, as times passes, the more our waste increases, and the more we choose to use a vocabulary that brings us comfort in the idea that once we’ve taken our garbage out to the curb, it magically disappears.”