Hope: from Diversion to Reduction
On Metrics and Aspirations
By Sean Hurley, waste expert, guest blogger
Welcome to Packt's blog! In this inaugural post waste expert Sean Hurley reflects on how, among the growing volumes of garbage, he still finds hope for the future in Toronto's reusable programs.
It would come to be that some months ago I would meet Agata and Beth, the founders of Packt.
Turns out, as I was recently reminded, we have never met in person - only virtually. Odd, how these pandemic times have shaped our perceptions of events.
Yet I still feel I know Beth and Agata quite well, as we've chatted a great deal online or via text and email, and exchanged ideas and shared our philosophies on waste. Whether we discussed the waste generated while camping, or brewing coffee, or both, Agata and Beth and I returned to one common thread: reduction of waste, and in particular the reduction of single-use disposable packaging (so common these days) must be where we all focus.
My motivation to reduce waste has grown through my professional life. I have spent nearly 20 years working in waste management, in some form or another (not to discount a childhood spent studying under a father who wasted very little). Having spent these years walking through transfer stations and studying tables on waste generation and reading and analyzing reports on waste composition, I have found plenty of reasons to abandon hope that society would find effective solutions to our garbage crisis.
But I have not lost hope. Instead, my optimism has grown.
Today, most of our residential garbage (and recycling, and organics) is managed by municipal governments. It was the aspirations of citizens and local governments (Ontario – Kitchener-Waterloo!) hoping to harvest valuable resources from piles of black garbage bags that invented the curbside Blue Box recycling program in the early 1980s.
Recycling programs expanded, and grew, and by the 2000s nearly every resident in Canada had access to opportunities to divert their recyclable items from the landfill. The growth of curbside recycling reflected the growing awareness in society that we all waste too much; that we must slow down the pace at which we generate garbage. With the advent of recycling, residents and governments came to report progress on waste management using one particular term:
Diversion is a simple and effective measure, or metric, of waste management progress – it declares how much waste we are keeping away from our landfills.
Waste diversion rates grew rapidly along with the expansion of residential curbside programs, with many towns and cities now reporting diversion rates of 50% or more. The rapid growth in diversion rates has slowed recently, a consequence of lightweighting of recyclable items and the proliferation of packaging materials outpacing the technology we employ to recover them from the waste stream.
While waste diversion continues to grow, slowly, so does the total volume and weight of garbage we generate as a society. Recycling, on its own, has not and will not solve society's waste problem.
I've witnessed this, first-hand, standing in those transfer stations and watching the piles of waste churn slowly in front of me, turned by the fork of a front-end-loader.
So…where does my hope come from?
Many mornings, my hope shoots forth from the small reusable coffee bag on my counter that reminds me of the micromovements and small businesses that I’ve watched grow in Toronto. Whether Packt and their partnership with Subtext Coffee Roasters, zero waste stores like Unboxed Market, or reusable takeaway services like Muuse, I am hopeful about the circular economy steadily growing all around me.
My hope comes from Beth and Agata, and the many individuals like them, making great choices, both personally and professionally, as they move us towards a future where we measure our waste management progress not by diversion, but by reduction.
I recently shared with them an article that appeared on the BBC, which outlines the influence and impacts on climate change that our individual choices can have. The data presented in this article, from Our World in Data, demonstrates that the packaging for coffee has proportionately more climate change impact than packaging for any other common food item. As readers may know, we tend to measure Climate Change progress by the metric of greenhouse gasses, or GHGs.
As a consultant, I advise clients to report first on their goals – their aspirations – and to retain these aspirations as the centre of their sustainability reporting. In other words: Where are you now AND where are you hoping to go? The metric of waste reduction progress is not just a number – the metric is hope.
Like the Packt bag or the Blue Box recycling program, businesses, ideas and movements start small … and then, suddenly, they are everywhere. In choosing Packt, I choose a small step, with big aspirations of a world without packaging waste. By my count, I've only disposed of 2 pieces of coffee packaging in 2022. Packt helped me get here – and now my hope is that in the next year, I'm not just reporting on how I've reduced my coffee packaging to zero, but that I've found new sustainability goals in my own life to aspire to.
It takes time and effort to change our habits. Each choice you make takes you one step closer to whatever you aspire to, in your own sustainability journey. Whatever measure you use, remember to never lose the hope that each choice you make matters – and that together, our small choices add up to a great deal of hope for the future.
What a metric that is.
Sean Hurley has spent his entire professional life working with garbage, compost, recycling, and words. Sometimes he gets them all confused (but he keeps trying). Sean has worked helping design waste management programs and policies for governments, schools, and small businesses for many years now. He writes on the side. Sean may make further appearances on the Packt blog, outlining his personal opinions and personal journey towards living a bit more sustainably (each morning, his first choice is sustainable coffee).