Trash Talk

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Mike Ford & Mckenzie James

Recycling makes people feel good about themselves. It lets them think they are truly involved in helping the environment. But what if they aren’t? What if the plastic they self-righteously toss into the blue bin every week is creating even more of a toxic mess than if they had just dropped it into the trash? Why is Canada’s garbage problem growing bigger, not smaller, in the face of all this do-good effort? What if recycling itself is a system that isn’t really working as it should? These are some of the questions that keep Calvin Lakhan (MES ’10) awake at night. 

A research scientist at York University, Lakhan makes a living studying waste and the economic, political, social and psychological detritus that seems to go along with it. He doesn’t need Facebook images of single-use plastics clogging the world’s oceans and waterways to tell him that our recycling programs are broken, slowly tipping the Earth ever more precipitously toward the very environmental disaster they were meant to address. 

Rising costs and a dwindling world market for recyclables in the wake of China and Southeast Asian countries closing their borders to an ever-growing influx of foreign trash have left many a Canadian city struggling to manage growing mountains of garbage, which once sold for profit but now cannot even be given away. Prince Edward Island has resorted to burning its plastic bags in response to the overflow, while municipalities across Alberta are refusing to take in certain plastics that now go straight to landfill. 

“We know it’s not working,” says Cedric de Jager, spokesperson for the Recycling Council of Ontario. “I think we need to rethink policy at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, and we need to overhaul how we treat waste.”

Enter Lakhan, whose research interests and expertise are focused on evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying the determinants of consumer recycling behaviour. When citizens talk about the three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – the emphasis, he says, should be on reduce, not recycle, as has recently been the case. It’s an imperative that shouldn’t be ignored.

The world doesn’t need to be recycling more materials. Add more plastics to the blue bin? A terrible idea

A Forbes report estimates that, globally, humans buy a million plastic water bottles a minute, with a projected trillion plastic bottles expected to clog our ecosystems by 2020. The bottles are recyclable. But only 91 per cent of them are recycled, because there’s just too many single-use plastics to process. 

“The world doesn’t need to be recycling more materials. Add more plastics to the blue bin? A terrible idea,” Lakhan says, the passion in his voice reverberating off the bare walls of his office at the Faculty of Environmental Studies. “We have to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be sustainable. The focus needs to be not on recycling targets but on outcomes.” 

Calvin Lakhan: Sorting through the garbage. Portrait by McKenzie James.

This is trash talk worth listening to, mainly because Lakhan isn’t spewing raw sentiment. As the founder of Canada’s largest garbage research initiative, the Waste Wiki project at York University, he is an experienced garbage man, a repository of often unpleasant truths. 

“Cal has been an incredible addition to our research team,” says Mark Winfield, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and a sustainable energy expert who helps to guide Lakhan’s scholarly work. “He brings a strong evidence-based approach to often highly politicized debates about recycling.” 

One of the points Lakhan wants to drive home is that not all recycling is created equal; it’s often uneconomical, not to mention unwanted, at municipal processing plants. The cost of recycling newsprint versus the cost of recycling a plastic water bottle? Radically different. 

Even the so-called small things add up. A lowly plastic grocery bag, for instance, costs $2,500 a tonne to recycle. Polystyrene, used to make food containers, also costs a few thousands a tonne to recycle. A lot of the items we put in our blue box are just not economically viable when it comes to recycling, Lakhan says. 

“Consumers might not care about the specifics. But the reason why they matter is that, in Ontario, the cost of the recycling program has doubled since 2004 – from $150 million to $300 million today – but the recycling rate has gone up by only four per cent, and it’s been trending downward for several years, since 2015. The system, at present, isn’t working.”

Waste, he points out, is a $300-million-a-year problem in Ontario alone. Some of it stems from manufacturers that use different types of materials to make the same product – a disposable coffee cup made of paper with a plastic lining, for instance – rendering them difficult and expensive to recycle. Designing more eco-friendly packaging is key to helping solve the world’s mounting garbage problem. 

A possible alternative: instead of throwing more junk into the maw of the recycling beast, think of how to reduce waste in the first place. 

It’s a position Lakhan has been developing with the Waste Wiki project’s industry stakeholders, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support his research into how to fix the province’s uncontestable recycling problem. 

They include Clorox Canada and Club Coffee, maker of plant-based, compostable single-serve coffee pods for brand partners like Melitta Canada and McCafé, the coffee brand owned by the McDonald’s fast-food chain.  

It goes to show you how much garbage is a cultural issue. Not everyone looks at garbage the same way

Last year, Club Coffee started working with Lakhan to conduct research on disposable plastic coffee pods, an estimated 20 billion of which end up in North American landfills each year. The objective is to have a full-brand compostable ecosystem in place by 2020. 

“Dr. Lakhan brings an incisive and evidence-driven approach to examining environmental issues,” says Club Coffee CEO John Pigott. “He and his team are generating the kind of credible, fact-based insights that business and government take seriously because they cut through the noise and help us all understand the best paths to the environmental results we all want.”

As Canada’s reigning waste wizard, Lakhan oversees the country’s ever-growing piles of garbage like a man possessed. Which he is, in a way. A competitive bodybuilder as well as a cutting-edge scholar, Lakhan has a muscled physique covered with tattoos (his parents allowed him to get one for every A he took at school), the most striking of which has to be the triangular universal recycling symbol imprinted on the inside of his meaty forearms. The symbol is cut into two parts and is visible only when Lakhan squeezes his flexor muscles. It’s an impressive feat. Not that everyone will appreciate it. 

“Studies show that more than 60 per cent of first-generation Canadians don’t know what the recycling symbol means,” Lakhan says. “It goes to show you how much garbage is a cultural issue. Not everyone looks at garbage the same way.”

His strong interest in environmental issues was developed at a young age. His late father, a native of Guyana, was a professor of environmental studies at the University of Windsor, located in the Canadian border city where Lakhan was raised. But though his dad taught courses about the environment, he never dealt with his own garbage in what today might be considered an environmentally conscious way.

“He never recycled in his whole life,” says Lakhan, relishing the irony. “Back home in Guyana, we incinerate all our garbage. We didn’t practise recycling because there was no historical precedent. It’s why understanding our environmental differences is necessary before we can dispose of our garbage in a socially responsible way.” 

Partly, that involves looking closely at how societies function in real time. What are their customs? Their habits? Their national narratives vis-à-vis trash? Canada proudly enjoys a reputation as a clean country. But the truth is, Canada is one of the world’s biggest polluters. 

Canadians can avoid thinking of themselves that way by turning a blind eye to all the mess we make as a major consumption-driven nation. Our mountains of garbage are not readily visible because, for decades now, Canada has been shipping its recyclable garbage overseas by the container-load. But even then, not all of it has been reprocessed.

That point was driven home when the leader of the Philippines announced last spring that he would “declare war” on Canada if it did not remove dozens of shipping containers filled with Canadian household and electronic trash rotting in a port near Manila for the past six years. 

President Rodrigo Duterte made the threats late April after lawyers determined that Canada had violated international law by dumping garbage erroneously labelled as recyclables on Philippine territory. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly promised a quick solution. In June, 69 containers carrying some 2,500 tonnes of fetid household waste, including plastic bottles and used adult diapers, made their way back to Canada (at Canada’s expense), where they were finally incinerated. 

“Waste is not a sexy topic,” Lakhan says. “It’s something that’s largely ignored in the academic community and elsewhere. It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of thing. You put your recyclables in the blue bin and your garbage in the waste bin and then, like most people, you don’t really think about what happens after.”  ■ 

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