I’m Becoming a Garbage Person

After years of focusing my environmental energy on individual choices, I’m cutting myself some slack.

A black plastic garbage bin overflows with plastic bags, bottles, and coffee cups.
Photo by The Blowup via Unsplash

I’m becoming a garbage person. A few years ago I ranted in this column about to-go coffee cups and how horrible they were. Well, guess what, in the last month I’ve been personally responsible for two cups going to the landfill. Two! I also bought and consumed a dozen plastic bottles of water—which I’ve also ranted about before—and didn’t fret about the fact there was no way I could ensure they would get recycled.

Maybe it’s the feelings of languishing while living through a pandemic, but my motivation for self-improvement, let alone environmental betterment, has waned. Maybe it’s working a decade at a community centre with a “zero waste” policy and watching the public fail at figuring out a multi-stream recycling bin system. Or should I say “keep failing,” because it’s 2023 and we’ve had separated recycling bins for a long time now. 

Maybe I’m starting to deeply recognize that the concept of individual responsibility was a lie sold to us all to distract ourselves from big businesses who are truly the cause of environmental destruction and climate change. Yes, internalize it—I had previously realized the scam in my mind and written that we’re all garbage people, but now I feel it in my bones. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still have a pang of guilt and shame whenever I purchase a single-use item like a to-go coffee cup. But when my delicious hot beverage is finished and I toss it in the garbage, I wipe my hands and heart clean of any responsibility. It’s not my fault—society made me do it! Most of the time I try to bring my own cup, or drink my bevvy at the cafe like a sophisticated European, but sometimes you’re on a road trip or don’t want to drink inside because the Covid numbers are high and you saw four people coughing without covering their mouths.

Individual responsibility was a lie to distract us all from big businesses who are truly the cause of environmental destruction.

For me, what really solidified the idea that it’s OK for me to occasionally be a garbage person, was when I recently flew to Argentina to shoot a commercial. (I’m pretending the carbon footprint of that long-haul flight belongs to the makers of the commercial—not me—since they would have flown someone out from Vancouver if it hadn’t been me.) Throughout both legs of my trip, I consumed at least a dozen bottles of water to avoid gastro problems. When there was no recycling bin in sight in either the Houston or Buenos Aires airport, I threw it in the trash just like everyone else.

On set, I realized that Argentina doesn’t have much recycling infrastructure. Or so it seemed. Even the United Airlines pilot made an announcement about pulling out our recycling to give to the attendants and then they just threw everything in one bag: garbage and recycling. Hundreds of pop bottles and cans were thrown into the garbage mixed in with food scraps and granola bar wrappers. No one seemed to flinch at the lack of recycling. So why am I chastizing myself if I have one to-go cup of coffee a month? The community I run in is big into recycling and being more sustainable, but I recognize now that it’s a bubble.

Let’s step back for a wider perspective. Who are the biggest polluters in the world? In 2019, it was revealed that 20 fossil fuel companies were responsible for a third of global carbon emissions between 1965 and 2017. How do I, Sara, actually compare? When I calculate my carbon footprint with an online tool like carbonfootprint.com, my largest contributors are my hour-long flights to see my family and the fact that I rent in a house that was built in the 1930s, so my apartment has poor insulation, radiator heating from natural gas, and a gas stove. Because I don’t drive and eat mostly vegetarian, I have a lower carbon footprint than a lot of North Americans. But compared to average people in most tropical countries, I’m a huge polluter. Meanwhile, the ultra-rich are taking private jets just to avoid traffic

Our global recycling system, for the most part, is broken. There’s so much garbage because governments and industries allow garbage to continue in the name of convenience. Companies would rather make things cheaply than package in more expensive reusable or recyclable materials, passing the waste issue on to local municipalities to figure out.

Unless you’re a literal fracking company, you’re not so bad.

How I live my life is “individual responsibility-esque.” I’m not buying fast fashion. I don’t own a car, so I walk, bike, or take transit to get to most places I need to be. I’ve eaten a mostly plant-based diet since 1997. When I do get a to-go cup, I take home my plastic tops to put in the right bin, because I don’t trust that things dumped in public bins will be sorted or even brought to a recycling centre. Luckily, I’m seeing paper lids more and more on my occasional to-go cups.

The process of unlearning individual responsibility is a challenge. It’s rewiring my ’90s kid brain that had Captain Planet’s words imprinted on it when he said, “The power is yours.” Smokey Bear also told us, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” That may have been true back in the day when people were leaving campfires smouldering. Now, when a fire spreads and quickly burns through hectares of dried tinder—no matter the original cause—there’s also group responsibility.

OK, I hear you. You’re saying, “But Sara, I want to do something to contribute to making a better world!” You’re amazing and a good person, and I want to give you answers. In my opinion, here are some collective actions we can do: donate our time, money and voice to a political party that is fighting for positive change, making our lives less reliant on polluters, and holding industry accountable. We can also participate in a shore, park, or road clean-up. 

Are you crafty? Why not work with fellow crafters to make art or useful objects out of garbage, such as rag rugs, plastic-bag weaving, or a community greenhouse made out of plastic bottles. Keep doing all the things you’re doing—just don’t feel bad when you have to be a garbage person once in a while.

What I’m saying to myself, and to you, is just do your best. Things are hard these days and we all need to be a bit easier on ourselves. Sure, you’re likely going to still feel a pang of guilt or shame when you’re forced to put your banana peel in the garbage because the holiday home you’re in doesn’t have a compost bin. It’s okay. Maybe next year they will, if you write to the owners and leaders in the community. After all, you’re someone who’s reading this article, so you actually do give a flying fuck. Unless you’re a literal fracking company, you’re not so bad. And after the past few years we’ve had, you deserve a break.

Do you hear that, Sara?

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