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                    Polluting Practices Proliferate Without Economic Penalties


By Terri Chu

This past Earth day, the planet surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. 

I remember when I was in primary school - we were taught that 350ppm was the magic number we weren’t supposed to touch. We sang songs about loving the Earth and all the little individual things we can do to lower our environmental footprint. 

Despite all the singing, we blew through that target, so then the politicians decided that the next target would be 400.  Having blown through that, I’m thinking the political response is to sit down and wait for self-annihilation (oh wait… that’s pretty much what we’ve been doing this whole time). 

If you’re losing faith in governments to take meaningful action on climate change, you are not alone. Somewhere there must be a support group.

While the Great Barrier Reef suffers a second mass bleaching event, buildings in Canada’s north are destabilizing due to lost permafrost and Western Quebec is still under flood water, our government is has pretended we can continue on with business as usual just because we have a carbon tax on a limited number of things.  Kinder Morgan pipelines got the go ahead, our high-emissions agricultural sector continues to enjoy subsidies (a pound of local organic beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than taking pretty much any vegetable based food, slapping it on an airplane, and flying it around the world), and transit users continue to flee back into their cars due to the lower marginal cost of driving. 

And in the meantime, new consumer “innovations” are here to help us fast track our pollutions.

Take for example the Silicon Valley based Juicero. They raised $120M to market a $400 “smart juicer” that literally squeezes a juice packet for you into a cup. 

Creating waste has never been easier, yet no politician dares raise a hand to tax garbage for fear of upsetting people’s right to have pre-peeled bananas in plastic packages. 

For years I’ve been writing about the “little things” we can do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint.  The sad reality is that none of what you or I do matters when half the city is still throwing out a dozen K cups a day. 

For every innovation that helps us reduce our carbon footprint, a Juicero comes along and spits in our faces edging us closer to the dinosaurs. 

There’s no easy solution, and definitely no quick fix. We need structural changes that stop rewarding our own laziness. 

It is unconscionable that governments have done so little to curb food-packaging waste.  Look at the lowly juice box. For three decades it has remained fundamentally unchanged, unchallenged by either consumers or governments.  A three-pack comes wrapped in plastic, each individual box comes with a straw that will never decompose, and each straw is protected by its own plastic sleeve. 

If we are to tackle climate change and the rapid destruction of our resources, we need structural changes.  Washing something and reusing it needs to be price competitive with mining oil, forming it into a single use disposable product, and getting it hauled away on the back of a gigantic truck.

Labour, not materials, has become the most expensive part of food distribution. Why pay a milkman to deliver milk and reclaim bottles when we can throw out mountains of containers at near zero cost? Meanwhile, our innovations are decreasing the need for human labour so much we are looking at a population that’s about to face massive unemployment.

Without the right incentives, we will continue to double down producing garbage that will never decompose and adding more emissions to the air. It is how we have defined “progress” for over two centuries. 

Depending on individuals to save the Earth isn’t working anymore.  It doesn’t matter how many K cups you and I don’t use when there are still enough produced to circle the globe multiple times a year.  We need governments to have the courage to enact policies to effectively put them out of business unless they change their business model from one that treats the earth as a free garbage dump. 

When dumping onto the Earth is no longer free, muscle power to reduce and reuse might actually start making economic sense. 


Terri Chu is an expert in energy systems, with a Masters in Engineering specializing in urban energy systems. Terri founded the grassroots organization "Why Should I Care", a not for profit dedicated to engaging people on issues of public policy.




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