Climate action requires big picture thinking
When talking about climate action, littering is a bit of a red herring.
Greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer, resulting in changing habitats for all life forms, caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather.
Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years, states the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities attributed to burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.
The EPA and many other agencies calculate the highest greenhouse gas emissions are caused by burning fossil fuel for electricity and heat, followed by transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and garbage, including landfills. According to Canada’sGreenhouse Gas Inventory, in 2019: Emissions from Canadian landfills account for 23 per cent of national methane emissions.
That cup lying on the side of the road is not now causing the planet’s temperature to rise. It is unsightly and causes a hazard to wildlife, but in terms of emissions, the damage was done when it was manufactured, shipped to the fast food restaurant, consumed by a driver of a moving vehicle, propelled by fossil fuels. The act of tossing it from the window of the moving car is the least of all evils when examined through a climate lens. The moving vehicle is a bigger problem.
Cleaning up is great, but making sure nothing goes to the landfill that doesn’t need to is more important. The County of Simcoe’s landfills will be at capacity within the decade and that’s why there is a big push on diversion.
But even recycling has a cost when it comes to emissions, although manufacturing from recycled material is a better option than not, the lifecycle of that product will have its own environmental footprint.
We need to let go of litter as a measure of our success, and think bigger. Throwing a plastic container in the recycling bin is one thing but the damage has already been done (unless we are talking about the added impact of the plastics that end up in oceans and lakes, plastics so small that we don’t know how to retrieve them).
The climate emergency, crisis, change, or whatever you want to call it, is caused by everything we do – our cell phones, food, and even the things we consider to be “green” all cost the environment way before we even think to put them in our virtual shopping carts.
We need to think big. The only way to do it is to pressure all levels of government to stop telling us what has already been done because it isn’t enough. This is not a problem that can be solved by individuals. We need oversight and strong policies from all levels of government.