In Canada, where I live, there are recycling bins everywhere you go. Every public place, office building, or school has blue boxes that are almost as easy to find as garbage cans. In Canada, it is almost a public embarrassment not to recycle. I seem to remember reading that upwards of 97% of homes put out recycling with their garbage pickup every week.

In Canada, it would be hard to find a suburban street where nobody had a compost pile in their backyard. Most universities have some sort of campus composting program. More and more municipalities are even getting curbside compost pickups along with their garbage and recycling.

In Canada, most sit-down restaurants serve their meals in reusable dishes. Receiving a meal where anything other than the napkin was designed to be thrown out would reflect badly on the restaurant. Eating a hotel breakfast out of Styrofoam would make the hotel seem much less classy.

In Canada, we know we have a long way to go. We continually feel bad about our national ecological footprint. We compare ourselves to Europe and groan. We’re one of the worst per-capita polluters in the world.

I have never had reason to feel proud of the environmental practices of my country. Until now.

A trip south

This weekend, I travelled down to the United States for the first time since becoming interested in the environment. I already knew that the US was slightly worse than Canada in terms of environmental policy. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

Recycling appeared to be nonexistent. It was the exception rather than the rule. At the hotel I stayed at, there was not a single recycling bin in the entire building. Not even for paper! In my entire stay, I believe I saw recycling bins in two public places. I ended up hoarding all my recyclables and bringing them home with me. I couldn’t bear to throw out a milk carton, drink can or piece of cardboard.

Even worse were the widespread use of disposable products. The continental breakfast that the hotel served did not offer a single reusable plate, glass, or piece of cutlery. There were only two places that I ate where not everything was designed to be thrown out. One of those places randomly served water and soft drinks in flimsy plastic cups. Food just doesn’t taste as good in dishes designed for the landfill, at least for me. I ate out of a Tupperware container and a travel mug for most of my meals.

I am so used to, after every meal, separating my waste into three piles: recycling, composting, and garbage. It’s almost unconscious. And now, suddenly, I was expected to merge my three piles into the one that I avoided most of all.

How could the most economically powerful nation in the world lack basic sustainability practices? How could cities that have light rail transit not have a recycling program?

It never occurred to me that somewhere so developed could be so undeveloped in their environmental practices.

Please, America. Catch up to the rest of the world. This isn’t like health insurance where only the nation involved is affected. When you take no measures to decrease your environmental impact, every being on this planet is being harmed.


17 thoughts on “Undeveloped

  1. It’s pretty bad down here in the U.S. Recycling bins are unusual in public places. Most homes have curbside recycling one day a week, but these programs are different in different places. I went to a “green festival” last year and they had you separate everything like that – compost, recycling, and garbage. It was a novelty.

    Andy Greene
    Green Living Tips for Rednecks

    • Thanks Andy. It’s really too bad that this problem is widespread in your country. I travelled mostly in Illinois and Wisconsin (beautiful boreal forest in northern Wisconsin – first time I saw a lodgepole pine!) and was hoping it was just those states, but sadly, it isn’t.

      The three-part waste program of which you speak is quite common in Canadian universities, as well as some high schools and municipalities.

      Nice website of yours, I’d been thinking about purchasing a solar panel and will certainly look to your blog as a resource.

  2. Kate,

    Thanks for dropping in on my blog. I love your site here, and I’d like to link you if you don’t mind.

    This post stings – because I know it’s all true! It baffles and angers me that the U.S., a “world leader,” has fallen so far behind other nations in our sustainability practices. I work in an office where people will opt to use styrofoam cups and plastic cutlery when the real stuff is just as available to them, and where people admit to not even owning real dishes at home because they hate washing them! People have no sense of responsibility; those who even buy into the idea of global warming at all won’t do anything about it because it’s their “right” as Americans to be as wasteful as they please. Everyone tells me I should be proud of my country… well, at least in this instance, I cannot find a reason to be.

    Thanks for your elucidating words! I will see you around!

    • Thanks for your comment Laura. You are more than welcome to link to my blog. Because your blog is not exclusively about climate change, I’ll likely link to individual posts of yours in the future (rather than the homepage) – I especially liked your post about the polar bears. What’s going on right now in the States with climate change legislation in general? We don’t hear a great deal about it up here in Canada.

  3. Thanks for dropping by, Kate. I get a disproportionate amount of traffic from the GWN – and I’m certain [well, hopeful] it’s because folks appreciate rational thought and analysis.

    Nice start to your blog. Though the colors remind me more than they should – of sorbet. :)

    • Your comment made me laugh out loud. I sort of wanted trees for my background (which I’ve developed a rapid obsession to since I got my hands on a tree identification book) but I don’t know CSS.

      Keep up the good work.

  4. I live in LA and recycling just isn’t an option in my building, everything has to go in the trash chute.
    On the plus side, homeless people go through the dumpsters and pick out all the bottles.

    • That’s really too bad. Is there a recycling drop-off centre near your building? It’s a little more work but it might be worth it. Some places even pay you for your recyclables.

  5. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the ALL of Canada. And as you said, we still have a long way to go as a nation. Here, while the recycling movement/initiative is growing and gaining wider support, cities are still falling behind the times.

    Some residents in the city of Hamilton for example have complained vehemently to the latest reduction in the amount of garbage they can leave curbside. This has led to what is being described as an increase in illegal dumping … and other residents’ blue boxes being stuffed with unwanted garbage from those who choose not to recycle.

    I live out in a more rural community and still see a lot of illegal, road-size dumping … not to mention a lot of backyard burns happening. My son and I were constantly picking up garbage in our woods that people would throw out their car windows.

    In our local parks, you are hard-pressed to find a single recycling station/box … unless you consider the bushes a good place to throw recyclables? It’s something I am taking up with the county actually …

    Seems some places are further ahead than others … But I really liked the way you closed your article linking one nation’s practices to the global impacts that it has. Kudos!

    • Hi Candace, thanks for dropping by. I certainly have heard that rural areas are much worse than urban centres in terms of recycling. Hopefully such systems can improve. Keep lobbying your local government, it’s worth a good fight.

      • In smalll steps things are changing … it requires perseverance, dedication and as many people involved as possible. And as more people “go green” and take action themselves, I really think we’ll see a lot of significant improvements over the next few years. And unfortunately, one of the catalysts for change in the rural areas is the sad fact that the urban areas are sprawling outwards and more people are moving out into these rural areas … bringing many of their practices/ideals with them.

  6. I can’t speak for Canada, or for the entire U.S., but where I live, sustainability is slowly beginning to catch on with some people. Stores offer recycling for plastic bags and electronics, and there are recycling bins in the mall parking lot, but the state’s recycling rate is less than 10% (!). Part of the problem, is that we lack a curbside program. I think many more people would recycle if, say, a single-stream system were available.

    In the U.S., environmental consciousness varies by location. In the South, some people seem to view environmentalism as a way the Leftists are trying to control our lives. I have actually heard the phrase “environmental mumbo jumbo” recently.

    On the other hand, San Francisco has banned plastic bags, and I hope many other cities will follow suit.

  7. “In Canada, we know we have a long way to go. We continually feel bad about our national ecological footprint. We compare ourselves to Europe and groan. We’re one of the worst per-capita polluters in the world.”

    Awesome generalizations! But wrong on so many levels.
    We do not continually feel bad about our “ecological footprint”. Let’s not kid ourselves, the only people who feel bad are the people who immerse themselves into this eco-construct. Incidentally, these are the people who are typically found driving a hybrid Prius, watching award-winning comedies like “An Inconvenient Truth”, and preaching to the world about CFC bulbs — all in an attempt to repent for their self-induced guilt of enjoying modern-day conveniences. In reality, and Canada having a pretty humanist population, you will not find too many people who get gloomy and depressed about their CO2 emissions. That’s just not the case!

    If we compared ourselves to Europeans and groaned — we would’ve lived in smaller houses and lived with less conveniences for higher cost. Clearly this is not the case. Evidently, we like to live in bigger homes, and be more comfortable, if it means using more energy. When was the last time you heard someone say “Man, I’m so jealous of Alessandro who lives in a 40m2 flat, pays ridiculous price for water and drainage, but uses 30% less energy than me” ?

    Now, the only reason that Canadians recycle is that at some point in the past it was made convenient and burden-free. Recycling became ‘de rigeuer’ for the following generation. That’s a good thing. But remember, as soon as recycling is inconvenient (recycling centers instead of curbside), people will invariably give it up.

    • I suppose I meant “Canadians who are concerned about the environment” as opposed to just “Canadians”. Maybe that’s what the general public is like, but I know that there is a very strong environmental community in Canada. Not all of them like Al Gore (see my post “Why Al Gore Doesn’t Matter”). Not all of them drive Priuses (I don’t think I know any). And most of them know that the problem of climate change won’t be solved by changing lightbulbs alone. Maybe we’re the minority, but we’re a growing minority, and not so stereotypical and hippie-like as you might think.

      And maybe I’m the minority here too, but I don’t like using a lot of energy to get a lot of conveniences. I could handle living without many conveniences. I like as few appliances and tools as possible. I like camping and cooking and trees. Being a North American doesn’t change that.

      Sustainbility does not have to be inconvenient, either. Think creatively. Think about technologies which are only just being developed. Think about how easy recycling is now in most Canadian cities, and imagine if composting and public transportation were just as easy.

      There are exceptions to every stereotype. We have to work hard to develop the exceptions to stereotypes we don’t like.

      • I suppose that attacking a generalization with another generalization was bad judgement call on my behalf, and did not advance my argument any further.

        I am happily corrected that not all environmentalists worship Al Gore, and some are genuinely concerned about the environment and are educated on the matter beyond popular media.

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