Canada's Waste Flow
Myra Hird, sitting in a friend’s kitchen, reaches into her bag and pulls out a fist-sized ball made of elastic bands wrapped around each other. It took her six months to collect the elastics, which she found on the ground.
After recalling how her mother used to gather elastics dropped by the letter carrier, Hird starts talking about her ball. Each of its rubber bands originated as latex tapped from a rubber tree by someone in South America or Southeast Asia. Trucks transported the latex to a factory that processed it into rubber that was extruded onto a long metal tube and sliced into rubber bands. These were packaged and shipped to a distributor, which ensured that the rubber bands made it onto a Canadian retail store shelf or an office manager’s order sheet. Then each rubber band was used to bind letters, magazines or flyers. Eventually the rubber band was tossed into the street, where it would remain until a child, snowplow or street cleaner scooped it up, or rainfall washed it into a sewer.
Hird uses the ball as a prop to explain that everything we use – smartphones, cars, refrigerators, food, playing cards, your wedding ring, you name it – goes through the same process. They start with materials grown in or mined from the earth. They’re converted from their original state into something that people use. Some of these manufactured items will be reused or repurposed. Sooner or later they will be considered “waste” and be disposed of. Ultimately they return to earth – as rust or mold, as toxic ash harvested from an incinerator, or as leachate, the “garbage juice” which, if not adequately contained, could leak out of landfills into the soil and water.
It’s this latter stage – after a thing has been discarded – that fascinates Hird, who’s a Queen’s University sociologist and professor in the School of Environmental Studies. She’s intrigued by what she calls the “network of relations” associated with waste – the web of interactions, transactions and negotiations that occur after a thing is thrown away. These days, she’s thinking a lot about those relationships. Hird is the principal investigator of Canada’s Waste Flow, an interdisciplinary research project that is examining three critical questions: What is waste? What do we do with our waste? What is Canada’s waste future?
No time to waste
It’s a timely initiative. Canada produces more waste than any other country – every year, more than 1000 kg per person, or 35 million tonnes nationally. Much of it is solid waste from households, businesses like fast-food restaurants, and large organizations such as hospitals. Most of it – some 27 million tonnes – ends up in landfills that are specifically designed to prevent toxic leachate from entering the surrounding soil and water. This leachate must be collected and disposed of.
On the industrial side, mining is Canada’s biggest single waste generator. Every year it cranks out millions of tonnes of tailings and effluent that can threaten nearby waterways, wildlife and people. From a technical and sociopolitical point of view, however, Canada’s most troublesome waste is spent nuclear fuel. It’s stored in secure ground-level facilities or in specially-engineered tunnels hundreds of metres underground, where it’s supposed to stay, forever.
A million familiar and unfamiliar questions surround waste. Why do Canadians produce more of it than anyone else? How is it linked to capitalism, advertising, economics, health, politics, human rights and labour practices? Do recycling programs really work? Is it ethical to bury nuclear waste so that future generations have to deal with problems that might arise? Which waste issues interest the public, and why? How can we reduce waste? Is it possible to dispose of waste in a way that doesn’t harm the environment?
“Waste touches virtually every aspect of our lives,” says Hird. “How we deal with it is a matter of democratic importance. It’s a question that’s not going to go away.”
Building a Team
Canada’s Waste Flow (CWF) is the current project of the genera Research Group (gRG), which Hird formed in 2010 to bring together Queen’s academics and students from the natural and social sciences, engineering and applied sciences, and humanities to work on a common topic. The gRG took a while to build a head of steam.
“Philosophers, social scientists and engineers look at the world in different ways and don’t always agree about how to define a problem, so we had trouble trying to settle on a topic we could all study,” explains Hird. “Canada’s Waste Flow solved this impasse by allowing everyone to come together, regardless of their approach, around this thing called ’waste.’ It works because while waste involves difficult technological issues, it also raises social and ethical issues for which there’s no technological fix.”
The first phase of CWF began in 2010, when Hird partnered with Kerry Rowe, a Queen’s professor of civil engineering who is one of the world’s leading experts on landfill engineering. The pair surveyed waste management practices and attitudes in Kingston, Ontario, from technical, engineering, social, cultural and ethical angles. An Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funded the initiative.
The success of the pilot project led to Hird’s successful application for another, much larger, SSHRC Insight Grant (it was the largest Insight Grant awarded that year at Queen’s) that will fund Canada’s Waste Flow for the next five years. The second phase will be a proving ground for the interdisciplinary approach that Hird says is not only logical, but essential, when researching complex problems like waste. “All sorts of technical, environmental, social, economic and cultural interactions happen at every point along the waste continuum,” says Hird. “That’s why you can’t look at waste through a single lens. If you want meaningful answers to the complicated questions it raises, you have to come at it from as many directions as possible.”
The CWF team members all hail from Queen’s, except for Peter van Wyck, a professor of communication studies at Concordia University in Montreal who is an expert in nuclear waste issues. For the next five years, the team will study waste by focusing on landfill, food and agriculture waste, medical waste, mining waste, nuclear waste, and Arctic waste issues. Research in each of these six areas, or nodes, will be led by two academics – one from the natural, applied, or engineering sciences, and one from the social sciences or humanities – assisted by a graduate student. Everyone has access to a panel of international scholars that Hird has recruited as expert advisers.
Although more gRG members are still coming on board, some of the researchers have already begun to turn out academic papers on their respective topics. Hird and her team, for instance, are preparing a number of articles as a result of her landfill work with Rowe, and some are already in press.
In one of the CWF case studies, Hird is collaborating with Dr. Allison Rutter of the Queen’s Analytical Services Unit to learn more about waste issues in Northern Canada, where waste is a critical topic. Since the ground there is frozen for much of the year, it’s impossible to build the same types of landfills that are common further south. Yet every Northern community generates waste. How can it be disposed of responsibly? How will the gradual thawing of permafrost brought on by global warming affect waste disposal policies and methods in the Arctic?
One beneficiary of this approach is Cassandra Kuyvenhoven, one of Hird’s graduate students in the School of Environmental Studies. Kuyvenhoven is interested in the transportation of waste, and is conducting an in-depth survey of what happens to municipal solid waste, e-waste and organic waste generated at Queen’s. So far, she’s travelled to New York, Newfoundland and England to present her findings at conferences and meet with waste scholars.
Kuyvenhoven’s research has produced some surprising findings. For instance, she learned that most recycled Styrofoam from Queen’s is broken down and shipped to China, and that much of the university’s electronics waste ends up in landfills in India and Mexico. The transport of these materials consumes considerable amounts of fossil fuels, so from an emissions perspective it makes more sense to dispose of these materials domestically. Some of the materials can be recycled, but many will be landfilled. Some people may not like this solution, but it’s preferable to sending it across an ocean or two.
Kuyuvenhoven’s research will be used by the Queen’s Office of Sustainability to ensure that the university’s waste disposal practices produce the lowest possible amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. In that sense, what Kuyvenhoven is doing is a miniature version of what CWF seeks to accomplish.
Mira Hird was one of the recipients of the 2015 Prizes for Excellence in Research. Read her interview in (e)AFFECT…
“We want to bring different kinds of academics and graduate students together,” says Hird. “But we also hope their research will ultimately inform better, stronger environmental policies within organizations and at the government level.”
For more about Canada's Waste Flow and the genera Research Group, visit wasteflow.ca.
(e)AFFECT Issue 4, Fall 2013