Waste reduction motivated two major initiatives in my early social justice work. Both became national success stories; over time, however, both enabled more waste and had other unintended consequences. Reflecting on that, I wonder if more than stewardship is needed to ground our approach to care for God’s creation.
Edmonton’s Blue Box program was cutting-edge waste reduction in the 1990s. Citizens for Public Justice, with whom I worked, and the Mennonite Central Committee worked tirelessly to build public support for the Three R’s – reduce, re-use, recycle. Landfill shortage and cost were push factors for the launch of the Blue Box program. The pull factor was a cultural shift to see material goods as resources to be used and re-used, not wasted. That concept remains the core of Edmonton’s continuing strong record in waste management, better than most comparable cities.
But blue box programs are now legitimately critiqued for enabling the use of disposables because they can be recycled. The first R – reduction – got lost. When markets for recyclables are glutted or materials are not properly sorted, a high percentage of the contents end up in landfills. Current proposed plastic bans may helpfully put more weight behind the first R. Progress toward a circular economy, in which producers assume responsibility for the full life-cycle of their products, may add incentives to produce fewer disposable products and less packaging in the first place.
Edmonton’s Foodbank program, the second example, was launched to glean useable produce that would otherwise perish, a 20th century version of a Biblical practice. In this case, the founders worried and warned about the dangers of it becoming a substitute for genuine food security. That is precisely what happened. Food banks exploded across the country to become a huge, institutionalized part of our social service system. Large food companies now get tax benefits for donating surplus product to foodbanks, including products of minimal nutritional value. Foodbanks enable the opposite of healthy food security. They have also become a substitute for just public policy because they hide the problem of hunger from public view and allow those with power to feel good about doing something to help the poor. If there were no foodbanks, the large numbers of hungry people on our streets might force governments to address inequitable access built into the food production and distribution systems.
As these examples make clear, stewardship is a necessary but inadequate foundation for waste reduction and care for creation. It is easily distorted to serve human interests. It rarely gives adequate weight to the value of creation apart from humans, and it elevates humans too far above the rest of creation. While I recognize the fear that greater identification between humans and other parts of creation can lead to pantheism, I wonder why we don’t equally recognize the harms caused by elevating humans too much. The track record of the best-intended human stewardship prompts a re-think.
The concept of ecological justice, now used by many waste reduction advocates, better recognizes the inherent value of non-human elements of creation. It leads to full-cost accounting, as does stewardship, but the weighing of costs and benefits is less biased in favour of human interests. A challenge is complexity. Weighing and balancing different kinds of harms and benefits, inherent in a justice framework, runs counter to the modern rush to one-line slogans and instant, simple solutions. Proposals based on climate justice, for example, tend to be so complex that they are perceived as idealistic and easily dismissed. If they avoid that risk, they tend to get caught up in trade-offs that fail to end waste and harm to our world.
The biblical concept of shalom – all things in harmony – captures a no-waste world. Getting from here to there, an enduring vision, is more than a life-long challenge.