Revisiting the 3R’s: What ever happened to rejecting and avoiding waste?

Fridays For Future Dresden Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/2019-03_Fridays_For_Future_Dresden_%2845%29.jpg

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Contemporary life styles are characterized by high levels of energy consumption, environmental damage and social unrest. Modern advertising, education and information systems promote a society based on materialism and competition…

This quote sounds like it could have been tweeted out this summer highlighting the problematic high-energy lifestyles we lead, referencing Fridays for Future demonstrations and putting some of the blame on social media and keeping up with the Joneses. As a matter of fact, in a highly controversial tweet Global News Canada just reported that “Canadian millennials struggle with debt largely because they’re trying to keep up an Instagram-worthy lifestyle.” However, the above observation has been made long before Instagram and social media promoted a materialistic and competitive society. The quote stems from a 1974 Canadian government document. Already more than four decades ago, our lifestyles were the focus of studies that looked for ways to lower our energy footprint. The reasons for doing so may have been different. In the early 1970s the combined challenges of oil price crisis, pollution and solid waste led governments to formulate comprehensive energy policies to deal with the surging consumption. Today, much of the debate is informed by climate change. The biggest difference, however, seems to be the ease with which governmental studies of the 1970s included radical critiques of the Canadian lifestyle that led to insatiable thirst for energy and incontrovertible belief in growth.

Pollution Probe came up with the slogan “reduce, re-use, recyle,” but originally it was “reject, re-use, recycle” Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Reduce_Reuse_Recycle.jpg

I was not familiar with the 3R’s before I moved to Canada. While I was used to recycling in Germany where I grew up, the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” never entered the German public discussions on how to deal with household waste nor did it leave a mark in popular culture. The West German government created a federal environmental agency in 1974 (Umweltbundesamt) and introduced a waste management program in 1975 which hierarchized waste management echoing the 3R’s (vermeiden, verwerten, beseitigenwhich literally translates into avoid, recycle, dispose).[1] However, it never became a slogan worthy of songs sung by the likes of Jack Johnson. Already in the 1970s, the noun Recycling had made its way into the German language and today ‘recyclen’ is an acceptable and conjugatable verb. But beyond that, the 3R’s were not a slogan widely used in German environmental activism, which is not to say that such activism and governmental policies were not addressing the same three aspects of dealing with solid waste. In the 1970s, controlling the unprecedented increase of waste had become a challenge all over the Western world.

This is all to say that I was not as accustomed to the term as many of my Canadian friends and colleagues were. For this reason, I was intrigued by an interjection by, I think it was, Alan MacEachern a few years ago at one of the panels at the ASEH (American Society for Environmental History) annual conference where he pointed out that originally the “reduce” in the 3R’s was something else. Unfortunately, I remembered it incorrectly and thought it was “refuse, reduce, recycle,” but once I read Ryan O’Connor’s monograph on Pollution Probe,[2] I learnt that this Toronto-based environmental NGO, which was founded by university students in 1969, first asked people to “reject, re-use, recycle.”[3] According to O’Connor “reject” was considered to be too harsh a term and quickly dropped. It does not surprise me that an environmental NGO such as Pollution Probe, which in its early years worked with business and government, would be worried about language that might have been too radical. However, the more I look into responses to the 1973 energy crises, that address domestic energy consumption, the more I can see that in the early 1970s it was possible to discuss solutions that would question “the consumer-driven growth ethos that imperilled modern society”[4] and implicitly capitalism more generally. This included government institutions like the German environmental agency, which cautioned people to avoid waste in the first place which would of course entail rejecting packaging but also buying unnecessary products in the first place. In the Canadian case, we see similar ideas appearing in the work of the Office of Energy Conservation, an agency within the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources (EMR).

Reading through the documents that were prepared for the 1974 federal Energy Task Force, we get a glimpse of how expansive and far-reaching thinking proceeded when it came to tackling the monumental task of conserving energy, especially during times of a global oil price crisis. In response to the detrimental effects of the oil price shock of 1973 which was the combined result of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) price hikes and an OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo in the wake of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Canadian government established a Task Force on Energy Research and Development on January 15, 1974. Housed in the Office of Energy Research & Development in the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources (EMR), this interdepartmental task force which included scientists and environmentalists like Brian Kelly, who left Pollution Probe in 1974 to join EMR’s Office of Energy Conservation (OEC) had established six tasks and assigned these to various lead agencies. These tasks, which were envisaged to help plan for a more sustainable energy future, included energy conservation, exploitation of domestic non-renewable energy resources, oil and gas substitution, development of nuclear capability, exploitation of renewables and improvement of energy transportation systems. It encapsulated an entirely new approach to energy policy. The first task, which was led by the Office of Energy Conservation, was the only task subdivided into two sections. Task 1A was devoted to “reducing consumption and/or increasing efficiency” while Task 1B was dedicated to “improved data and management.”[5]

One of the nine programs within task 1A was devoted to “Life Styles.” The need for action was justified as follows, and this is where part of the quote at the beginning originates: “Contemporary life styles are characterized by high levels of energy consumption, environmental damage and social unrest. Modern advertising, education and information systems promote a society based on materialism and competition; few alternatives are offered for rational consumer decisions. Consumption is further reinforced by products of low quality and high obsolescence. Our very living patterns, based as they are on private ownership and material status, result largely in consumptive conformity. Even our emerging recreation patterns are dominated by motorized, energy-consuming activities rather than physical exercise, personal fulfillment or relaxation.”[6] Here, private ownership as well as the production of unnecessary goods were explicitly named as one of the main reasons that Canadian society was consuming too much energy and producing too much waste. Such behaviour was not sustainable and needed to be changed. Canadians were “locked into the dominant lifestyle” and education and government programs should help Canadians make “informed consumption decisions.” Apart from educational efforts, OEC authors suggested changes to legislation to emphasize “product durability, repairability [sic …], re-use and recycling” and “discourage planned obsolescence, unnecessary style changes [… and] over packaging.”[7]

Already in 1970 Pollution Probe provided a guide to address high-energy use and wasteful behaviour.
Donald Chant talks about the founding of Pollution Probe, its goal of educating the public about environmental pollution, and the role of political pressure. Source: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/distinguished-canadians-donald-chant

As the OEC included former Pollution Probe activists such as Kelly, it is not surprising to see some of the arguments proposed by the grassroots movement to enter government documents. Years before the 1973 energy crisis necessitated the Canadian government to address the challenges of high energy use and wasteful behaviour, Pollution Probe insisted that demand-side approaches were needed. Already in 1970, they warned that the unquestioned belief in growth and rampant consumption imperiled Canada’s society and economy and published a guide on how to live an environmentally friendly life, edited by Donald A. Chant, professor of zoology at the University of Toronto and one of the co-founders of Pollution Probe.[8] Two years later, the group released recommendations that called for more durable products and a ban on advertising that attempted ‘to induce an artificial demand for a product.’[9] While there may have been a unique situation in Canada at the time that allowed such fundamental criticism of a material Canadian society and in extension capitalism that was based on household consumption, I have found similar discussions of avoiding waste in governmental publications in West Germany. Today, such ideas seem to have a much harder time entering official government publications as the nations’ economic well-being, jobs and sustainable development take precedence. But as a German colleague told me a couple of days ago, inspired by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future demonstrations, many teenage daughters will ask their parents, including business leaders and political decision-makers, what they are doing about climate change. Maybe it is time for a more radical critique of high-energy consumer societies to enter governmental policy planning.


[1]Thomas Forstner et al., 1974–2014: 40 Jahre Umweltbundesamt (Berlin: Umweltbundesamt, 2014): 76, https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/376/publikationen/40_jahre_umweltbundesamt.pdf.
[2]Ryan O’Connor, The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario(Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015). Reviewed for NiCHE by Hank Trim, http://niche-canada.org/2016/02/29/review-of-oconnor-the-first-green-wave/.
[3]Ryan O’Connor, The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario(Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015): 112.
[4]Ibid.
[5]LAC, RG 99-1 121, 150-3 T7 (2), Task Force on Energy Research and Development, Office of Energy R&D, Energy R&D Program, Revised October 1974. As Hank Trim has shown, Trudeau in general and EMR in particular championed rationalization approaches as well as computer modelling, planning and expert advisors to ensure objective policy decisions. Henry Trim, “Brief Periods of Sunshine: A History of the Canadian Government’s Attempt to Build a Solar Heating Industry, 1974-1983,” Scientia Canadensis34, 2 (2011): 29-49; idem, “Experts at Work: The Canadian State, North American Environmentalism, and Renewable Energy in an Era of Limits, 1968-1983”(PhD diss., University of British Columbia, October 2014). Another underlying assumption was that Canadians could be socially engineered to change their wasteful behaviour. 
[6]LAC, RG 99-1 121, 150-3 T7 (2), Task Force on Energy Research and Development, Office of Energy R&D, Energy R&D Program, Revised October 1974.
[7]LAC, RG 99-1 121, 150-3 T7 (2), Consolidated Program or Sub-Program Statement, Task I: Reduce Consumption and/or Increase Efficiency, Program 9: Lifestyles.
[8]Donald A. Chant (ed.), Pollution Probe(Toronto: New Press, 1970).
[9]Quoted in Ryan O’Connor, The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario(Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015):107-108.
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Petra Dolata is an energy historian at the University of Calgary and co-convenor of the Energy In Society working group at the Calgary Institute for the Humanities.

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