Wasting away

Canadians are among the biggest water wasters in the world. The reason: it’s cheap.

Wasting awayOften the best course of action is also the simplest, and that’s especially true where the environment is concerned.

Everyone agrees water is a precious resource, so we should treat it as if it’s truly valuable. The same goes for electricity, food and everything else we take from our environment. The greenest thing we can do is stop wasting what we’ve got.

Maclean’s nine-page special report on sustainability (See “Real ways to save the world” on page 45) takes a close look at Canadians’ shocking consumption habits and what it will take to change them. It also includes a sneak peek at the controversial new book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by British author Tristram Stuart, which will be released in Canada later this month.

Stuart uncovers some astounding statistics. Between a quarter and a third of all food purchased by consumers in developed countries is thrown out rather than eaten. Add in the edible items tossed by supermarkets and food producers, and about half of all food produced is simply wasted. This is due to carelessness, extravagance, pointless policies and massive international farm subsidies that encourage excess production, leading to more waste and more environmental degradation worldwide.

“If affluent nations stopped throwing out so much food, pressure on the world’s remaining natural ecosystems, and on the climate, would be lifted,” Stuart writes. Given that the average Canadian household spends $7,300 a year on food—fourth in expenses after taxes, housing and transportation—it should be easy for everyone to think more carefully about the food we buy and what we throw out.

The task may be somewhat more difficult when it comes to water. Canadians are among the biggest water wasters in the world, primarily because we don’t pay enough for it. Many municipalities sell water to residents at a loss; revenue from water agencies across Canada only covers about 70 per cent of expenditures. If we’re giving away water, it should come as no surprise that we’re careless in its use.

The same goes for electricity. Government subsidization and regulation inevitably leads to over-consumption as Canadians lack the price signals necessary to make rational decisions about how much they really need to use. The obvious solution is to charge more for both water and electricity. Yet this is seen as politically unpalatable. Canadians themselves need to accept the logic of higher prices before common sense can prevail.

This summer a poll for the journal Policy Options found that nearly half of all Canadians would pay more for water if it improved supply. Not exactly overwhelming support, but hopeful evidence nonetheless that we may be warming up to the idea that prices should reflect costs. After all, it’s just common sense.

In keeping with our observation that environmentalism should be simple, logical and effective, we are pleased to announce that Maclean’s will donate $1 from every newsstand sale of this issue to Evergreen, a charity dedicated to greening Canada’s urban spaces.

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