‘Zero waste’ expert offers students alternative to garbage-filled world

It is challenging to convince people to change their habits but Ruth McKay is willing to try—especially when it comes to promoting environmentally sound business and community decisions.

McKay, an associate professor in Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, not only teaches change management but is also passionate about finding responsible, safe ways to reduce and dispose of waste. As one step in the process of encouraging her students to think about waste management issues, she invited environmental chemistry and toxicology specialist Paul Connett to campus to give a special lecture on March 6, 2008.

Connett is a professor emeritus of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He has devoted his career to the concept of “zero waste” (i.e., reusing and recycling resources in order to reduce waste to zero) and has travelled the globe for 23 years, sharing his research and advocating recycling and sustainable alternatives to mega-landfills and incinerators.

About 100 students attended Connett’s lecture, entitled “A Sustainable Waste Management Strategy for the 21st Century,” to hear him discuss waste management in general and, specifically, the dangers of incineration.

“Incineration produces highly toxic nanoparticles that are not filtered nor monitored,” he stated.

”These nanoparticles contain toxic metals, free radicals, dioxins and furans. They travel long distances and penetrate deep into the lungs.”

He also described the “zero waste” strategy and how the “lowly world of trash” can empower citizens to protect the environment. “To achieve a sustainable society [in the 21st century] we have to move towards
a ‘zero waste’ society,” he argued. “The message from the community to industry needs to be loud and clear: if we can’t reuse it, recycle it or compost it, you shouldn’t be making it!”

McKay is fascinated with Connett’s ideas, “because with his chemistry and toxicology background he provides clear and pressing reasons why we need to make informed choices about our waste.” Plus, she believes, he simplifies complex health issues related to waste and makes strong economic arguments for recycling over incineration.

McKay’s own work on waste management includes a co-authored article about a bear-proof composter/digester for use in rural areas. To complete this research, she rode a community garbage truck, weighed bags of garbage at a landfill and observed bears testing composters. According to McKay, benchmarking is critical in dealing with waste.

McKay believes that students, especially those doing business degrees, need to discuss the environmental impacts of the decisions they are recommending in their assignments, exams and group work.

“It is too easy to argue the economics of a decision without consideration for the environment,” says McKay, who praises the Sprott School for its forward-thinking support of the Connett lecture.

“A key competitive advantage of Canada is our natural environment. We need to teach the importance of preserving this advantage through educated decision-making.”

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Susan Hickman

By Susan Hickman

For nearly four decades, journalist Susan Hickman has written about every imaginable subject for sundry newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, as well as for CBC TV and CBC Radio. She has also managed various publications, including academic newspapers and technology magazines, and was recently commissioned to write a guide for foreign missions serving in Canada. Currently, she is working on a couple of personal memoirs.

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