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Find me guilty 

Tim Bousquet on why you should part with some of your personal eco-shame.

Twice recently I've screwed up the coffee thing. You know: the evil paper cup conspiracy.

The first time, I neglected to bring my plastic mug with me to meet someone for coffee at the Farmers' Market—I ended up furtively stealing sips from a paper cup, self-consciously dreading that someone might see Mr. Environmental Columnist chopping down the rain forest just to get his wake-up fix. Same thing happened last week when the barista at the Coburg didn't offer a ceramic mug, and I forgot to ask.

It's gotten me thinking about individual responsibility to the environment: What motivates us to do the right thing, and how do we keep ourselves on the straight and narrow?

Take recycling, for example. Halifax started one of the first curbside recycling programs in North America, and proved conclusively that people will recycle when given the opportunity. Thousands of other communities have since followed suit.

But the local program is sputtering, and we can't seem to get past the 60 percent waste-diversion rate. An audit recently showed that 40 percent of the stuff showing up at the dump in garbage bags should've instead gone into blue recycling bags or green bins.

"I don't know why people don't recycle like they should," says Janet Ross.

Ross was a pioneer in the recycling movement, one of several dozen women who started neighbourhood can and bottle drives back in the 1970s. Their efforts eventually morphed into the curbside program we have today.

"There are lots of parts to it," she continues. "Some of it is students. I'm not convinced they think about recycling at all, judging by what they throw out in their garbage—things that should be recycled. And then there's the cleaning staff in large buildings—they can't seem to be bothered by it. It's a constant battle. We need constant reeducation about recycling, and we're not doing it."

Ross is all for stiffer recycling rules, including a proposal to limit households to six bags of garbage. Still, focusing solely on the disposal end of the waste stream misses a huge part of the equation, she says.

"The Superstore is selling muffins in plastic containers. They should really take that stuff back. In Europe, they do: if you produce that crap, you are obliged to take it back."

Truth is, manufacturers and retailers produce and sell their goods in excessive, wasteful packaging, but we seem only to fault the hapless individual consumer for failing to sort the end mess into properly coloured bags and bins.

It's the same with other environmental issues: You drive your car too much. He shouldn't be using that phosphate-based washing detergent. She should eat organic food. I need to tote around my plastic coffee mug.

There's another side to the equation, though: Governments should better fund mass transit. Manufacturers shouldn't make soap that kills the oceans. Farmers shouldn't poison the planet. Coffee shops should provide ceramic mugs.

I'm not willing to give individuals a complete pass, but focusing entirely on relatively powerless people while letting finger-to-the-wind governments and powerful corporations avoid responsibility doesn't seem right either. We do an awful lot of individual guilt-tripping, but not nearly enough government-supervised regulating.

That brings it full circle: we, collectively and as individuals, must insist that our governments regulate industry, and us, for the good of the environment. "If the people lead the leaders will follow" makes a great bumper sticker, but it doesn't preclude the leaders from actually leading.

One of these days I'll talk about fair trade, and why I'm addicted to a bean grown on the other side of the globe. But first, I need another cup of joe.

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