I was a pimply preteen when I started sifting through my family's garbage for soiled cereal boxes and sticky pop cans. It was the late 80s, and just as acid rain was burning holes in our collective consciousness, blue box programs started trickling into cities across the country, giving budding eco-savvy kids like me hope that maybe the world could be saved if only we separated out our paper and plastics. But one and a half decades later, here at the end of Earth Week, it's time to ask some tough questions about the diving profile of the environment in opinion polls. Have we peaked? Is the era of green consciousness over? And did one of the greatest achievements of green activism - the little plastic bin - actually help us carry our burgeoning eco-activism to the curb and soften the consumer market for a coming flurry of hyper-wasteful products?
Pollster and Vector Research president Marc Zwelling has watched eco concerns slip in the polls over the last 10 or so years, to the point where there are fewer and fewer surveys out there that even bother to ask the questions. Except for temporary spikes thanks to media coverage of things like the Kyoto protocol, he says, "(eco concerns) have been crowded away. Today it's not nearly as important as health care or the economy" - a shift he says was inevitable with 7 million baby boomers collectively inching toward retirement. But a shift nonetheless.
The 80s, after all, was a decade of oil spills, nuclear fallout, dying lakes and killer rain, and public concern for the environment was at a record high. Millions of Canadians told pollsters that eco issues were the biggest problem facing the country and should in turn be the biggest priority for our politicians.
By the time Earth Day 1990 rolled around, thousands rallied on Parliament Hill (joined by another 200 million across the globe). And that momentum kept on truckin' all the way down to Rio's Earth Summit two years later, where nearly 10,000 journalists beamed out images of world leaders taking the planet's fate seriously.
Then the camera crews packed up. That's about when a whole decade of momentum, just, well, fizzled. Ironically Zwelling thinks the very activity trumpeted as the decade's great eco achievment - recycling - actually killed our enviro drive.
How could that be? From the time blue boxes first came to Toronto back in 1988 to today, recycling rates have skyrocketed to about 90 per cent. That's a stat we should all be proud of, right? Zwelling explains, "Now that we're all schlepping out grey boxes and blue boxes, we feel the problem is largely solved."
That complacency now seems to have prepped consumers for an new wave of wasteful products few eco-conscious citizens could have predicted. Growing legions of North Americans are tossing out their old mops, face cloths, dusters and even toilet brushes in favour of shamelessly disposable versions, making it a near billion-dollar industry. And as long as we have recycling, says Zwelling, "we feel a lot more comfortable using disposable things, because we feel that somehow it will all get regurgitated and come back as more useful products, even if that's not accurate."
And the proof is in the numbers. According to MarketResearch.com, a whopping 57 per cent of American households use disposable cleaning mops and wipes with nary a backward glance.
"As of 2004, there is still no evidence that any but the minority of consumers is prepared to pay anything more or put up with any less performance from a product that is environmentally more appropriate," says Alan Middleton, a marketing prof at York's Schulich School of Business.
"Primary users of disposable products (largely working women) might have a twinge of guilt about it, but that's about it," adds Middleton.
In an increasingly time-squeezed society, we all know by now that convenience is the order of the day, and demand for earth-friendly products seems to have faded into the background. That, too, peaked in the 80s, according to Middleton.
And marketers know it. Still, they're playing it safe by soothing any lingering public guilt with a little eco marketing. "(Using the recycled symbol) is the worst kind of PR, because it makes people feel that it's moderately OK to keep doing what they're doing. So it's very effective for the marketer who's focusing mostly on convenience. (It makes people think), 'Gee, I'm using the Swiffer, but it's nice to know Procter & Gamble is actually working on some environmental stuff.'
"It kind of buys off (the consumer)," says Middleton.
Sierra Club of Canada executive director Elizabeth May says marketers have led the way from from "waste not, want not" to "shop till you drop," and she agrees with Zwelling that recycling has become an eco security blanket along the way.
"Putting out the blue box," says May, "became a proxy, (while) people were driving more SUVs and forgetting about basic energy conservation."
That, compounded by world leaders' showing voters they cared back in Rio, was enough to quell the nagging sense of impending doom that had kept eco movement fires burning just a year or two before.
Not every environmentalist believes there's been a decline in eco concern over the years. "You won't get the 200,000-person march on Earth Day any more, but you will see environmental organizations and citizens groups concerned about the environment at the table as a matter of course now," says Gord Perks of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
Yes, much like feminism or workers' rights, environmentalism has become entrenched in a whole variety of institutions and corporations that never thought twice about the issue before.
John Robinson, a prof at UBC's Sustainable Development Research Initiative, admits that an undeniable gap remains between what people say and what they do when it comes to the environment. This becomes glaringly clear when consumer buying habits are measured. "There's a huge disconnect," says Robinson."
But he doesn't blame the blue box. It's that people still don't believe their private little actions really count in the public realm. "There's a strong sense there are big forces out there in the world - people feel very powerless in the face of them. Still, waves come and go, and I believe the longer-term trend is an irreversible broadening of awareness." But in this heady product-saturated world, says Robinson, we just have to package eco options to show that they are "irresistibly convenient."