Seeking Inspiration at the CEEC
In January 2020, Queens University hosted their 30th annual Commerce and Engineering Environmental Conference (CEEC), at which I was fortunate to have been selected as a delegate. The conference offered a number of dynamic and forward-thinking speakers, like Aaron Barter, the director for the Sustainable Neighbourhoods project on former industrial waterfront lands in Toronto, and Jennifer Baichwal and Nicolas de Pencier, two of the directors of the Anthropocene Project - an interdisciplinary investigation of humanity’s reengineering of the planet. CEEC also included an engaging panel discussion on whether environmental platforms should be focused on scientific solutions or social transformation, and the panelists, which included Kingston city Councillor, Kirk Johnson, and the chair of board of upper Canada Fibershed, Erin Thompson, were able to bring a unique perspective based on their diverse backgrounds.
One of my favourite aspects of the weekend was Paul Downey’s workshop, who is the C.E.O. of Pliteq, an engineering company that recycles car tires into products for commercial sound control. Downy explained how in the year 1990, 14 million old car tires were piled up in a tire landfill in Hagersville, Ontario, as no system for recycling tires existed at that point. In April of that year, the pile was struck by lightning and a large fire burned for 17 days, necessitating hundreds of firefighters and firebombers, as well as costing the province around 15 million dollars. Downey was studying engineering at Western at the time and sent his thesis on recycling tires to the National Rubber company, which had been selected by the Canadian government to create a new tire-recycling program. Hired to help design the recycling facilities, Downy eventually founded Pliteq, which has become the second largest car tire recycler in North America.
While Pliteq functions in the niche industry of tire-recycling, Downey wanted to investigate who, in general, is ethically responsible for the waste and worn out products produced by a company. Is it the company making/selling the product, the government (who can create policies and obligate companies to operate sustainably), or the consumer, who can pressure companies by strategically purchasing products from companies with recycling measures in place? Ultimately, we concluded that the company itself is significantly responsible for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products based on the notion of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR derives from a Canada-Wide Action Plan that encourages industry producers to become more innovative about product and packaging design and obligates producers to fully manage to end-of-life the products they sell into the marketplace. Ideally, companies will be incentivized to create sustainable product designs that operate within a closed loop circuit, wherein product waste and consumer discard are recovered and reused as raw material to produce a new product or packaging material.
Although the government has a certain responsibility to ensure that companies act in accordance with EPR, companies seem to have more power and influence than governments under the neoliberal system of our globalized world. In The Guardian article entitled “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems,” journalist George Monbiot indicates that “neoliberalism redefines citizens as consumers.” This semantic difference may imply that individuals will be more influential by pressuring industries directly, with their power as a consumer, than by using their democratic power as a citizen in the political realm.
In general, I feel very reassured and exhilarated after the CEEC. Having the opportunity to meet so many motivated and thoughtful students was invigorating and gave me much hope for the possibilities of our generation. Although the delegates were primarily students in Engineering or Commerce programs, I felt that the few Arts and Humanities students played a valuable part throughout the workshops, discussions, and case competitions of the conference. Their liberal arts background allowed them to communicate clearly and critically analyze the ethical dimensions of corporations and consumer behaviour, whether regarding indigenous land rights or climate refugees. The relevance of the arts and humanities in the climate discussion became even clearer after hearing from Jennifer Baichwal and Nicolas de Pencier, two of the directors of the Anthropocene Project, who discussed the necessity of maintaining humility and openness throughout their filming process in order to accurately capture the working conditions of employees in the fossil fuel industry, rather than a fabricated image of their daily lives for the protection of the companies they work for. By authentically portraying a day in the life of an employee in the fossil fuel industry, these directors have opened up a healthy and productive discussion about justly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Ultimately, I am thankful for my experience at CEEC, as it motivated me to become further involved in environmental advocacy work being done at Western, such as attending events and workshops hosted by Western’s Indigenous Students Association, walking out on March 4th as part of the national student walkout for Wet’suwet’en, as well as leading a discussion on climate change for Western Hillel’s Climate Campaign.
Despite the restrictions of COVID-19, CEEC will be held over Zoom this year (from March 4th-7th), so keep an eye out for applications @queensceec on Facebook.