Solid Waste & Recycling

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Metro Vancouver and the Zero Waste Debate

Ican think of no better example than the current situation in Metro Vancouver to illustrate what may be the most important contemporary concepts in waste management, which are the restoration of the 3...


Ican think of no better example than the current situation in Metro Vancouver to illustrate what may be the most important contemporary concepts in waste management, which are the restoration of the 3Rs hierarchy and the shifting of responsibility for waste management from publicly-funded municipal systems to privately-funded product stewardship programs.

First, some background.

On January 22, members of Metro Vancouver’s waste management committee were shocked when a report from Commissioner Johnny Carline recommended the city abandon its plan to build a replacement landfill in the Interior. This setback thrust the city into a situation familiar to municipalities across Canada (most notably Toronto) that have sought “mega-solutions” to the ever-rising tide of residential and commercial garbage via new landfills or incinerators, only to be thwarted by grassroots opposition. City staff responded by publishing a discussion document in February entitled Strategy for Updating the Solid Waste Management Plan and scheduling public meetings.

Critics of the Ashcroft landfill proposal welcomed the chance to be heard, but detected a bias in the discussion document toward disposal. The so-called “fourth R” (incineration) is enshrined, with the philosophy that waste is really just cheap fuel. The city already uses the Burnaby waste-to-energy plant, and recycling and composting advocates are concerned that emphasis is being given to the potential construction of up to six new waste-to-energy plants. (For detail, see Cover Story, page 8.)

Leading the charge for a complete rethink of how Metro Vancouver deals with waste is Helen Spiegelman, who recently founded Zero Waste Vancouver (www.zerowastevancouver.org) to focus public opinion and articulate alternative views.

Spiegelman is a board member of the Product Policy Institute (www.productpolicy.org) — founded by Bill Sheehan of the Grassroots Recycling Network (www.grrn.org). Spiegelman and Sheehan have authored several excellent papers promoting the often misunderstood Zero Waste concept, which was recently adopted by the 800,000 member Sierra Club.

Their central premise is that for about 100 years municipalities have provided a kind of “subsidy” to industry by carting off its product and packaging waste in disposal systems funded by ratepayers. The municipalities initially got into this business in response to complaints about poor sanitation and related epidemics. Back then, three quarters of garbage was simply ash from people’s furnaces, and much of the rest was organic material. In the years that followed — and especially the past quarter century — the contents of the waste stream changed. Disconnected from the end-of-life costs and effects of their products and packaging, manufacturers (quite logically) produced more and more disposable items, or items (often containing toxins) designed for a short lifespan. (Example: In the United States, 426,000 cell phones are discarded every day.) Nowadays, the vast majority of the waste stream is “product waste” not designed for reuse or recycling.

Spiegelman and Sheehan say that municipal waste managers — despite their good intentions — won’t reduce the growing waste burden until they stop being “enablers” to industry and cease building more and more disposal infrastructure. Zero Waste Vancouver opposes new thermal treatment plants for much the same reason it opposed the Ashcroft landfill; even if they could be shown to be safe (a premise it disputes), they encourage the current pattern of the consumption of throwaway products and the public funding of their eventual disposal. The organization is calling for more than greater recycling and composting infrastructure (although it agrees that is needed). It wants the municipal subsidy severed and a direct relationship established between producers and their downstream wastes, wherever this is feasible.

Product stewardship and next-generation extended producer responsibility (EPR) will lead to the internalization of full lifecycle costs by manufacturers and incentivize them to practice design for environment (DfE). While recycling is an important tool in the sustainability toolbox, only EPR truly reduces the consumer society’s environmental footprint, the size of which is determined much more by the upstream impact of natural resource extraction and energy consumption during product manufacturing and distribution than the downstream impact of disposal or even diversion.

A PowerPoint presentation in the blog section of Zero Waste Vancouver’s website contains one chilling slide showing that even if the city achieves its goal of diverting 70 per cent of waste from disposal by 2035, the willingness of the city to handle the growing volume of product waste will condemn it nevertheless to having to dispose of 1.5 million tonnes of garbage each year, compared to 1.4 million tonnes today. This is the core predicament that every town and city faces.

Interestingly, Metro Vancouver is surrounded by examples of leadership on a better way. With help from the PPI, municipal governments have established “product stewardship councils” in California, Oregon and Washington State. (Visit www.caproductstewardship.org) There’s also a council for the Upper Midwest states, and one in British Columbia itself. These councils are sharing resources and working together to enshrine EPR principles in public policy and decisions.

More product stewardship councils are likely appear across North America due to public opposition to new landfills or incinerators, the rising costs of diversion, and overall concern about the environment and climate change. Manufacturers and project proponents would be wise to get out in front of this trend. It will be interesting to see if Metro Vancouver does the same.

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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