Solid Waste & Recycling

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The Distraction Of Diversion

In the dictionary, the word "diversion" has an ironic double meaning. The first is to deflect, which is what we mean by avoiding waste disposal. But the second meaning is even more relevant today. To ...


In the dictionary, the word “diversion” has an ironic double meaning. The first is to deflect, which is what we mean by avoiding waste disposal. But the second meaning is even more relevant today. To distract. As in, “create a diversion.” Both senses of the word apply to waste politics in BC.

BC’s diversion goal dates back to 1989 when it pledged to cut the amount of garbage disposed per person by 50 per cent by 2000. Province-wide diversion peaked in 1998, at 25 per cent, where it has stayed ever since.

Of the regional districts that met their 50 per cent goal, many moved on to adopt Zero Waste. Interpretations of Zero Waste range from the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary’s goal of 100 per cent diversion by 2020, to Metro Vancouver’s Zero Waste Challenge of getting there “eventually.” All of them intend to work towards zero by setting higher diversion goals.

Metro Vancouver is pledging to boost diversion from 52 per cent to 70 per cent by 2015, which it will hold until 2035. Metro also announced it’s prepared to spend $3 billion on high-tech disposal. The question that now dominates BC’s collective imagination is, “What to do with the remaining 30 per cent?”

BC is electric with potential answers. Garbage is being re-branded as a clean, green, carbon-saving, renewable fuel by the province (Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum, BC Climate Action Secretariat, BC Hydro), as well as Metro Vancouver, other local governments, and, of course, the disposal industry.

The question that no one’s asking is, “Will 70 per cent really get us closer to zero?”

The problem with diversion is that it’s prone to a little fudging. Many regional districts calculate it like a recycling rate, relying on private MRFs to provide estimates that they’re not obligated to track accurately. The formulas also usually include guesses for reduction and reuse. Diversion rates simply aren’t accurate.

Still, there’s a bigger, often overlooked problem. Just because you increase diversion doesn’t mean you’ll decrease disposal at the same rate. That’s because diversion is a relative measure, tied to population growth, consumption, and annual generation rates, and says nothing about absolute disposal.

We need a new kind of goal, one that closes the door on disposal, closes the loop on the economy, and gets us past the “landfill versus thermal technology” debate.

Oakland, California

Can this be done? Oakland, California, says “yes.” In 2006, the City of Oakland (pop. 400,000), set the boldest, and arguably the truest, Zero Waste goal — to shrink annual waste disposal from 400,000 short tons per year to 40,000 tons per year by 2020. That’s an absolute reduction of 90 per cent. (Download the entire strategy at www.zerowasteoakland.com.)

Becky Dowdican, Oakland’s Solid Waste & Recycling Program Supervisor, says the city changed directions when it realized that, although it was meeting the state of California’s 50 per cent diversion target, garbage wasn’t going down.

“When diversion is high, we all love to brag about it,” says Dowdican. “But it’s hard not to be cynical when we see that garbage is the same. So we said, let’s cut through the smoke and mirrors. Let’s just say Zero Waste really means zero [to disposal].”

As for results, in 2007 Oakland’s total waste disposal dropped by five per cent to 380,000 tons, including residential, commercial and C&D streams.

And population growth? Dowdican’s answer is simple. “We disallowed that as an excuse.”

For argument’s sake, let’s say Metro Vancouver adopted an absolute reduction goal of 90 per cent less waste disposed by 2035. Figure 1 shows how this compares to Metro’s proposed 70 per cent diversion, which it intends to achieve by 2015 and hold to 2035. By then, Metro assumes that population will grow from two to three million, and waste generation (3Rs plus disposal) will climb to roughly 4.5 million tonnes.

The red line shows that, if Metro achieves 70 per cent by 2015 holds steady as planned until 2035, total disposal would climb back up to the 1.5 million tonnes — just six percent less than what’s disposed today. (This is the same trend line presented in Metro’s consultation document, Strategy to Update the Solid Waste Management Plan, March 15, 2008 Update.)

The green line shows 90 per cent disposal reduction from 1.6 million to 160,000 tonnes by 2035. That’s less than four per cent reduction a year.

It would be a shame if BC’s environment ministry accepted Metro’s artificially low goal. The ministry has said that EPR will eventually cover all products. BC’s track record of industry-led EPR, with stewards like the brewers recovering more than 90 per cent of their products and covering 100 per cent of the costs, we’re even better positioned than Oakland to go for absolute zero.

Monica Kosmak is a freelance writer and environmental policy analyst based in Port Moody, BC. Contact Monica at monica. kosmak@shaw.ca

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“It would be a shame if BC’s environment ministry accepted Metro’s artificially low goal.”


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