In the last edition in this space I explained the Zero Waste philosophy outlined by Bill Sheehan and Helen Spiegelman in their interesting report “Unintended Consequences” (see Posted Documents on our websitewww.solidwastemag.com). The authors call for the end of municipal “subsidies” to increasing consumer waste — the subsidies being the tax-funded carting away of packaging and product wastes, much of which they argue should be handled via producer responsibility systems. My editorial indicated that Zero Waste is complicating integrated waste management (IWM) plans that seek to marry new or expanded disposal facilities with composting and recycling plants. To IWM types, landfills and energy-from-waste plants are infrastructure. For the Zero Waste crowd, this infrastructure — its very efficiency — perpetuates the subsidy and society’s wasteful ways.
It was with some amusement that I noticed at the time my article appeared that the same Ms. Spiegelman, who is on the board of the Recycling Council of B.C., played a role in derailing one of the largest landfills projects in Canada: the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s proposed Ashcroft landfill. This illustrates the power of Zero Waste adherents to bring down some pretty big landfill quarry (pardon the pun).
An article about the Ashcroft facility in Business in Vancouver (July 12-18, 2005) by Peter Ladner gave expression to the IWM point of view. Ladner wrote in favor of the landfill, proposed for a parcel of land (less than five per cent of it, actually) at the Ashcroft Ranch. He observed that the proposal passed the environmental hurdles and asked why Greater Vancouver residents and businesses, who currently truck their garbage to Cache Creek (expected to be full in late 2008) “can’t we deal with it closer to home?”
In November 2003, the environment ministry sent a letter to the GVRD confirming that an environmental assessment would cover off the public consultation requirement for amending the region’s solid waste plan. That’s out the window now. The B.C. provincial government stunned the GVRD in June by failing to approve the environmental assessment. Environment Minister Barry Penner told a regional delegation that they will have to go through a lengthy review and consultation process (that they had tried to avoid); this includes satisfying the concerns of first nations groups that oppose the landfill. The GVRD’s attempt to get a successor site to Cache Creek approved will be delayed by nine months to a year (if not more).
The Ashcroft Ranch was to have received the 450,000 tonnes (about 40 per cent) of Lower Mainland garbage currently trucked to Cache Creek each year. The remainder goes to the Vancouver landfill in Burns Bog (which has a 40 year lifespan) and the Burnaby incinerator (lifetime ongoing). As an aside, Teck Cominco is leading a consortium to build a private alternative landfill on Crown land in the Highland Valley Copper open pit mine. (We suggest they consult with Gordon McGuinty, the former Ontario Adams Mine landfill proponent, about the politics of waste, if they have not already.)
In seeking their big hole in the ground, the GVRD staff underestimated the persuasive powers of Ms. Spiegelman and her RCBC cohorts. They brought into question the necessity of the project. Spiegelman used the GVRD’s own waste audit data from 2001 to show that two-thirds of waste could be diverted form landfill via recycling and composting. The GVRD, notes Spiegelman, did an updated waste audit this spring that suggests some improvement in waste reduction, but in 2000 the GVRD ranked 23 out of British Columbia’s 27 regional districts in waste reduction, so there’s room for improvement. (Provincial figures are available at http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/epd/epdpa/mpp/tracking_rpt2000.pdf)
Noting that the province is already committed to reduce the waste stream by 50 per cent, Spiegelman asked, “Do we need to rush to spend $75 million on a new landfill? Are there better ways to spend the money?”
The region’s current waste disposal rate is 1.1 million tonnes per year, such that existing facilities have at least 26 years of capacity left. “There is no imminent threat of ‘running out of landfill space’, for our region’s waste,” she wrote.
Enforcement of an existing ban on the disposal of recyclable products would divert 110,000 tonnes (10 per cent of the waste stream) from disposal, she says. The same applies for banned hazardous wastes (34,156 tonnes, or 3 per cent). Another 10 per cent of other recyclable products could be captured, as well as (the big one) compostable organics, which comprise 425,000 tonnes of waste (39 per cent of the waste stream, or four out of every 10 waste trucks). The organics are almost the same quantity of material as would be sent to Ashcroft.
“Another nail in Ashcroft’s coffin,” says Spiegelman, “was the GVRD staff’s ill-advised move last December to bring the GVRD Waste Management Committee and Board together in hastily-called special meetings to approve a decision to spend $20-million extra to build a second liner on the landfill.” For several years senior staff had assured elected officials that one liner was scientifically justified. The rationale for the new staff recommendation was likely to pre-empt health ministry concerns. This proposal was defeated in a vote on December 10 led by long-serving director and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.
In addition to working with RCBC to help provide a clearing house of organics processing information for the GVRD and its member municipalities (about what works and what doesn’t), Spiegelman is assembling a coalition that will organize delegations to municipal councils. Her plan, she says, is “to educate elected officials and citizens about the IWM/Zero Waste paradigm shift and the practical solutions that can be explored.”
So, the Zero Waste theorists are not off in an ivory tower counting how many angels fit on a recycling pin; they’ve just brought down (or at least delayed) a major disposal project, with others likely to follow.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Email Guy at email@example.com