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What should Vancouver do about its garbage?

I blame you, Carrie Bradshaw. And I can vouch for the fact that rarely does being a writer involve leisure time or excess income. In fact, what professional writing usually goes hand in hand with are several other jobs. The kinds of jobs that provide useful things like rent money. 

Which is why last summer I found myself manning a “zero waste station” at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium, helping Whitecaps fans figure out which recycling bins to put the remainder of their hot dog bun and their empty beer cup into.  

It was my first foray into the world of waste management – albeit a short stroll into a minefield of an issue, particularly now, and particularly here. In Metro Vancouver, opposing environmental and economic philosophies - based on polarised scientific studies - are forming battle lines in the media and at a series of public consultations.  

The consultations, which kicked off last week in Hope, will take place across the region over the next month. They will allow for public input on the new draft solid waste management plan which lays out how we will deal with our garbage - all 3.6 million annual tonnes of it.  

The decision we make now will determine how many tonnes of waste and pollution are created. It will also determine which industries will have access to contracts for waste services that will be worth billions of dollars. 

The recycling program at Swangard is funded by Metro Vancouver. In a little over half a season, the program boasts an 83% recycling rate. That’s almost a complete reversal from the 90% of discarded food, containers, cups and boxes that used to go to landfill after every Whitecaps game.  

The figures are heart warming and a feather in the cap of the zero waste movement. But what really mind boggled me was something else. 

Over the course of half a season, I interacted with hundreds of Whitecaps fans of all ages,  helping them separate food from containers and cups and put them in one of three appropriate recycling bins. And not one single person I helped displayed even a moment's vitriol at having to take several extra seconds to separate the lemon wedge in the Lemon Heaven cup from the cup itself. In fact we were willingly obliged. Enthusiastically, even.  

Many thanked us and said they had wanted something like this for years, that they felt guilty every time they threw a recyclable in the garbage simply because there was no recycling bin system in place. Some wanted to know if we were going to expand the program to other facilities.    

All of which served to reinforce the notion, for me, that us Metro Vancouverites are genuinely concerned about our environmental impact. We are, by and large, a group of people willing to be global innovators and pursue what many environmentalists believe is the only truly sustainable model, a closed loop system that mimics the systems of the natural world. In a closed loop system, garbage is not waste but resource in disguise, and where close to nothing need be buried or burned to come back to haunt us later.  

Certainly, Metro Vancouver’s recently released draft Integrated Solid Waste and Resource Management Plan (ISWRMP) promises comprehensive strategies for reducing, reusing and recycling to increase our diversion rate which is already more than double the national average.  

Despite this, Metro Vancouver seems in favour of building new incinerators, or waste-to-energy facilities (WTE), which will produce energy but require a huge capital investment and, unlike landfills, a steady stream of garbage to remain operational. Many in the zero waste camp argue that this is a step in the wrong direction – that incinerators are a disincentive for supporting the strong recycling, reduction, and extended producer responsibility programs proposed in the draft plan.   

And yet, the debate over whether to burn or bury our non-recyclable garbage rages on in the media, dividing municipal councils and the Metro Vancouver board alike (All six City of Vancouver representatives on the Metro Vancouver board voted against the draft solid waste management plan.) The stakes are high; waste disposal contracts that will be worth hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are on the line.  

In circles where zero waste is the goal, the general opinion is that in the midst of this heated discussion, we are missing the point. Rather than talking about innovative solutions to eliminate our need for disposing of ‘waste’ entirely, the debate is polarising over what is the better of the two worst options.   

According to Metro Vancouver’s website, the plan aims to reduce of landfill- or incinerator-bound garbage by 70% - “the greatest extent practical” based on the diversion rate precedent set by Austria. 

So are those of us who want the most environmentally, socially and economically sustainable solution possible deluding ourselves? Is it possible to completely close the loop? Is a world without garbage even feasible?  

And more practically speaking, are there more jobs to be had in the traditional, linear extraction-disposal model or in the closed loop model? What are the costs associated with changing our ways?  

Welcome to my series on Vancouver garbage. In this series, I will explore some of these questions in more depth, looking at what is being proposed in BC to reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and heft the responsibility for non-recyclable waste away from taxpayers and on to producers. I will explore some of the more innovative ideas on how to close the loop and the reasons why we as a region may, or may not, be pursuing the most sustainable solutions possible. 

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