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Flashback on the road to zero waste

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Jennifer and I no longer work in the professional recycling field, unless one counts our second-hand bookshop in Cannon Beach, Ore. Yet we seek to close the loop on our farm, and are blessed to live near a not-for-profit recycling centre that champions zero waste in our community.

The movement has moved on, thanks to good people. And as Chaz Miller points out, the challenge remains the same.

Soon after I joined the board of the National Recycling Coalition, Chaz visited me in Nashville, where I was living at the time. We ate apple pie at Elliston Place Soda Shop and discussed our respective roles with recycling – him working on the business side, I employed with the Tennessee Environmental Council. In the spirit of cross-sector teamwork, my fellow NRC board member offered some seasoned advice.

“Your job,” Chaz said, “is to push people further than we want to go.”

At the time I thought it was a unique thing for someone in the private sector to say. Yet over the years, I’ve learned that certain waste-related industries are allied with environmentalists on the push for recycling. Others, not so much. And those who were most resistant to change, at least in Tennessee, were not businessmen but lobbyists for some local governments.

This mix of perspectives may be familiar to citizens of British Columbia. The City of Vancouver embraces a very progressive plan to manage waste. Same goes for the Greater Vancouver Regional District, headquartered in adjacent Burnaby. Nevertheless, this joint planning effort is now yoked to the option of more incineration. The area’s current garbage burner is also located in Burnaby, and a new one is being proposed in various possible locations (Vancouver Island, for example).

In essence, a small majority of municipal officials on Metro Vancouver’s board overrode the concerns of progressive members on a key solid waste decision. The same conflict occupied our time and attention in Nashville, where metro officials were seeking to expand the city’s mass burn incinerator.

The dynamics involved in such intra-urban politics are very old. In days of yore, they were viewed in a mythological context.

After eating our pie, Chaz wanted to check out a popular tourist attraction located close to the soda shop -- a full-scale replica of the Parthenon that once stood in Athens, cradle city of Western civilization. At the center of the structure is a 42-foot statue of Athena, goddess of political intellect, domestic industry and strategic warfare.

Athena rocked the cradle of mankind’s metropolitan development, and she’s as good a symbol as any for the activation of wisdom in municipal life. She can be the mother of urban planning, or the queen of the status quo, depending on the will of her well-connected patrons.

It’s a bitch trying to persuade that bunch to move forward when they dig in their heels. But the job must be done.

Choices

There are two ways to manage solid waste – prevent it or dispose of it. We prevent waste through source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting. We dispose of it with landfills and incinerators.

The word “recovery” is used to describe the generation of energy from waste – mostly through methane produced in landfills or by using garbage as fuel for incinerators. These are not forms of waste prevention, but rather methods of retrieving some secondary benefit from disposal. If energy recovery from disposal is included in planning, it should not be counted toward the zero-waste goal.

Part of the appeal of incineration is that the resulting ash takes up less space in landfills. Yet there are two technical downsides -- burning garbage pollutes the air, and it competes with waste prevention by using some recyclables as combustible fuel.

Landfills carry risks as well. The key difference between landfills and incinerators is that the former are functionally compatible with recycling. In fact some of the biggest companies in the landfill business are also the largest providers of recycling services. This may afford them an enlightened self-interest in shifting from an economy dependent on disposal to one based on prevention.

It’s disheartening to see Vancouver’s leadership in that new economy hampered by the same battle over burning we faced 20 years ago. The city’s aim of environmental excellence is undercut by this regressive conflict between waste prevention and waste-to-fuel. 

Race for the earth 

Decisions on incineration often hinge on air quality. When mixed municipal waste is burned, it is very costly to scrub what comes out of the stacks. Such expenditures divert resources from prevention, and usually fail to allay civic concerns about pollution from burning garbage.

In the end, it didn’t make political or economic sense to expand the incinerator in Nashville, and ultimately the facility was shut down. Vancouver is light years beyond where we were down South in terms of environmental activism. Will leaders capitalize on fresh new initiative, or divide and divert public energy in the same old way?

The disposable age is ending, by well-planned choice or by collapse of a wastrel empire. The first city to hit zero waste will become the new earth-friendly Athens, flagship for the greening of civilization.

If not Vancouver, perhaps Portland or Seattle?

Welcome to the metropolitan Olympics, where we exalt the wisdom to save our planet. May Mother Nature win, for us all.

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