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Peter Ladner on Metro Vancouver's garbage conundrum

Photo courtesy of Peter Ladner

With Metro Vancouver forging ahead with its plan to invest half a billion dollars in a new incinerator project to deal with the region's non-recycled waste, tension has been slowly rising in communities across BC. Fraser Valley Regional District has come out swinging against the project with an ad campaign arguing that another incinerator will hurt the region's air quality. 

But how many people really know what's happening to their garbage today, and what the picture looked like when Metro Vancouver approved the plan to invest in incineration? Peter Ladner, a prominent former Vancouver city councillor, author and co-founder of Business in Vancouver who used to be vice-chair of Metro Vancouver and sat on the region's waste committee, explained the garbage conundrum facing the region.

Do you know where your garbage goes? 

"I don't know if people really realize this...but in Whistler and Powell River and several other coastal municipalities, we ship waste by rail to the Columbia River region in Washington state, for goodness sake," Ladner said. "That's kind of a dark secret. I'm always aware, whenever I throw away garbage in Whistler, that it gets shipped to southern Washington. I don't think that's the way to go." 

In 2012, an estimated 50,000 tonnes of waste per year -- about five per cent of the region's waste stream -- was shipped to private facilities outside the region. A sizeable chunk of that went to a private transfer station in Abbotsford to be shipped by rail to a U.S. landfill near the Washington-Oregon border, though documents suggest this was mainly because the Cache Creek landfill was reaching capacity. About 300,000 tonnes of waste from the region is burned in the Burnaby incinerator. The Delta landfill (operated by City of Vancouver) takes on around 450,000 tonnes of waste a year of what doesn't get recycled, and Cache Creek landfill takes on the rest. 

With the existing Cache Creek landfill slated to close around 2007, Metro Vancouver had to find another way to deal with its garbage. It had bought an historic ranch in Ashcroft, BC, for $4.5 million in 2000 hoping to create a new landfill, Ladner said, but plans hit a snag due to public opposition. There are conflicting accounts on how urgent the closure of Cache Creek's landfill really was, since the province granted an extension in January 2010, extending its operation for another 25 years. 

"There was big pressure in Ashcroft, since a lot of people didn't want a landfill there," Ladner said. Prospects for the new landfill turned bleak as the province suspended the Ashcroft Ranch environmental assessment process in 2005, and Metro Vancouver eventually abandoned plans to create more in-region replacement landfills, choosing instead to focus on its "Zero Waste Challenge". Metro Vancouver still owns and operates the Ashcroft Ranch at an annual loss of around $110,000. 

"So that's when people went to Europe to look at incineration there. They discovered that in Germany, they banned (sending certain materials to) landfills," Ladner said. "Building more landfills is not the answer, people realized."

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