Goodbye, Garbage !
Victoria, British Columbia, April 2020
How did we do it ? That's what everyone wants to know, when Victoria won the $10 million United Nations award for being the first community in its category to cross the 95% threshold for solid waste reduction. 95.1% - that's how much of our waste resources we currently recycle or divert back into the economy.
So how did we do it ? When everything is taken into account, from the tax-shifts to the Green Plans, it was the Community EcoTeams that had the biggest impact. At the peak, we had EcoTeams on 75% of the streets in Victoria, with residents meeting in study circles, using workbooks to reduce their yearly flow of garbage, along with their water and energy consumption. The EcoTeam staff put a lot of effort into training voluntary facilitators, but it was the residents and businesses who did the actual work of reducing their waste flows, changing their shopping habits and becoming conscientious around repairing and recycling.
It was the decision to introduce 'pay-as-you-throw' for non-recyclable garbage that really kicked the EcoTeams into action, along with prizes for the best household, best street, best school and best business. At $10,000 each for the winners in each category and $1,000 for each of five runners up, it wasn't cheap, but it paid its way in terms of reduced garbage flow. We extended our existing curbside separation program to include household organic wastes and plastics, as well as paper, metals and glass, and proceeded to ban all organic wastes from the landfill, alongside the existing bans on cardboard, mixed paper and various other items.
Every household, business and apartment block now has three bins :
• a blue box for paper (bundled and bagged), plastics (bagged), metals and glass;
• a green bin for household organic wastes;
• a grey bin for garbage.
We are able to take mixed plastics because a local recycling company uses a pressurized extrusion technology which squeezes the various plastics into a solid form, which makes recycling a lot easier.
We used to collect paper separately, but now that printed newspapers have been largely replaced by hand-held electronic tablets, the volume needing to be recycled has fallen by 80%. The technology was developed in the 1990s, but it didn't take off until 2008, when the price of the tablets fell below $100. Suddenly it became fashionable to receive your news directly off the Internet through a personalized news-server, and read it off the tablet, with the added bonus that you can use the hyperlinks to access additional information on stories you are interested in, or book a place at a restaurant directly through an advert. As soon as the advertisers started shifting their dollars to the tablets, where they reached a more focussed readership, many newspapers just folded.
Back in 2000, when we embarked on the new program, Victoria was already diverting 40% of its solid waste, an achievement we were quite proud of. There was a growing concern, however, that if we didn't speed things up, the new landfill would soon be full. People are very committed to protecting their neighbourhoods around here, so it would have been fearfully difficult to create a new one. The other option would have been to follow New York's example and ship the garbage out to Cameroon, in West Africa - but if we'd tried that we would have had protesters blocking the trucks and hanging off the boats, for the shame of it. I would probably have done so myself, even if I was employed by the region's Solid Waste Management Team.
The new trucks are amazing. They have separate facilities for garbage (weighed and billed electronically for each household), household organic wastes, metals, glass, plastics and paper. On car-free streets, the residents wheel their bins to the parking area. When we started using pay-as-you-throw, charging people by weight for their garbage, we had some trouble with people going out secretly at night, sneaking their garbage into other people's cans. There was a spate of late-night arguments, and then local municipalities started bringing in by-laws and fining people for illegal dumping. Today, our parks and public spaces all have 'Four-Bins' with coloured lids, in place of the old single-use trash bins. It's blue for paper; red for plastics, metals and glass; green for organic wastes; and grey for garbage - the kids all learn it at school.
Gardening is a popular pastime in this part of the world, producing tons of prunings and trimmings, so the local EcoTeams do things like renting chipper-shredders once a month, enabling people to mix their larger garden wastes in with their compost. Taken overall, backyard composting accounts for some 50% of the organic waste stream diversion, while the other 50% is processed through centralized composting centres which receive food wastes from supermarkets, restaurants, businesses and apartment blocks, plus dropped-off garden wastes. Some of the compost is mixed with sewage sludge from the micro-sewage treatment systems that are being used in new housing developments, and then it's bagged and sold to local farmers and gardeners. It all helps to get the organic nutrients back on the land, where they belong. Following the 10-year Community Detoxification Program, which was part of the Green Plan, most of our compost is sold as certified organic. Since we introduced the ban on organic materials at the landfill, the methane emissions have almost completely disappeared.
We're also the proud owners of North America's first doggie-doo composting program. A local entrepreneur came up with the idea of using bright orange, biodegradable cornstarch plastic bags, which you can buy in pet stores throughout the city. You keep them in a black container, and once they are exposed to light, they biodegrade within 6 weeks. When you and Rover are out in a park or a public place, you dump your wrapped doggie-doo into the Four-Bin (green lid), from where it is collected, mixed with bark mulch, and composted, bag and all.
What about old appliances, you ask ? As well as the landfill ban, we've got local community centres running repair courses for household items like toasters, kettles and bicycles. There's even a television game show where teams compete to see who can fix things the quickest. The real shift, however, came when the US/Canadian take-back legislation came into force in 2010. This requires companies to sell their appliances with deposits for return, and to take back dead or broken appliances. Coupled with the ecotaxes, it has been encouraging manufacturers to redesign their product lines for easy disassembly and recycling. As soon as the European Community made take-back compulsory, it was only a matter of time before North America fell into line.
The ecotaxes have been having a steady but profound influence, making recycling easier. Using the software approved by the Global Ecolabelling Standards Council, every product sold in Canada is graded and taxed according to its ecological impact, so we have an Ecological Sales Tax (EST), in place of the old Goods and Services Tax (GST). The ecological impact analysis includes the use of recycled materials, the recyclability of the product, any toxic emissions that it offgases to workers or consumers, the carbon-based energy used in its manufacture, any degradation of the natural environment that was caused during manufacture (eg habitat loss), water and energy efficiency, the volume of non-recyclable wastes produced during manufacturing, and so on.
The ecotaxation software grades the product into one of seven levels and displays the grade by means of a coloured dot, while also storing it in the bar-code, for easy point-of-sale ecotaxation. The ecotaxes have given manufacturers a big incentive to shift to more environmentally-friendly methods of production as a means to gain a market advantage. If a company is caught rigging the system by providing false data, the Ecolabelling Standards Council can use its powers to enforce a hefty fine.
Then there's glass. We've had returnable beverage container legislation in place throughout Canada since 2005. Combined with the beverage industry's move to standardized containers, and the International Wine Council's agreement to use just 15 standard bottles, this has removed most glass from the waste cycle. We have an excess of imported wine bottles coming into the province, more than the U-Brew stores and the Community Canning Co-operatives can handle, so there's still an amount which gets recycled as roadfill, which is cheaper than shipping it back overseas.
For other wastes, both industrial and residential, there is a popular Community Resources Exchange on the Internet. Using the search engine, you can find what you need very easily, and complete the trade on the spot. It's not just industrial items that are listed - the Exchange also operates as a non-stop garage sale, trading everything from garden fencing to mattresses. Twenty years ago, it was common for whole houses to be demolished, and end up in the landfill. Today, it costs $10,000 to demolish a house, but nothing to deconstruct it, which has stimulated the flow of used building materials, most of which are handled by the Community Resources Exchange.
Behind all this, there is a much larger picture. Under the new federal Green Plan, every sector of the economy has signed onto a series of environmental goals through its trade association. The overall aim is to remodel the economy as series of interconnecting cycles for materials, energy and wastes. The Green Plan started as a way to address global climate change, but as a new generation of younger people who grew up in the '80s and '90s moved into senior management positions, they started to steer Canada's economy towards an industrial ecological model. 90% of Canada's non-exported material flows is now returned to the industrial ecosystem, either as organic compost, recycled materials stock, disassembled parts for re-assembly, or items for repair and re-use.
Under the Green Plan, most provinces have set up Recycled Materials Development Zones, supporting companies which use recycled materials with business advice, tax-breaks and low-interest loans. This is a big part of the picture, because there were periods when the demand for various recycled materials fell, when the companies we depended on to take the materials went bankrupt. Without the full cycle, we were not recycling at all; we were simply stockpiling recyclable materials. The new zones are
generating many new jobs, which is also good.
Looking at our overall achievement, I can't single out any one aspect as being the key to our success. The EcoTeams garner the most publicity, but they operate within a complex, integrated partnership, in which the different approaches all play their part.
Now that we're at 95.1%, our consultant is recommending that it will be cheaper to close the landfill altogether and store the remaining garbage above ground in compressed, 3 metres vacuum-packed cubes. She says there'll be a demand for them one day as a building material. Our preferred option, needless to say, is to press on, and make it to the final 100% !