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Metro Vancouver needs to walk its 'zero waste' talk

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Inside the Burnaby Covanta incinerator. Photo: Caelie_Frampton/flickr

When delegates attend Metro Vancouver's Zero Waste conference this week, they will hear from innovators and big thinkers about how to radically redesign waste out of our economy. Ideas will be presented to aggressively reuse, repair and maintain what we consume, and for composting and recycling to keep all materials flowing in a "closed loop."

The topic of zero waste is full of exciting ideas for rethinking and reducing our ecological footprint. Unfortunately, Metro Vancouver is not walking its zero waste talk. While Metro has issued a Zero Waste Challenge, has a Zero Waste committee, and is launching a National Zero Waste Council, in practice the region is planning to burn a substantial share of its garbage.

At last year's Zero Waste conference, Metro Vancouver's contradictory push for new incineration capacity was simply ignored. Metro already has one incinerator in Burnaby, which handles more than one-quarter of the waste disposed in the region. Its proposed second facility would more than double incineration to 650,000 tonnes of garbage per year.

There are three major ways to divert waste from landfills. One is to reduce the consumption of disposable products and materials, so we throw away less stuff in the first place. Another is to increase recycling and composting. Region-wide composting by 2015 is a great example of a step in the right direction.

Incineration is the third means of diverting waste from landfills, and the least desirable. Burning garbage does not make waste go away; it merely transforms it. Some goes into the air as particulate, including toxic compounds (dioxins and furans), as well as greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide). The rest becomes ash residue, which can be anywhere from 22-45 per cent of the original tonnage of waste burned. Samples of ash from Metro's existing incinerator have repeatedly been found with high levels of toxic cadmium.

So the much-hyped "zero" is nowhere to be found in this waste management plan. Metro would still need to landfill about 200,000 tonnes of potentially toxic ash residue.

Incineration has been rebranded as "waste-to-energy" because heat and electricity can be generated in the process of burning garbage. While it is true that some energy can be captured, incineration is wasteful of the much larger amounts of energy used in extracting, processing and transporting those materials to market in the first place. This is highly inefficient from the perspective of resource use.

Moreover, by entering into a long-term contract with a private operator, Metro Vancouver essentially has to guarantee a feedstock to keep the facility running for a few decades. Metro's recent ruling to prevent waste haulers from taking the city's garbage out to the Fraser Valley, where disposal fees are much lower, is part of this storyline. Metro Vancouver is taking steps to ensure the supply for its new incinerator.

Better that Metro heeds the advice of its keynote speakers at this week's conference, and be open to a new conversation that truly embraces zero waste. A true zero waste approach would push for re-usable packaging and containers, then recycling them after multiple uses (beer bottles are the best example of this). Redesigning products and systems not only reduces garbage, it also creates green jobs. Imagine food courts that reuse real plates and cutlery, extended warranties on smart phones so they can be repaired, and expansion of "collaborative consumption" business models (e.g. the car co-op or the tool library).

Many of these types of systemic solutions are beyond what Metro Vancouver can do on its own. This is where the provincial government must step in. The B.C. government's plan to have big companies take over municipal recycling programs has rightly met with opposition from local governments (who sell recycled materials they collect) and workers (whose jobs may be cut or down-waged).

Instead, B.C. should support effective collection systems, and ensure that local markets are created for the recycled materials we collect. Minimum recycled content requirements would keep materials in B.C. rather than having them sold like any other commodity on the world market. Stunningly, B.C. currently exports the aluminum cans and newsprint we all recycle -- and with those materials, re-manufacturing jobs that could and should stay in B.C.

Zero waste is an idea whose time has come as we all grapple with a wasteful consumer society. But we need local and provincial governments to embrace policies that get us to zero waste, not just the words.

This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun.

Photo: Inside the Burnaby Covanta incinerator. Credit: Caelie_Frampton/flickr

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