Zero waste v burning haste

Sarah Jones investigates the celebrations and controversies on Vancouver’s path to becoming the ‘world’s greenest city’

With its diverse scenery and mild climate, Vancouver is often hailed as a great place to live. It is home to over 600,000 people who rely on the prosperity that has been created from the city’s abundant natural resources. But, while being such a sought-after locale has its advantages, it is a possible factor in the excessive emissions that it generates: Vancouver’s carbon footprint is three times larger than the Earth can sustain.

To counter the excessive use of natural resources, local authority City of Vancouver issued a bold initiative in 2009: Greenest City 2020, which aims to see Vancouver named the ‘greenest city in the world’ in six years’ time. 

“The plan highlights 10 goals for the city to work towards in order to become the greenest city”, says Albert Shamess, Director of Solid Waste, Waste Reduction & Recovery Management at City of Vancouver. “Number five is specific to zero waste, and sets an ambition… to reduce the total amount of solid waste going to the landfill or incinerator by 50 per cent from 2008 levels of 480,000 tonnes.”

The city frequently publishes its progress for the public to see, and the latest figures show that the city’s current waste diversion is 59 per cent, including recyclables and organics. The impressive figure has been achieved through implementing various programmes, including a recently-expanded recycling service for residents, from which the city council also benefits. Shamess explains: “An industry alliance called Multi-Materials BC (MMBC) was formed to represent companies that produce packaging and paper products and establish recycling agreements with municipalities and private haulers throughout the province. In December 2013, the city entered into an agreement with MMBC to continue providing recycling collection services while receiving financial compensation for participating in the expanded recycling programme.” 

Currently, most residents receive a weekly collection service for most dry recyclables, with fibres, as well as bulkier items, collected separately, and an alternate weekly collection for rubbish. Residents in houses, duplexes, and some multi-unit residential buildings also receive a weekly ‘Green Bin’ food waste collection; the council claims that if every resident used it, the city would remove 5,500 trucks from going to landfill each year. Implementing the alternate weekly collection, meanwhile, has reduced the residual waste by 37 per cent and increased the compostable materials diverted by 60 per cent.

But it’s not just household waste Vancouver is addressing; the city has a ‘Green Demolition’ programme, which Shamess explains: “As part of the ‘Green Demolition’ programme, developers of new homes are encouraged to salvage, reuse and recycle building materials, keeping hundreds of thousands of tonnes of materials out of the landfill… A complete ban on the disposal of compostable organics to landfill and incineration is also planned for 2015.”

And the Zero Waste action plan also advocates extended producer responsibility to make the producers of packaging, paper and other products responsible for goods at the end of their life. “BC Provincial Government introduced legislation intended to hold industry responsible for funding the recycling of their manufactured packaging and printed paper products”, Shamess explains.


“Effective 19 May 2014, industry is now responsible for arranging the collection, supporting the costs, and achieving a recovery rate of at least 75 per cent of waste packaging and printed paper, originating primarily from the residential sector.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth going on the path to zero waste: perhaps one of the most talked about environmental issues in Vancouver at the moment relates to waste incineration, in particular proposals for a new 370,000-tonne waste-to-energy plant from Metro Vancouver – a political body and corporate entity that delivers regional services, sets policy and acts as a political forum under the direction of 24 local authorities.

Speaking to Resource, Ananda Lee Tan from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives explains why he thinks the idea is so controversial: “Due to increased public awareness, and widespread community opposition, no new incinerator has been built in the US since 1997. As a result, many of these incinerator corporations have come across the border into Canada in recent years, seeking to expand their toxic technology markets. In some cases, such as Metro Vancouver, this burn industry has found gullible local government staff and politicians to support their market expansion plans.”

The incinerator, part of Metro Vancouver’s plan to divert 80 per cent of waste from landfill, has been dismissed from three sites, but the organisation is still looking at six more. Patricia Ross from Abbotsford Council claims she has “90-year-old grandmothers planning to lie down in front of machinery” to stop the incinerator being built in their towns. 

Tan explains why residents are so concerned: “Burning waste is the most pollution intensive, harmful and costly form of waste disposal and energy generation... According to the U.S. Department of Energy, these burn facilities cost over 2.7 times more to build than coal power plants, and over 11 times more to operate. Communities that live next to incinerators have some of the highest respiratory illness rates in the country. Many of these frontline communities also end up being saddled with billions of dollars of debt from the construction of such polluting infrastructure.”

Others are also concerned about recyclables winding up in the incinerator, with one environmentalist claiming that “all the efforts to compost and recycle would just be undermined because we’d have this hungry incinerator that just wants to burn everything”.

This article was taken from Issue 77

The debate is largely polarised, especially with the proposed Bylaw 280, which would allegedly give Metro Vancouver a monopoly over the waste management sector.

Tan suggests that recycling and composting are better solutions to waste problems: “Recycling and composting cost only a fraction of what it costs to send that same waste to burn in an incinerator, and such ‘zero waste’ practices create between 10-20 times the number of jobs per tonnage… By moving away from burning and burying waste towards a new ‘resource conservation and recovery’ economy… we could both create millions of new jobs and drastically reduce present and critical atmospheric pollution loads.”

The City of Vancouver has recommended an alternative to the incinerator in the form of a new non-incineration energy recovery centre that would allegedly convert waste that is ‘truly unrecyclable’ into energy using technologies that “may be thermal, chemical, biological, mechanical, or a combination of processes and technologies, but do not include incineration”, according to Shamess. The proposed gasification techniques are proving more popular among residents at the moment, but it is unclear whether environmentalists will oppose it for some of the same reasons they oppose mass-burn incineration or, indeed, whether Metro Vancouver will embrace the proposal – no one ever said becoming the world’s ‘greenest city’ would be easy!