Coquitlam Coun. Fin Donnelly may be a committed environmentalist who eschews meat, takes transit and keeps a compost bin on his patio but he's also a practical guy who understands the huge task facing the region as it tries to figure out what to do with its mountain of garbage.
Time is running out on the Cache Creek landfill, slated to close next year, and the region will have to ship its waste by rail to the U.S. and is considering new waste-to-energy facilities that would be costly and possibly cause more pollution.
With its waste stream growing and threatening to topple over on the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Metro Vancouver is looking at yet a third option.
It's called Zero Waste and it could change the way we think of garbage for generations to come.
Starting next week, the region's residents will be asked if they are prepared to buy into the idea of a Zero Waste Challenge, in which garbage becomes a resource not a burden.
The Zero Waste Challenge is not as bad as it sounds. Practically speaking, Metro Vancouver is only looking at boosting our diversion rate from 52% to 70% — at least for now.
But according to Donnelly, Lower Mainland residents have already picked the low-hanging fruit in terms of recycling, and getting to the next level will take resources, commitment and a change of attitude.
"The issue that we're up against is that we've got a convenient system that takes everything away," Donnelly said.
Among the ideas for making recycling more convenient are establishing one-stop recycling centres, collecting organic kitchen waste from homes and restaurants, and encouraging businesses, public institutions and multi-family housing complexes to recycle by picking up their stuff.
It won't be just homeowners and small businesses that will have to recycle more. Manufacturers, retailers and builders would have to do their share under the plan, either by recycling wood and construction materials used in building and demolition or through enhanced product stewardship programs where they take back used items, the way tires are accepted and re-used.
The tough part will be figuring out ways to reuse and sell these items. It will take some research and money to develop new products and markets for recycled materials but Donnelly believes it can be done and he has faith Canada businesses can make it happen.
"It's a golden opportunity for us here in Canada to develop our own products... But there's no kidding people. That's difficult. It's not an easy task to set up a business or a new manufacturing plant."
There are other difficulties as well. It won't be cheap to create a sustainable solid waste management plan. There will be hard costs — perhaps as high as $20 million, although Donnelly doubts it will be that much. But Coquitlam's own officials say at the very least the city would have to hire a clerk and an education manager at a cost of $120,000 a year and make other changes, hiking the utilities budget by $200,000.
Some of those costs could be shared if multi-family residences and businesses paid garbage utility fees; otherwise, owners of single family homes would have to pay another $8 on top of the fees they already pay, a final straw that may be hard for some to bear.
Donnelly admits it may be hard for people who grew up with the convenience of a trash can and cheap tipping fees to accept higher costs and extra effort associated with a more sustainable solid waste plan.
"You're looking at a cultural change — that's often difficult. If you instil it at a young age, they're able to do it."
But even if we don't improve on our 52% diversion rate, our garbage costs will grow and the trash will pile up even as our options for getting rid of it will be reduced. That's because the amount of solid waste produced per capita has been growing even as our recycling rates have improved. The trend has been up since 1998, when waste per capita was 0.6 tonnes. In 2006, it was 0.8. Just staying at 52% will require some initiatives.
"A lot of it is setting up convenient systems that work for people and businesses, and that's where we are struggling," Donnelly says.
Next week, Tri-City residents will be able to weigh in with their ideas at a regional Zero Waste Challenge meeting in Coquitlam. They'll be asked to say whether they support a 70% waste-diversion target or another goal.
Donnelly supports higher targets, saying, "If we make that switch to try on the idea that garbage equals food — like in the natural world — then all of a sudden everything is a product. But you need to design it into your system."
WHAT'S COMING UP
Metro Vancouver is hosting a Zero Waste Challenge Public Consultation meeting Wednesday, April 1 at the Executive Plaza Inn, 405 North Rd., Coquitlam from 7 to 9 p.m. (registration at 6:30 p.m.). The topic: Should Metro Vancouver adopt new targets for reducing waste, what should they be and how can they be achieved? More information is available at www.metrovancouver.org under public consultations.
NEW RECYCLING TOOL
Metro Vancouver has a new online database on its website (www.metrovancouver.org) to help residents and businesses find out where they can take unwanted materials and products instead of putting them in the garbage. The database, called Metro Vancouver Recycles, is an initiative to help the region reduce waste through its Zero Waste Challenge.
WHAT'S THE ISSUE
Each year, about 500,000 tonnes of the region's solid waste is buried in the Cache Creek landfill but that site is scheduled to close in 2010. Metro Vancouver's board of directors decided last year to abandon plans to seek another Interior landfill and is instead looking at shipping garbage to the U.S. and building energy recovery or waste-to-energy facilities while also reducing waste through the Zero Waste Challenge.