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Recovery Parks, Free Geeks and Plasma: Vancouver Debates Zero Waste
Julia Levitt, 1 Jul 08

Can we imagine a day when, having sorted out our recyclables and compost-ables, then responsibly earmarked our "still perfectly good" stuff for reuse, we'll have no trash left to drag to the curb? What are the solutions that will take the developed world from our current rates of over-consumption to zero waste?

downtown%20Vancouver%201_small.jpgBritish Columbia, one of Canada's most progressive provinces, faces some difficult decisions. Estimates warn that the Cache Creek landfill, where Vancouver sends about 1/3 of its garbage, will fill to capacity and close by 2010; current disposal rates will also fill the Vancouver landfill by 2038. And sourcing new landfill space in a sensitive geographic strip of densely populated land bordered by mountains and ocean is nearly impossible. In response, Vancouver is pursuing an ambitious citywide zero-waste goal. Last week, I attended the annual conference hosted by the Recycling Council of British Columbia (RCBC), one of the hardest-working groups out there in the realm of waste solutions, to learn more about the region's plan.

The strategy encompasses a lot of programs, and over the course of the conference, analysts, city officials and guests from successful organizations like San Francisco's Bay Friendly Landscaping and Gardening offered ideas for ramping up recycling compliance from businesses and individuals, and increasing composting of organics. Both programs are strong in British Columbia (Vancouver currently diverts about 52% of its municipal solid waste into recycling streams), but could be much stronger with more consumer outreach and education and better enforcement of recycling and composting policies, among other approaches.

There are deeper, more paradigm-shifting strategies for shrinking the waste stream, and British Columbia offers a leading model of what some of those strategies look like. Its Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR, also known as Product Stewardship or producer take-back) program sets a global example of public-private collaboration in this area. Its plan covers a rapidly growing list of products (the goal is to add two new product categories every three years), and has seen impressive success in getting producers to cover the costs.

Presenters Monica Kosmak and Laurie Gallant

On the first afternoon of the conference, representatives from both industry and the local government convened in a panel to discuss getting from Vancouver's current model to the goal of 100% EPR. Landfill diversion consultant Laurie Gallant posed questions to the panel that had been raised by her recent study on EPR strategies. Main opportunities for improvement, it seems, lie in increasing public awareness and making it both easy and attractive for consumers to comply (in Gallant's words, "make it as pleasant for me to return my TV as it was for me to buy it."). One idea from the audience that caught my attention was Helen Spiegelman's, suggestion of a central resource recovery park. The visible and accessible neighborhood destination offered one-stop EPR drop-off and processing (the design she referenced was proposed by Eric Lombardi at Colorado-based Eco-Cycle).

Image credit: Eco-Cycle

Others at the conference reminded us that reuse is another potent strategy, and one that we frequently overlook. A few B.C. organizations offer a progressive approach to reuse that seems to be working. On the e-waste front, Free Geek Vancouver has grown immensely since its 2006 founding, and is currently able to reuse about one-fourth of the 15 tons of discarded equipment they receive every month (and as the first Canadian non-profit approved as an e-steward by the Basel Action Network, they deal responsibly with the rest). Also through reuse, nonprofit Computers for Schools now provides about one-fourth of all computers going into Canadian schools annually. And the RCBC connects old residential and industrial goods with new users easily, through its Materials Exchange, "a dating service for waste."

Still, says Free Geek Vancouver founder Ifny Lachance, these programs only begin to address what could potentially be done in terms of repair, reuse and more long-lasting design, if our society placed more value on durability of goods, rather than short-term disposal solutions. We're on board with Lachance (and not just because her name is so cool!), and have long advocated fixing rather than replacing our products. Repair programs have an added benefit: while minimizing waste, they also frequently build community, like Worldchanging Canada editor Mark Tovey noted in his post on bike co-ops.

Singer Raffi with Keynote Speaker Annie Leonard

Finally, we reach the topic that no one really wants to talk about: how will Vancouver handle the residual garbage that remains after these preferable programs have diverted as much as they can?

Landfilling is one option for managing residuals. Some communities choose to incinerate their garbage, but because burning trash is now known to release some of the most potent toxins known to humans, this method is widely opposed. But Vancouver citizens now face a newer, albeit controversial, option: a plasma gasification plant. Euphemized as a "Waste to Energy" solution, the plant offers the fourth "R" – recovery – in the form of recovering the energy stored in the garbage that B.C. residents cannot, or simply will not, properly divert from the waste stream.

Slate's Brendan Koerner offers an overview of how plasma gasification works here. Plasco Energy Group, a Canadian company, is offering the Vancouver area its own plasma gasification plant, which they say will generate power from garbage with zero emissions, producing clean air and potable water as byproducts. Plasco also promises to cover the system's expected $150 million startup cost, which they say will make the project "zero-risk."

Assuming that we will have at least some residual garbage to deal with for the foreseeable future, is gasification a smart way to handle it?

Well-intentioned people have strong opinions both for and against gasification. Objections to the plant include the point that Plasco's technology is not yet well tested, and Vancouver's environmental status as an extremely sensitive airshed. Christina Seidel of the Recycling Council of Alberta offered a very reserved and pragmatic presentation on the issue as it pertains to municipalities. First, it's important to see the bigger picture of the plant's role in waste management. As she put it, "No matter what you call it, it's disposal." She pointed out that the Zero Waste International Alliance explicitly excludes strategies of burning or burying garbage, and that both gasification and landfilling should be seen as transitional strategies at best en route to the ultimate zero-waste goal.

She's right, and most of the conference attendees agreed: ultimately, a zero waste goal requires upstream change, not downstream technology. Although better, safer ways to handle our residuals are necessary short-term solutions, true sustainability requires a system that echoes nature's efficiency and sees resources where we currently see only waste. If we approach the life-cycle of our goods in a different way, we can design residuals out of the process (Look here and here for some great examples of these emerging technologies). When we reach that point--when waste equals food either for the earth or for industry--we will truly be a closed-loop society.

Stanley Park

Photo credits: Julia Steinberger

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Your goals are Fantastic Have u ever heard about Southern Italy waste Crisis.
Please carry on till your example will be followed.

Posted by: Vincenzo on 3 Jul 08

I suspect that local composting, that is composting close to the generation of the resource stream will be an effective way to reduce waste and control costs for the city. Composting reduces the weight of the material in situ as significant fractions of the organic matter is converted to water, C02 and some methane.

A two-prong approach to place large composting bins (geometry something like the commercial dumpsters for compatibility with existing trucks) throughout the city and to embark on an rapid iterative design cycle on these bins to improve effectiveness of the composting process, reduce odor, possibly capture methane (unlikely) and incorporate smart features (pager based?) that tell the city when a bin is full or smelly could produce very rapid changes in the size and distribution of the waste stream and efficiency of truck dispatch.

A final and possibly very valuable auto-feature in the bins could be a "put roughage here" automatic notification so that smelly bins would request grass clippings etc as needed reducing the haulage of yard clippings for long distances.

Bins placed on paved areas would likely have to be designed to retain the compost tea, hopefully separate from the composting material, but this is part of the iterative design cycle.

Posted by: ted wilson on 10 Jul 08



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