[This six-part series was written in 2007 and is set in 2030. It describes one scenario of how Vancouver became a One Planet City—a city that uses only its fair share of Earth’s resources. If you missed the earlier pieces, read the first four parts here, here, here, and here, respectively.]
Reusable foodware and bags. enforcement on commission, and collecting garbage fees at the source.
In 2009, Vancouver underwent another noticeable shift in how it spent it’s money—we simply decided to no longer throw it in the garbage. In 2008, several managers, still smarting from strike duty driving a compacter truck in the hot sun, vowed to do something to reduce waste in Vancouver. Two quick bylaws and one new job resulted.
The bylaws were direct copies from other cities that had already enacted them; the first required a 25¢ charge for plastic shopping bags, the second required all take-out foodware to be reusable, biodegradable or recyclable. The new bylaw enforcement officer worked strictly on commission. Simply by issuing tickets for existing waste bans on, for example, dumping cardboard in the garbage, the officer was able to net $310,000 in the first year. The flurry of tickets, and the successful social marketing campaign which framed non-recyclers as law-breakers, caused a huge spike in recycling rates. Suddenly the Solid Waste Department was swimming in money from recyclables.
Several new initiatives spun out of recycling’s higher profile. The first was a city-wide deposit system for reusable shopping bags. This was the missing piece needed for a total ban on plastic bags, which followed shortly after.
Then, realizing that the City has the power to charge for garbage, we decided to move proactively and started charging retailers for packaging waste. It was so much simpler to go into a hundred big retailers for a waste audit than to dig through thousands of dumpsters. The regulation created a wholesale shift towards recyclable packaging, which was charged at a much lower rate, and finally to the very minimal and compostable packaging that we see in stores now.
Similar to the charge for plastic bags, we soon added a surcharge on paper coffee cups. Of course all cups were switched to (readily available) biodegradable coatings with the first set of bylaws, and many coffee shops had been offering a discount to customers that brought their own travel mugs for years before the Cup Cap was implemented. But if anything, those steps made it easier to go further.
The coffee Mecca of Commercial Drive was the first centre to try a Cup Collective. A dozen cafés started offering stainless steel travel mugs secured through a deposit system. The deposit was claimed by returning the mug to any one of the Collective members, who then washed the mug and re-used it. There was even a bicycle service to redistribute the mugs if they started to pile up at one café.
The success of these programs led to serious discussion about Zero Waste. Here is what chemist and Zero Waste proponent Paul Palmer has to say about that…
“The basic problem that has always plagued recycling is that it accepts garbage creation as fundamental, but recycling is really an end-of-pipe solution. Zero waste strategies reject garbage creation as a failure, actually an abomination that threatens the planet, an historical accident. Zero waste actually goes deeper in that it rejects waste of every kind at every stage of production. Zero waste at no point interfaces with garbage but rather simply looks beyond it. In the theory of zero waste, once all waste is eliminated, there will be no garbage, no need for any garbage collection, no garbage industry and no dumps. All that superstructure of garbage management will fade away as simply irrelevant.”
Zero Waste is a very aspirational goal, and a lot of the waste is generated in areas over which the City has no control. But, as with so many other things, we have found that once we put our minds to it, we have a lot more control than we ever thought.
Of course food scraps recycling is a topic all of its own. Food scraps were really the main source of the smell that motivated those managers to take a comprehensive look at waste in the first place. While many other cities had composting programs in place years before we got around to it, they all dealt with food scraps in a very top down process, usually with curbside pickup (by a diesel truck) and a remote location for composting. Of course this compromises any program to reduce vehicle emissions. A little study in 2009 showed that food scraps could be dealt with on several scales. In the mid-rise neighbourhoods a closed-vessel biodigester created methane and electricity within a one-block of every front door. The remnants of biodigestion, with all of the nutrients intact, are ready for composting.
It was difficult to retrofit biodigesters into some of the high-rise neighbourhoods. However, a social enterprise was spun off from a very successful bottle depot, and the workers used bicycle trucks to move loads of scraps to the sewer digester nodes. A simple grinder shredded the leftovers, allowing it to be added to the sludge for digestion and subsequent energy generation.
This social enterprise became very important to the recycling infrastructure. With a goal of Total Diversion from Landfill, Vancouver needed to significantly increase the number of recycling streams, and therefore the sorting capacity for waste. Suddenly we were looking for ways to deal with materials we had never even thought of: textiles, mattresses, children’s toys, outdated electronics and so much more.
Neighbourhood materials centres
The answer came with the staged development of neighbourhood Materials Centres. The Materials Centres were supervised by workers from the social enterprise, had space for sorting recycling, and were a prime location for the neighbourhood compost digesters and Combined Heat and Power plants. Depending on the size of the lot, space is also dedicated to a biodiversity node, or for mulch crops.
Too many perfectly good things were ending up in the landfill instead of on Craigslist, so the Materials Centres became a natural nexus for sharing goods. It is now pretty easy for a student to furnish an entire apartment from the Materials Centre, which cuts down on waste heading to the landfill, and reduces consumption.
Join me next time when we look at better building design.
He has consulted for the City of Vancouver. BC Housing, Industry Canada and private sector clients, and taught Sustainable Design. While researching behaviour, one of his pilot projects increased recycling and composting by 250%.