Getting a grip on our garbage

SUN0925 Incinerators

Nobody likes to be thought of as a garbage factory but — like it or not — that is what cities have always been and will continue to be, despite our sense of sophisticated entitlement. While only the most narrow-minded would dismiss the enormous cultural, social and economic contribution of the city to human development, there is a sobering reminder of the cost in the fact that we are also perceived as perpetual-motion refuse machines in the surrounding hinterlands to which we increasingly export our rubbish while importing their resources and young people.

In Vancouver, for example, just over 600,000 inhabitants generated 557,334 tonnes of waste last year. Sort that into commercial, demolition and residential waste and it turns out that the average citizen produces about half a tonne of garbage a year. Put another way — because fooling around with dimensional statistics is always fun — some amusing calculations for converting residential waste to volume that were developed in California show Vancouverites produce roughly enough garbage to bury Library Square to the depth of a 37 storey building, which is about four times higher than the present library. Our garbage tower would rank as the 22nd tallest building in the city. That’s just for 2013. Add another one, likely taller, each year.

Statistics Canada reports that between 2001 and 2006, population growth in the country’s 33 main metropolitan areas grew at a rate which was seven times that for small towns and rural areas. Most Canadians now live in just six of those metropolitan areas — 10 million of us in the regions surrounding Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. And even though there have been dramatic improvements in recapturing both materials for recycling and for energy from the urban garbage stream, the actual volume is obviously going to continue to be a problem with which we must wrestle.

If we are living examples of American writer Mason Cooley’s aphorism that human society sustains itself by transforming nature into garbage, it behooves us all to stop thinking about garbage simply as something useless to throw away. Start thinking about it instead as a resource we can exploit for all kinds of added value. In fairness, municipal waste managers, particularly across the Metro Vancouver region but in many other cities, too, have been among the most progressive thinkers in this. They have launched campaigns urging us to reuse, recycle and repurpose while developing practical and pragmatic ways to extract genuine economic value from the garbage stream.

As a result, we have effective programs for diverting organic waste — from kitchen scraps to lawn cuttings into compost — which can be reinvested in the natural landscape. Across Canada, more than 60 facilities — including here — now recover methane gas from landfills. Not only is gas used to generate energy, the extraction process reduces greenhouse emissions from urban landfills equivalent to almost seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. In Edmonton, a new plant converts municipal garbage to cleaner-burning biofuels to further reduce carbon footprints. Others mine discarded computer and electronic parts. And so on.

The success of these strategies has been remarkable. In Vancouver, for example, per capita waste generation has been trending downward with satisfying consistency since 2007. Overall, the diversion rate for municipal waste has improved from 37 per cent in 1994 to almost 60 per cent in 2014.

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