The City of Vancouver was already on an ambitious journey to reduce solid waste to landfill or incinerator by 50 percent from 2008 levels by 2020. Then it took on an even more hairy goal. Now it aims to achieve zero waste by 2040. Chris Underwood explains the programmes so far. He was speaking at the recent WasteMINZ 2017 annual conference in Hamilton.
Every week in Vancouver – yes, every week – 2.6 million disposable coffee cups are thrown away as garbage. They’re part of the City of Vancouver’s costly Can$2.5 million annual headache to collect single-use items from public garbage containers or clean them up as litter. Two million plastic shopping bags are thrown away each week in Vancouver, too. And in the wider Vancouver region, half of all food in homes is wasted.
Only one percent of materials in North America end up in, and are still being used within, products six months after their sale. Some 11.8 million tonnes of textiles get landfilled in North America every year. (Couple that with the fact that 70 percent of the world’s population wear second-hand clothing on a daily basis.)
That, says Chris Underwood, provides a flavour of North America’s waste challenges. Chris is manager, solid waste strategic services, at the City of Vancouver, one of 21 cities in Canada’s Metro Vancouver region.
The city is home to 631,000 of the region of Metro Vancouver’s over two million people.
It forms part of the country’s four-tier structure of government which encompasses cities, regional districts, provincial governments and the federal government.
Chris was in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the recent WasteMINZ 2017 conference in Hamilton. He says his organisation has had a lot of success with waste diversion. But while it’s great to be referred to as a leading city, there’s still a long way to go.
To labour the point with a few more stats: at 62 percent, the City of Vancouver has one of the highest waste diversion rates (across all sectors, and including recycling and composting) in North America and the highest in Canada. Each year, people living in the area generate about 160 kilograms per capita less waste than the Canadian average.
Temper that success, however, with the fact that Canada is one of the largest per capita waste generators in the world – ranking among the top five developed countries.
Shortly after they were voted in on a green platform, the City’s current leaders – now in their third term – got stuck in to create the Greenest City Action Plan. This covers off three high-level objectives: zero carbon, zero waste and healthy ecosystems.
On the waste front, by 2020 Vancouver aims to reduce solid waste going to landfill or incinerator by 50 percent from 2008 levels. (The city does not support waste-to-energy initiatives.)
Big-ticket initiatives to date have included an increased focus on organics and recycling demolition materials. The city has also divested itself of kerbside recycling.
Back in 2008, 480,000 tonnes of waste were going for disposal each year, says Chris. “In a relatively short period of time, and a lot of work and money, we’ve got down to 27 percent of that amount.
“We still have a long way to go, though, to hit 50 percent and we’ve literally and figuratively picked our low-hanging fruit – the food scraps – to get us to where we are now.”
Since 1999 all homes in Vancouver had been provided with green-lid wheelie bins for yard trimmings (garden waste) collected for composting.
“In 2010, we introduced a partial food waste collection,” says Chris, “meaning, everything that you could put into a backyard composter you could now put in the bin. It was still being collected every other week and garbage collected weekly.”
Then came the all-important switch. Council introduced full food scraps recycling on a weekly basis and cut back garbage collection to every other week.
“We had folks saying they couldn’t deal with their garbage not being picked up every week,” says Chris. “But we weathered the storm and now no one complains.”
The results were “astounding” and “pretty much overnight”.
“Our garbage tonnes dropped on average by 44 percent and they’ve remained at that rate ever since,” says Chris. “As a result, our core businesses changed. It’s no longer garbage – but organics – collection.”
Meanwhile, a green demolition waste guideline, produced in 2014, addresses Vancouver’s need to build new homes on limited land space.
Chris says about 1000 homes are demolished each year – many of them old character buildings – to make way for new buildings.
A bylaw stipulates that 75 percent of the material coming off a site of any home built before 1940 – the majority that are being demolished – must be reused or recycled. Homes with character features such as old oak mantels, quality doors and wooden floors, have to achieve a 90 percent diversion rate.
Chris says the administration behind the scheme is quite complicated but the programme is getting some very good results. The long-term goal is to eventually apply the ruling to all homes being demolished in Vancouver.
KICKED TO THE KERB
In a third initiative, the City of Vancouver has outsourced kerbside recycling to a private agency. The stimulus came from a review showing the local authority needed to replace its entire recycling fleet and the dollars behind the business didn’t stack up anyway.
While the scheme currently only covers the residential sector, this will eventually also include the commercial sector.
A 2015 waste composition study shows the City of Vancouver is still seeing paper and plastic in waste bins, and food scraps in the garbage. “We still have work to be done,” says Chris. “But we have gone from about 45 percent of the waste being food scraps down to 18 percent in only a matter of about four years.”
In the midst of such initiatives, at the end of May 2016, the City of Vancouver directed staff to develop a long-term plan for transforming Vancouver into a zero waste community by 2040.
“We’re still driving towards our 2020 goal, unclear as to how and if we’re going to hit it, and we’re now also looking out to 2040 to develop a plan to get to zero waste,” says Chris.
Staff are still developing the 2040 plan which they hope to present to council around April 2018.
It identifies in-house operational barriers – such as infrastructure, resources, staffing and budgets. More critically, it is digging into wider issues such as societal barriers to waste management. These include the underpinning notions that consumption fuels economic growth; that individual ownership equates to convenience and status; and that cheap goods are better replaced than repaired.
“We’ve asked ourselves what this zero waste future may look like,” says Chris. “But the authority of one city, within a regional district, within a province, within a country is limited so who do we need to engage?”
LEARNINGS SO FAR
Chris says it’s clear communities cannot recycle or burn their way to zero waste. “The primary focus has to be on waste prevention and education. There is an opportunity to grow a reuse and sharing economy. Just in the time that we’ve started to develop this strategy, businesses have already expressed interest in relocating to Vancouver because they see this is the policy direction they want to head in.”
Chris says the City of Vancouver needs to rethink the very business of solid waste management.
“For years, it’s [been about] picking up material, driving it around in trucks and dumping it. That has to change. Our resource allocation in terms of our staffing and budgets is primarily based on the movement of materials.
“The best lever we’ve got is a bylaw but when you have a hammer everything tends to look like a nail and that’s not always the most effective way of bringing about change.
“We have a lot of other tools in our tool belt. We can build, partner, grant money and help incubate technology. The city owns property which can be made available to start-up companies at a low cost. We can advocate to other levels of government, research, influence, educate and challenge.”
WHAT TO MEASURE?
Finally, Chris says old ways of measuring success in waste management don’t work anymore and the City of Vancouver has been looking at how others approach this from a zero waste perspective.
“We’ve measured our success by the tonnes of green bin material that we collect. However, 50 percent of what’s thrown away is edible or avoidable food waste so are we really measuring the right thing?
“Are we using the right terminology? Food waste is the common term. But do we need to start talking about it as wasted food? And how do we measure programmes, services and initiatives at a higher level on the hierarchy such as waste avoided, waste reduced or waste reused?
“We don’t have the ability to measure these things now so we’re looking at some indicators or prompts that we can use such as the number of reused assets in the city.”
This article was first published in the December 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.