Thursday, 18 July 2013

A different perspective on recycling


Ordinarily I don’t blog about issues where I am retained to advise or represent a client, because I would rather write from a perspective that is completely independent.  But I am going to make an exception here.  Forewarned is forearmed.

I recently appeared before the Zero Waste Committee of Metro Vancouver on behalf of a client who is building a high tech “material recovery facility”, that is, a facility in which garbage, partly sorted and partly unsorted, can be separated into all of its component elements: compostable organics, recyclables, and residual waste.  My client believes – and is willing to invest $30 million in pursuit of that belief – that the best way for Metro Vancouver is to achieve its waste reduction targets is not by continuously expanding source separation requirements – that is, the rules which require you (if you live in a single family residence) to separate your own garbage at curbside, but rather, by undertaking the separation and the extraction of compost and recyclables from the waste stream at a facility that, thanks to modern technology, can  do that work more effectively and less expensively.

The argument I made before the Committee is that the Integrated Solid Waste Resource Management Plan – the legislated planning document which governs solid waste management plan in Metro Vancouver – does not authorize the expansion of public sector controlled source separation.  You may or may not agree with that argument.  And you may or may not have a view about whether the best way to maximize recycling is by requiring everyone who generates waste – every householder, apartment building, restaurant, commercial establishment, construction site, and so on  – to separate their waste into its component elements, just as single family residences now do.  But whatever your view, you will surely be interested to see  that in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, one of the most influential US magazines, at the beginning of its “Ideas of the Year 2013” section, the following “Modest Proposal” appears:

Stop Recycling – Americans have been dutifully separating recyclables from household trash for decades now, yet our landfill-diversion rate remains pitifully low.  Sorting isn’t just ineffective – it requires multiple bins to be picked up by multiple trucks, leading to increased greenhouse-gas emissions.  One solution? Get rid of recycling bins.  By centrally processing and sorting waste, the city of Houston plans to divert up to 75 percent of all discarded materials (well above its current 14 percent) and cut its number of garbage-truck trips by half.

When an idea like this gets mainstream credibility in The Atlantic, is it at least legitimate to ask whether Metro Vancouver’s relentless push to expand source separation is really the best way to achieve our waste reduction goals?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Geoff, your client's proposal certainly can't be any worse than our current system in which homeless people are expected to scavenge through garbage bins for five cents a pop can. (Ie. surely there are better ways for our society to protect the environment and reduce poverty.)

    Your blog is a very good "ideas blog". Please continue posting whenever you can!

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