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Image Source: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

December 05, 2017
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Waste in Vancouver

Asim Waqif, Artist

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University
or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I live in India. We see so much trash everywhere around us. People are getting more conscious about waste disposal methods but we have a long way to go.

Recycling and repurposing are big industries in India despite having no institutional or legislative support. For example, every locality in urban India has a self-employed kabadiwala, a recycler/scavenger, but not a single urban planning document allows space for such a business. He has to survive on the margin.

Before I came to Vancouver for my first trip in July this year, I had heard from many people about what a lovely city it was. And indeed, I was amazed at the natural environment in and around Vancouver. The English Bay Beach is so CLEAN it looked almost artificial to me. Everyone is so conscious about which bin to put what trash into, it’s an obsession for some. The waste segregation system at the consumer level is really astounding.

However, I have researched waste management in many places around the world and I was a bit suspicious about the overall impact of the system in Vancouver. Don’t get me wrong, but often I find that skepticism is good for research.

Some years back I was travelling through Newark Airport and noticed bins with three opening on the top, one for plastic containers, one for paper and another for cans. However, when I inspected the bin more closely I noticed that there was only one plastic bag inside to collect all three! That got me thinking about who designed that bin and what was their intent.

 

"What I am most curious about is what really happens to materials that are put into
a recycling bin. When I asked this question in regard to recycling in Vancouver was
told that it is processed or diverted or converted to energy."

 

FLYING IN

I love to look down from an airplane.

Last time I visited Vancouver (actually the first time I visited Canada) I flew in from Delhi via Toronto. From Toronto to Vancouver, flying over the southern prairies of Canada I had an image of Dances with the Wolves which was shattered by neat square and rectangular farmlands all through. Water seemed to be having a tough time flowing across the slopes, having to negotiate the grid iron. Some places the prairie was broken up by hills which had snaking roads with deforested slopes within economical distance of the spine.

This got me thinking about per capita access to natural resources. We are really poor in that matter in India. Too much population density.

Of course, there are vast tracts of forests in India as well (nowhere as vast as North America, but still). One particular forested area in India is going through some major conflict since the last few decades, that of central India. A law was passed in mid-2000s protecting the rights of forest dwelling people, essentially those whose livelihood has been dependent on the forest for many generations. The new law states that if any resources need to be extracted from a wilderness area where people are dependent on the wilderness for their livelihood, then these people have to be asked for permission through voting and that a percentage of the profit has to be shared with them. Sounds like a good law, doesn’t it? But the State is circumventing this law by making it so difficult for people to live in such areas that they are forced to migrate out. So, then there are no people left to ask permission from or to share profits with. Most of this is being done using guns and intimidation.

Not too different from the European occupation of the Americas in some ways.

INVESTIGATING END USE

What I am most curious about is what really happens to materials that are put into a recycling bin. When I asked this question in regard to recycling in Vancouver was told that it is processed or diverted or converted to energy.

Processed is a very ambiguous term for me, even suspicious. In the case of yard-trimmings, for example, processing could mean that it is composted, but it could also mean that it is shredded and burnt, or it could be used as a filler in the landfill.

Diverted could also mean many things. It could go to a REAL recycling plant in BC or Canada, or it could be exported to the USA or India for that matter where the disposal laws are lax.

Waste to energy conversion sounds very cool. We take your trash and convert it to useful energy. I think it’s a load of crap. Incineration is the worst thing that could be done to artificial materials like plastic. It produces complex poisonous materials like dioxins which are unpredictable.

Sweden claims to recycle 99% of their waste and there was a popular post on social media about how Sweden is so good at recycling that they are forced to import trash from neighbouring countries to keep their plants going at maximum efficiency. However, 50% is burnt in incinerators. It is profitable for Sweden to import trash as they get paid to burn trash from other countries. Burning is now included in their definition of recycling!

So, what so far have I been able to find about waste management in Vancouver?

Well, the City government by its own admission collects only 40% of the municipal waste in Vancouver, mostly from Single Family units, curbside disposal and materials dropped off at transfer stations. The rest is collected by private contractors who do what they can to make the disposal profitable. This includes all multi-family units (apartments and condos), commercial and business enterprises as well as industries. They may actually recycle the material they collect, or they may send it to the USA or another country where the waste disposal laws are more relaxed or maybe they may dump it somewhere out of site. However, no one seemed to know how much of what the private contractors are doing. They are not even required to report the end-use of what they collect to the city or to anyone for that matter.

All mixed garbage goes to the landfill. Does this mean at least some (if not most) of yard trimmings and curbside collection as well?

Segregated organic waste can be fully composted but the city does not have the capacity to compost all the organic waste that is collected. One of the composting plants has been temporarily shut because of odor complaints by its nearby residential neighbourhood. Also note that none of the composting plants are in Vancouver City so residents in other municipalities feel righteous in not wanting to smell Vancouver’s stink. Again, the statistics are not clear but I heard that less than half of segregated organic waste is composted.

Glass is not recycled as, because apparently, it is easier and cheaper to make new glass than to recycle old one.

Batteries are taken away by a private firm but not sure what happens to them except “processing.”

Electronics are sent somewhere else and I fear they pollute that place a LOT.

Paper is usually recycled if it is clean. Or I hope it is, as it is the simplest thing to do.

Yard trimmings may be used in composting or go to the landfill or get shredded and burnt.

Demolition and construction (a major industry in the fast changing Vancouver landscape) waste is usually shredded and burnt or put into a landfill. There are some niche efforts to reclaim some of this material for reuse and repurposing. Perhaps the most successful is in the furniture and interior design industry: distressed look! But seriously, some of this timber is of really good quality and I would claim that it is irreplaceable. No new timber of that caliber is available in second-growth forests as of now and anyway the seasoning of timber has been replaced by poisoning.

Processed timber, that is wood with any adhesives or paints or chemicals goes to the landfill.

Plastics are not recycled. Actually, it is really tough to recycle plastics unless each kind of plastic is separated into a different stream. For example, a bottle of beverage has three kinds of plastic: the cap, the body and the label which cannot be mixed together for recycling. And the beverage itself can be a problematic contaminant.

Now it is trendy to carry your own bags when you go shopping. But almost everything on the shelves is packaged in plastic. In fact, our idea of hygiene has become such that we reject things that are not packaged in sealed plastics.

"Plastics are not recycled. Actually, it is really tough to recycle plastics unless each kind of plastic
is separated into a different stream. For example, a bottle of beverage has three kinds of plastic:
the cap, the body and the label which cannot be mixed together for recycling.
And the beverage itself can be a problematic contaminant."

 

WHY SEGREGATE

I had a huge argument with a dear friend in Delhi some months back. She and her husband had moved into a new house in our neighbourhood and we had gone to visit her for the first time.

She had two bins in her house: one for biodegradable waste and another for dry stuff. She was telling us proudly that her four-year-old son knows exactly what to put in which bin: he had learnt biodegradable segregation. I thought that was awesome.

I asked my friend what happens to the biodegradable waste? She said it was sad but the waste collectors (who are paid a salary by the residents) mix up the garbage at her doorstep when they come to collect the trash every day. I was aghast!

I vehemently objected and asked her what was the point of segregating waste inside the house if it was mixed up as soon as it went out? It was all going to end up in the landfill anyway so why was she fooling her kids and herself? She was very offended. She said that her son had learnt a good habit: he knew what was the right thing to do with biodegradable waste. I strongly disagreed. That kid sees the waste-collector mix up the garbage every day so he thinks of segregation only as a game that pleases his mother. He knows nothing good is coming out of it. Because nothing good can be done to unsegregated municipal waste. It can only end up in the landfill.

Anyway, we agreed to disagree with each other and leave it at that.

But this is something that has irked me for many years. People feel so great segregating waste into different coloured bins, some are almost OCD about it. It seems that they feel their responsibility is done. They have done a good thing with all the waste that their consumption-based lifestyles have created, because they put it in the right coloured bin. And then the waste goes out of site and out of mind. They don’t bother about what really happens to the materials they have trashed. They put it in the right bin so their responsibility is over, not only that they feel happy that they have done the right thing.

It is almost as if consumer level waste segregation is designed to take care of the guilt of consumption.

DECENTRALIZED AND LOCAL PROCESSING

In my apartment building in Delhi we have managed to reduce the waste exiting our compound and reaching the landfill by more than 65%. All thanks to an old resident who enthusiastically started a composting pit in the garden of our apartments. We have a huge park so lots of leaf litter can be collected (composting pure kitchen discards is tricky unless mixed with dry wood and leaf litter). Once the compost is ready it is used by the gardener to enrich the soil with nutrients.

Organic waste was only about 30% of our collections but earlier, it was mixed with all the other stuff so the whole thing was dumped into the municipal bin which eventually went to the landfill. Now that the organic is completely separate, the rest of the trash is clean enough to be sold to recycling units. The waste-collectors in our apartment have an incentive to separate it into different streams.

Yes, recycling businesses buy trash in India, unlike in Canada where one has to pay to get rid of trash.

An architect in Delhi has proposed decentralised and local processing of waste water in each locality so that no waste reaches the central waste-water collection system. This can have a lot of impact if it is put into practice. Right now, the centralised system in Delhi does not have the capacity to treat all that it collects so it is forced to release it into the natural drainage system.

Not too different from Vancouver, I heard. Isn’t some of Vancouver’s sewage dumped in the Pacific?

STATISTICAL DATA

With the help of VAG I tried to dig out data for what actually happens to each waste stream in Vancouver but hit a brick wall. It was simple: the data was not available. Even someone working at the City of Vancouver, who was helping us with the research, said that they could not say for sure what happens to about 60% of the waste generated by the City.

I know segregation at the user level is an important step for waste management and it’s amazing how seriously everyone takes it here. That is a really good habit. But is that enough to absolve us of the guilt of continuous consumption?

You must have heard, Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. That’s where I live.

Last year, during Diwali, enthusiasts burst so many firecrackers that the city was shrouded in a smog for weeks. Particulate matter (PM) levels soared. My wife took our two kids and stomped off to a Himalayan valley. The air-filtration industry reaped benefits. An executive would come to your house/office with some gadgets to tell you how bad the air-quality was in your house, especially the kids room.

The pollution levels in Delhi are monitored by PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels, which refers to the size and quantity of the suspended particulate matter in the air.

I remember a particularly polluted phase in Delhi in the late 1990s. I was studying architecture and our campus was very close to one of the most polluted traffic intersections of Delhi. Our eyes turned red and watered as we arrived in the winter smog for a morning class. At that time, there was an excess of badly maintained diesel vehicles. These were banned in a phased manner in favour of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), which was proclaimed to be an Eco-friendly fuel. Delhi’s bus service shifted to CNG and calls itself the world’s largest eco-friendly bus service.

To me CNG is just another hydrocarbon. How can replacing one hydrocarbon with another be called eco-friendly? Statistically CNG has significantly less PM emissions and less CO2. But when I tried to look at actual test data, the difference didn’t seem too much to me. Yes, it was better in some ways, but not so much in others like benzene emission.

The impact of petrol and diesel fumes has been investigated to death. What about the impact of too much CNG fumes? Delhi will be the first place to find out perhaps.

Vancouver is changing fast with people parking money in real estate. The single-family home is going to slowly disappear as more aggressive redevelopment shapes the city into unaffordable and unoccupied condos and offices. As the City government only collects trash from single family units it will claim a reduction in future collections. This does not mean that the city will generate less waste but that the City will collect less. More waste to the whims of market forces and the private contractors.

I don’t mean that all private contractors are irresponsible. Some are doing a great job. But once waste goes into a capitalist market system it tends to move in the direction of more profitability. However, profitability may have nothing to do with being eco-friendly and may change from time to time. So, one can never predict what will happen to that waste with any certainty.

 

My opinions on solid-waste management in Vancouver. None of the rants on this blog are backed by any statistical data.

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