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[greenyes] Zero Waste theory and action

"So, the Zero Waste theorists are not off in an ivory tower counting how many angels fit on a recycling pin; they've just brought down (or at least delayed) a major disposal project, with others likely to follow. Be warned."

Solid Waste & Recycling [Canada]
August/September 2005


The Fall of the House of Ashcroft

By Guy Crittenden

In the last edition in this space I explained the Zero Waste philosophy outlined by Bill Sheehan and Helen Spiegelman in their interesting report "Unintended Consequences". The authors call for the end of municipal "subsidies" to increasing consumer waste -- the subsidies being the tax-funded carting away of packaging and product wastes, much of which they argue should be handled via producer responsibility systems. My editorial indicated that Zero Waste is complicating integrated waste management (IWM) plans that seek to marry new or expanded disposal facilities with composting and recycling plants. To IWM types, landfills and energy-from-waste plants are infrastructure. For the Zero Waste crowd, this infrastructure -- its very efficiency -- perpetuates the subsidy and society's wasteful ways.

It was with some amusement that I noticed at the time my article appeared that the same Ms. Spiegelman, who is on the board of the Recycling Council of B.C., played a role in derailing one of the largest landfills projects in Canada: the Greater Vancouver Regional District's proposed Ashcroft landfill. This illustrates the power of Zero Waste adherents to bring down some pretty big landfill quarry (pardon the pun).


In seeking their big hole in the ground, the GVRD staff underestimated the persuasive powers of Ms. Spiegelman and her RCBC cohorts. They brought into question the necessity of the project. Spiegelman used the GVRD's own waste audit data from 2001 to show that two-thirds of waste could be diverted form landfill via recycling and composting. The GVRD, notes Spiegelman, did an updated waste audit this spring that suggests some improvement in waste reduction, but in 2000 the GVRD ranked 23 out of British Columbia's 27 regional districts in waste reduction, so there's room for improvement. (Provincial figures are available at

Noting that the province is already committed to reduce the waste stream by 50 per cent, Spiegelman asked, "Do we need to rush to spend $75 million on a new landfill? Are there better ways to spend the money?"

The region's current waste disposal rate is 1.1 million tonnes per year, such that existing facilities have at least 26 years of capacity left. "There is no imminent threat of 'running out of landfill space', for our region's waste," she wrote.

Enforcement of an existing ban on the disposal of recyclable products would divert 110,000 tonnes (10 per cent of the waste stream) from disposal, she says. The same applies for banned hazardous wastes (34,156 tonnes, or 3 per cent). Another 10 per cent of other recyclable products could be captured, as well as (the big one) compostable organics, which comprise 425,000 tonnes of waste (39 per cent of the waste stream, or four out of every 10 waste trucks). The organics are almost the same quantity of material as would be sent to Ashcroft.

"Another nail in Ashcroft's coffin," says Spiegelman, "was the GVRD staff's ill-advised move last December to bring the GVRD Waste Management Committee and Board together in hastily-called special meetings to approve a decision to spend $20-million extra to build a second liner on the landfill." For several years senior staff had assured elected officials that one liner was scientifically justified. The rationale for the new staff recommendation was likely to pre-empt health ministry concerns. This proposal was defeated in a vote on December 10 led by long-serving director and Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

In addition to working with RCBC to help provide a clearing house of organics processing information for the GVRD and its member municipalities (about what works and what doesn't), Spiegelman is assembling a coalition that will organize delegations to municipal councils. Her plan, she says, is "to educate elected officials and citizens about the IWM/Zero Waste paradigm shift and the practical solutions that can be explored."

So, the Zero Waste theorists are not off in an ivory tower counting how many angels fit on a recycling pin; they've just brought down (or at least delayed) a major disposal project, with others likely to follow.

Be warned.

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Email Guy at gcrittenden@no.address

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