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Talking Trash

As Whistler moves towards environmental sustainability, the future of the landfill is still up in the air

On a clear day, when the wind’s just right, they say you can smell the garbage in Bayshores, two kilometres up the road from Whistler’s landfill and sewage treatment plant.

It is a crude and surreal distraction from the natural beauty of the valley, an unwelcome and unnatural intrusion into the clean mountain air that brought so many of us here in the first place. The great outdoor fantasy we live in is brought back down to earth by the stark reality of the dump and sewage plant. It refuses be ignored.

That smell is our smell, our legacy, and our fault. The byproduct of a consumer culture is waste, and as Canadians we used to produce more per capita waste than any other nation on earth – 1.7 kilograms (3.74 pounds) per person, per day in 1988. That figure was higher than the U.S. and Australian average (1.6 kg/day), double the Swedish average (0.8 kg/day), and more than three times the daily per capita waste of China (0.5 kg/day).

The federal government recognized the problem early, and actually did something about it. In 1989 the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment agreed to targets and a schedule for reducing waste by 50 per cent by the year 2000, and through municipal recycling programs and other initiatives they have come close to the mark. A second initiative, the National Packaging Protocol of 1991, sought to reduce packaging by 50 per cent of 1988 levels, and has also been successful.

Through these initiatives Canada was able to cut waste from nearly 19 million tonnes a year in 1988, our worst year on record, to less than 12 million tonnes in 1996. The average Canadian now dumps less than 1.4 kg/day into the landfill after diverting a portion of waste into the recycling bin or composter.

While many recycling programs are 15 years old, there is still a lot more we could be doing. According to the Fraser Institute, only 32 per cent of all paper and cardboard is recycled – that’s up from 20 per cent in 1980, but still unnecessarily wasteful. Less than 20 per cent of glass makes the round trip.

Composting programs are starting to make headway, with Halifax, Nova Scotia leading the way with a biweekly compost pickup program and a centralized composting centre. Through recycling and composting, they have reduced the amount of waste going to their landfills by more than 60 per cent.

If such composting programs were widely available, it is estimated that we could cut down on our waste output by between 20 and 30 per cent with full participation, dropping the per capita waste mark to just over one kilogram per day.

British Columbians are doing their part according to a recent study by the Recycling Council of B.C., reducing per capita waste 36 per cent between 1990 and 1998 – while this mark is shy of the 50 per cent reduction that the provincial government committed to in 1989, and just shy of the national average reduction, it’s clear that the province is heading in the right direction.

For Whistler, the waste and landfill issue was complicated by tourists, bears, sensitive alpine ecosystems, Highway 99, and big picture finances, but after much debate and a weighing of issues everything is resolved – at least until the landfill closes in 2008.

Long before that happens, however, the Municipality and SLRD will have to review their options once again: close the dump and pay to truck our garbage to Washington state, or expand the landfill once again.

With the Resort Municipality of Whistler committing to The Natural Step (TNS) framework for environmental sustainability, all decisions made concerning the future of the landfill, recycling and composting will inevitably be guided by TNS principles.

Although nobody is sure how these principles will apply to this specific issue, there is a strong possibility that in the long run we’re committing ourselves to yet another landfill expansion.

The Natural Step framework

Back in 1989, the same year the Ministers of the Environment committed to a 50 per cent reduction in waste, Swedish cancer researcher Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert decided he had heard enough. The state of the environment as a whole was worsening as scientists and politicians argued over the details – he compared the debate to monkeys arguing over the leaves while the tree was dying out from under them.

"In the midst of all this chatter about the leaves, very few of us have been paying attention to the environment’s trunk and branches," wrote Robert. "They are deteriorating as a result of processes about which there is little or no controversy; and the thousands of individual problems that are the subject of so much debate are, in fact, manifestations of systemic errors that are undermining the foundations of human society."

In other words, the problem isn’t the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the mercury in the river, but the thinking processes that allowed these things to happen.

In discussions with the world’s leading scientists, Robert identified four system conditions that are "non-negotiable and absolute":

1. Substances from the Earth’s crust must not systematically increase in nature – Fossil fuels, metals and other materials must not be extracted at a faster pace than they can redeposit themselves. Otherwise the waste accumulates, and causes changes – the accumulation of greenhouse gases are a prime example.

2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature – Substances must not be produced at a faster rate than they can be broken down, or they will cause problems when they accumulate. This means decreased production of natural substances and the eventual phase-out of all persistent and unnatural substances, such as plastic, freon or PCBs.

3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished – Our ecosystem must not be harvested or manipulated in such a way that the productive capacity and diversity are diminished. The urban sprawl of Toronto, for example, is gobbling up the best and most productive farmland in Canada. Some farming techniques deplete the nutrients in the soil, and some industrial fishing methods destroy fish habitats.

4. Just and efficient use of energy and other resources – Meeting basic human needs in the most resource-friendly manner possible, and distributing those resources fairly. If all third-world countries were to enjoy the same standard of living and rate of consumption as we do in North America, we would need five more planets.

While The Natural Step doesn’t recommend any specific changes to reduce waste, by applying the above system conditions to your business or home environment, waste levels will decrease and waste composition will change as a result. That means longer lasting landfills and different waste management processes.

Whistler plans to roll TNS out to the community in May, with the help of other early adopters: Tourism Whistler, Whistler-Blackcomb, Fairmont Chateau Whistler Resort, the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment and Foto Source.

Whistler’s landfill legacy

Before construction workers broke ground in Village Square in 1979, Whistler Village was itself a landfill, a bear-infested hole in the ground piled high with the refuse that originated down the road in Creekside. Before the vision for the village could be realized, that landfill was unceremoniously decommissioned and the garbage was trucked to a new site adjacent to the Interpretive Forest.

In 1995, as landfills in Whistler and Squamish neared capacity, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District released a Solid Waste Management Plan that recommended closing all dumps in the area and shipping residual waste by rail to the Robanco landfill in south-east Washington state.

Both Whistler and Squamish opted out of the plan at the 11th hour, concerned about the cost of shipping the waste south and the loss of landfill revenues.

In July of 1997, council approved phase I of an expansion to Whistler’s landfill that would extend the life of the dump for another two and a half years. This was a state-of-the-art landfill, with a clay liner and pipes to transport leachate to Whistler’s state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant.

During the evaluation period the municipality looked into other options that would extend the life of the landfill for decades. Stanley Consulting Group was hired to do a cost comparison of shipping waste verses landfilling it, and to weigh other options. Based on their recommendations, Council approved a phase II expansion that would keep the landfill open until 2008. Only one council member, Ted Milner, voted against phase II expansion. Milner was concerned with the landfill’s ability to contain toxic leachate, the leachate from the original landfill, the growing garbage bear population, and the "basic truth that you don’t store garbage in a wet, high alpine area."

The other councillors disagreed with this assessment, confident that the landfill was environmentally sound and that steps had been taken to reduce the impact of the original landfill. The sustainability initiative was also discussed and most council members believed that it was more environmentally sustainable to deal with our own waste than to consume energy by shipping it elsewhere.

The deal clincher was the establishment of the Environmental Legacy Fund in 1998 that would receive a share of landfill tipping fees. They originally expected to generate about $600,000 each year, but the contribution has dropped to $300,000 due to a 30 per cent reduction in garbage through diversion programs and a slowdown in construction. Interest from the fund, which is closing in on $1 million, will go towards environmental projects.

"As far as the expansion goes, these two new cells were pretty small with just a few years’ capacity," says Brian Barnett, the acting director of public works for the RMOW.

"The council report recommended another review in 2004 and another study to look at long-term solid waste disposal options for Whistler. That gives us a few years to look at the study and make changes that will take us past 2008."

Councillor Ken Melamed voted for the phase II expansion, and says he will probably support future expansions. "I know on council there are some differing opinions on whether it’s more sustainable here or to ship it out. I said before when we agreed to the current expansion, I think it’s probably better to keep it here and deal with our own waste then to ship it out."

Melamed also feels the Environmental Legacy Fund is a positive initiative for the valley and that keeping the landfill close by makes good economic sense, compared to the alternatives.

When the time comes to reassess the viability of the landfill, Melamed hopes that the TNS framework will help guide the decision, "but at this point everything is up for discussion."

According to the Stanley Report, Whistler is capable of making further expansions that could extend the life for between 10 and 35 years, but any new expansion will require the approval of the SLRD.

In the SLRD’s 1999 update of the Solid Waste Management Plan, however, both the Whistler and Squamish landfill operations have prepared closure plans for 2008. Whistler is now looking at the possibility of turning the closed landfill into a municipal golf course, which would create another revenue stream for the municipality.

Landfills have already closed in Pemberton and Devine in accordance with the original management plan, and Whistler is currently accepting waste from these areas.

The move to sustainability

Long before the municipality adopted TNS, reduce, reuse and recycle plans were in effect.

According the Solid Waste Management Plan, waste generation in Whistler and Squamish is about 3.29 kg per capita, per day, or almost three times the national average. The garbage generated by the tourism industry, and the scale and scope of construction projects helped to bump up these numbers – construction waste has accounted for between 36 per cent and 58 per cent of the total waste sent to the Whistler landfill in past years.

While it’s difficult to gauge what kind of effect tourism has on waste production, Whistler’s statistics for 2000 were estimated using an equivalent population of 23,500, or occupancy of 50 per cent of the developed bed units. This arbitrary figure may exaggerate the per capita assessment of waste by underestimating the average number of people in Whistler at any given time.

Furthermore, a municipal bylaw bans backyard composting for anything other than yard waste in order to protect the local bear population from people and people from the local bear population.

It is also more difficult for Whistler residents to recycle in the absence of a curb-side blue box program. Whistlerites must make the trip to one of two transfer stations, or use whatever facilities are provided by the strata group or hotel.

Carney’s Waste Systems have since made it possible for more strata’s to recycle in recent years by purchasing a specialized truck, and many hotels have recycling programs in place.

According to the amended SWMP, the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Resource Recovery programs will achieve a regional waste reduction of 55 per cent.

According to the SWMP, recycling in Whistler has the potential to divert about 28.5 per cent of garbage from the waste stream.

Of the 20,000 tonnes of waste that was generated in 1995, only 4.2 per cent was diverted by recycling. By 1999 recycling volumes in Whistler had doubled, and the volume of solid waste going to the landfill has decreased by more than 36 per cent.

"A few of the major players have been taking a leadership role," says Melamed. "We have to credit Whistler-Blackcomb and the Fairmont Chateau, they are two of the biggest operations in Whistlers and have very aggressive waste reduction programs.

"On the smaller business level, I don’t see a lot of recycling so there is a lot of room for improvement there. There’s also a lot of room to reduce waste at construction sites. There is a landfill ban on dumping cardboard and yet there’s quite a bit of cardboard that goes in. We do see almost 100 per cent recycling of drywall because of new legislation and the bins that Carney’s provides. Hopefully the municipality can put enough pressure to bear to actually achieve some substantial reduction."

Reduction and reuse strategies are also having a positive effect with the potential to divert another 8 per cent from the waste stream, according to the SWMP. The Re-use It Centre in Function Junction is one example of this.

Another sustainable initiative that is gaining momentum is centralized composting, which the SWMP believes can divert at least another 17 per cent from the waste stream.

The SLRD is currently looking into the feasibility of centralized composting, reviewing potential sites and technologies.

Elementary school teacher Sara Leach heads the composting committee of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) with Whistler-Blackcomb environmental co-ordinator Allana Hamm. For the past few years they have researched the viability of centralized composting in Whistler.

"Our role, once the feasibility study gets further along, is to make sure it’s a public process, to make sure the public is aware of it, and to put pressure on to make sure government follows through with it," says Leach.

There are two options for centralized composting, in-vessel and out-of-vessel. Out-of-vessel systems are low tech and passive, relying on the environment to do most of the work. In-vessel systems are more aggressive and can turn organic matter into compost in a matter of days. They also require more infrastructure, such as a building and industrial machinery.

Due to the long winter and wildlife considerations, in-vessel composting makes the most sense for Whistler.

"It’s much more expensive, but you can make it a viable business option when you factor in all the costs of handling waste," Leach says. "There is no leachate to deal with, and organic matter goes in one end and comes out as compost from the other, and there has to be a market for that."

With the SLRD involved and the municipality talking compost, Leach feels that the compost movement is gathering momentum in the region. "I think it is just a matter of time before it happens. Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later."

Leach has even involved after school club students by setting up worm-composters in classrooms. Right now they are being fed a couple of apple cores each day and coffee grounds from the staff room until the number of worms increases enough to do some serious composting.

"At first some of the kids were a bit confused – ‘You mean there are worms in there?’ – but now they think it’s pretty neat," Leach says.

When there’s enough compost, she plans to use the black soil in the Myrtle Philip school garden.

Melamed says Whistler is aware of the SLRD’s study and will take part in the composting program. "We would have to be involved because we’re one of the biggest producers of waste in the region," he says. "It would also make more sense to have the compost facility here because we’re already accepting all the waste from the north.

"I do hope we can implement it. It sounds like it’s going to be a challenging initiative but there’s no question that to comply with this direction we’re moving towards, our sustainability, composting is a natural facet."

Looking to the sustainable future

The municipality and other early adopters will be rolling TNS and sustainability out to the public in May, and slowly but surely policies, programs and projects will begin to reflect Robert’s four system conditions.

If it has the effect that the early adopters hope it will, nobody in Whistler will do anything without asking themselves if they are meeting the four system conditions. If not, then you have to ask yourself how close you are, and if you can get any closer.

It has the potential to impact everything, from a contractor’s choice of building materials to the way we buy groceries.

While we are close to meeting the 55 per cent reduction in waste prescribed by the SWMP, it is possible to go even farther – it is estimated that more than 75 per cent of the waste we produce can be reduced, recycled, reused, or recovered through composting.

A piece by piece review of our waste in the SWMP reveals that the percentage may be even higher. More than 32 per cent of our garbage is paper, 5.8 per cent is metal, 4.2 per cent is glass, 9.8 per cent is plastic, and 12.7 per cent is compostable, and 17.4 per cent is wood – in a perfect world, some 82 per cent of our waste in total could potentially be diverted from the landfill.

If anybody could do it, it would be Whistler, the first North American town to officially adopt and incorporate The Natural Step framework.

"The Natural Step and Sustainability do have a place in the municipality’s solid waste management," says Barnett.

"We’d have zero waste if it was possible. We certainly are striving for it by expanding recycling programs, by looking into composting, and looking for environmental alternatives that move us towards environmental sustainability.

"Between now and the time the landfill is set to close in 2008, there will be changes."




• While North America represents just three per cent of the world’s population, we produce 50 per cent of the waste.

• It’s not a lack of land that is causing the waste crisis for Canadian and American cities, just a lack of participation by neighbouring communities. According to the Fraser Institute, a square landfill 71 kilometres wide and 37 metres deep could accommodate all of the garbage produced in the U.S. for 1,000 years. Canada would need about a tenth as much space.