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Whistler’s drive for zero waste

COVID-19 lightened the load—making lasting changes will take more effort
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Whistler's drive for zero waste. Story by Braden Dupuis. Illustration by Jon Parris

In mid-March, Whistler, like much of the world, retreated.

The mountains and parks were closed, restaurants and hotels temporarily shuttered, and the bustling stroll that welcomed 3.4 million visitors in 2019 became a certified ghost town almost overnight.

It’s easy (and let’s be honest, overdone at this point) to lament the devastating impacts of COVID-19—on community wellbeing, economy, mental health and more—but there are positives in the stillness, too.

Take Whistler’s waste, for example.


Compared to 2019, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has seen noticeable declines across most waste streams, including construction waste (down 37 per cent in April 2020 compared to April 2019); biosolids (down 50 per cent) and food waste (down 32 per cent).

Predictably, the reductions are mainly on the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) side of things; residential garbage collected at local depots remained about the same in April 2020 as it was in April 2019, and actually saw an increase of 25 per cent in May 2020 compared to May 2019.

The lightened load is a temporary reprieve at best—as the visitors return, so will the garbage.

In fact, waste streams are already moving closer to 2019 levels with Whistler’s recent reopening, according to the RMOW.

But pandemic or not, waste reduction remains a key priority at Whistler’s municipal hall—and a personal responsibility for everyone.

A RENEWED DISCUSSION

A CBC Marketplace piece (originally published in October 2019) has sparked some online discussion in Whistler lately, and a subsequent query of municipal staff by Councillor Cathy Jewett, who chairs Whistler’s recently formed Zero Waste Committee.

In the piece, Marketplace investigators hid trackers in bales of recycling before re-inserting them back into the B.C. recycling stream.

The bales were picked up by three companies (Waste Connections of Canada, which landfilled it); GFL Environmental (which incinerated it) and Merlin Plastics (which recycled it).

The report would later be criticized by some, including Recycle BC (RBC), for being misleading; the plastics in the story were of the ICI sector, not residential, and the transactions in the story were one-time, business-to-business transactions, RBC said in a release (see Pique, Nov. 23, 2019: “Whistler has ‘high degree’ of confidence in recycling program”).

But as markets shift with the pandemic and other forces, so too do the end landing spots of waste.

“What’s happening to our plastic waste right now?” Jewett asked at the July 7 council meeting.

“There is discussion in the community and around the world actually that there’s been some big changes since Asia has started to refuse our plastic about where it’s going and what’s happening to it.”

Mixed plastics go from Whistler’s depots to Merlin Plastics, said general manager of infrastructure James Hallisey.

“They are being separated, and I understand that they are buying all of that waste and separating it and they have good markets for their products,” he said.

Plastic film, of which there are two kinds, is more challenging.

“There’s the soft plastic that can be easily recycled when there’s a market for it,” Hallisey said, noting that it’s a challenging market right now.

“It was mostly going to China, and just the prices are so low right now that I believe many of the people collecting that are stuck stockpiling, like GFL is at the moment.”

Then there’s crinkly plastic, which is currently being processed into an alternative fuel and being sold to places like cement kilns and power plants, Hallisey said.

“They can burn that as effectively as other fuels—at least it keeps it out of the landfill—but it’s not exactly the recycling we envisioned,” he said.

“So there’s a few different things happening here with the different plastics, but yeah, it’s a challenging market right now. It will sort itself out over time. That’s why it’s being stockpiled, but it’s taking some time.”

CHANGING REALITIES

Just how much local plastic is currently being incinerated—and the resulting environmental impacts—is unclear.

A Squamish rep for GFL Environmental declined to answer questions from Pique, and the company’s head of marketing did not respond to an emailed request. (GFL does not list a dedicated media rep on any of its websites—at least none that Pique found.)

But from a residential perspective, at least, British Columbians can have faith in their recycling programs, said RBC spokesperson David Lefebvre.

RBC’s 2019 annual report—which is audited by a third party before being submitted to the province—showed a 78.2-per-cent recovery rate, meaning of all materials supplied into the market, 78 per cent were recovered, in weight.

“That’s a significant amount,” Lefebvre said, noting that fluctuating North American markets have meant many jurisdictions are left holding the bag.

“Some of them are collecting materials and then stockpiling them because they can’t find markets for them; some of them are collecting materials and landfilling them … In B.C., we have the largest basket of materials that’s collected, and we find end markets for all of those materials that can be recycled,” he added.

“Of the materials that we collect, 90 per cent of them are being sent to an end market where they’re being recycled responsibly.”

That remaining 10 per cent is where things can get tricky. For materials that can’t be recycled due to contamination or otherwise, “we still try to find an end use for it to avoid sending to landfill,” Lefebvre said.

But despite best efforts, a portion will end up incinerated for fuel, and a “small, small percentage” will go to landfill.

While recovery rates are solid for things like glass (87 per cent), paper (83 per cent) and metal (73 per cent), plastic remains a challenge.

Just 46 per cent of plastic was recovered in 2019 (and within that, 56 per cent of rigid plastic was recovered, and just 22 per cent of flexible plastic).

“Plastic is a challenge, but it’s a challenge that we’re working on,” Lefebvre said, noting that RBC has been collecting flexible plastic packaging since 2018.

“These are really challenging materials to recycle. They’re materials that are made up of multiple different kinds of plastic, and because of that, there is no recycling solution for them, at scale, basically at a provincial level,” he said.

“So we’re collecting those, and to a large extent, that material is the material that’s being turned into engineered fuel at this time, but we’re working with a company in order to try to find a recycling solution for that material.”

As for the Marketplace investigation, it needs to be recognized that “those are not our materials,” Lefebvre said.

“That’s really important for us, because it is a concern to us if people lose faith in the recycling system that we operate,” he said.

“We’re trying to drive up the recovery rate of materials, like you can see in our annual report, and we need people to know that we’re going to manage those materials responsibly, if they take the time to put the right materials in their recycling.”

Formed in response to provincial regulations introduced in 2014 that obligate producers of packaging and paper products to manage those materials until their end of life (known as Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR), what RBC does is unique in North America, Lefebvre said.

The system is studied around the world, and as recently as last year, a delegation of state senators and industry visited from California to learn more.

“Certainly, there is work that we can do, and we’re constantly striving to find solutions, and the perfect example of that is the other flexible plastic packaging,” Lefebvre said.

“So I would say that that’s definitely an area of focus for us. We’re still working really hard to drive down contamination, because contamination truly impacts our ability to market materials.”

B.C. residents should download the Recycle BC app, he added.

“It’s very easy to search any material on our app, find out whether it can be recycled, and where it can be recycled,” he said.

“And if we can drive down contamination together, then we can access markets more and more.”

THE LOCAL PUSH

Reducing waste in Whistler is not a new focus.

An updated Solid Waste Bylaw was introduced in 2017 requiring all businesses and stratas to separate waste into three streams (food-scrap organics, recyclables and landfill waste), and in December 2019, the RMOW made the first appointments to its long-awaited Zero Waste Committee.

Through three meetings so far, the group has been taking stock of the issues and looking for opportunities, Jewett said.

“We’re looking at some of the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “We’re kind of looking at the what, not the how, and that’s the really important thing. First we need to identify what the issues are.”

While it’s still early in the process, the committee will eventually bring forward some recommendations and action items for Whistler council to consider.

“That’s what we’re there for, is to look at the issue, find out where the areas that we really need to improve are, identify those, identify how we can impact those, and then come up with the recommendations,” Jewett said, adding that there will be a chance for public input along the way as well.

But reducing waste isn’t just a government responsibility, she added.

“Every single person has to make it their mission to cut down on the use of plastics,” she said.

“Am I going to buy the lettuce in the plastic tub, or am I going to buy the one that’s just out free and loose?”

Sue Maxwell, a former Whistler councillor and longtime waste-management specialist (who also sits as the citizen-at-large on the Zero Waste Committee), has been working on strengthening B.C.’s Extended Producer Responsibility—the core philosophy behind RBC’s mandate—for nearly a decade.

While residential waste is mandated under EPR regulations, ICI waste is not.

In April 2019, about two thirds (64 per cent) of Whistler’s waste was generated by the ICI sector (though that dropped to about 47 per cent in April 2020 due to the pandemic).

“There’s definitely lots of things that can be strengthened,” Maxwell said.

Say, for example, streetscape bins.

“If you’re making packaging and it’s ending up in streetscape bins, technically, the producers of Recycle BC are meant to be responsible,” she said.

“But Recycle BC said, ‘Well, we’re only going to do it for communities with a population over 20,000 in an area with a certain density.’ So they’re fulfilling a part of their requirements under the regulation, but not all of it.”

Another example can be found in Smithers, where the recycling centre burnt down in May 2019.

“Right now they have no recycling, even though you could argue that perhaps, technically, under the regulation, it would be the responsibility of the program to deliver that service, and to fund whatever infrastructure would be needed,” Maxwell said.

“Or sometimes there’s just little things … like all the electronic products; nobody stepped forward to cover watches, so there’s things like that.”

On plastic, specifically, the province was making moves to address the issue before the pandemic.

More than 35,000 people responded to a CleanBC Plastics Action Plan survey last year, making it one of the biggest public engagements in the government’s history.

“Based on that public and stakeholder feedback the ministry is working on a series of actions to reduce plastics in our environment,” a spokesperson from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said in an email.

“Those actions could include bans on several kinds of single-use packaging, expanding producer responsibility for plastic recycling, stepping up our bottle deposit system, and other appropriate policy or regulatory changes. The coordinated series of actions will be announced in the near future and will align with efforts of local and regional governments. It will take all levels of government working together to make the difference so many Canadians want to see.”

But if people care about reducing plastic waste, the best thing they can do is refuse it, Maxwell said.

“If at all possible, bring your own bags. Don’t get a straw. Try to get containers or things that are refillable, or not in plastics,” she said, adding that consumers should also be cautious around the biodegradable label.

“Biodegradable on bags means nothing. It’s not regulated. Technically, everything in the whole world is biodegradable over time.”

ENCOURAGING SIGNS (AND A LONG ROAD AHEAD)

There were some encouraging signs in terms of Whistler’s waste reduction even before the pandemic: total landfilled waste for 2019 was 11,851 tonnes—an 11-per-cent drop from 2018.

That reduction was largely due to an increase in ICI recycling, which grew more than 17 per cent year over year, according to the RMOW—most notably in commercial food waste recycling (up 30 per cent) and corrugated cardboard (18 per cent).

Waste collected at Whistler’s two depots is transported to Squamish, where it’s consolidated, processed and sent to market, Lefebvre said.

Glass is sent to an end market in B.C.; metal goes to B.C, Ontario and the U.S.

Previously, the majority of paper and cardboard collected was being sent overseas.

“We brought in a new post-collection partner this year … and thanks to that, we expect that we’re going to be able to keep the majority of the fibre that we collect here in the Pacific Northwest,” Lefebvre said.

In terms of residential plastic, 99 per cent is processed in B.C., while the “one or one-and-a-half per cent that goes abroad, we visited the end market where we sent it, and we know exactly what is happening with it,” he added.

The plastic is shipped in the form of densified polystyrene, and is currently being used to make picture frames overseas, according to RBC.

While there are always improvements to be made, new challenges to address and regulations to be strengthened, reducing waste is a responsibility shared by all.

“The reality is that we live in a global society, and people are bombarded by media articles from around the world that talk about the challenges that are facing recycling,” Lefebvre said.

“And the more that we can help people understand that the B.C. system is different, that we actually have an ability to report on our performance, and not only that, but our performance is really good, we can give people more and more confidence to actually recycle.”




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