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Municipality could close landfill within the year

Options, costs weighed for shipping waste out of town, contributions to Environmental Legacy Fund would cease

Although sustainability advocates would like to keep our garbage in Whistler, a new landfill review by the municipality suggests that it will be more environmentally friendly in the long run to send our solid waste out of the community.

"In my opinion… if we want to do something for the environment, we’ll export our garbage," said Brian Barnett, general manager of engineering and planning for the RMOW.

Among other things he said Whistler does not have a suitable climate for a landfill, and that the landfill site is too small for technologies to make it more environmentally friendly.

Barnett presented the draft landfill review and discussed Whistler’s solid waste options at local environmental group AWARE’s monthly meeting on Aug. 5. He will present the completed review to Whistler council in September.

Council recently voted in favour of building future staff housing and the Olympic athletes village in the Lower Cheakamus area, which means that the future of the landfill is no longer in question – it will close, possibly even within the next year, Barnett says.

Although some have criticized the plan to transport garbage out of the community because it doesn’t fit in with municipal plans to become more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable, Barnett says there is a strong, sustainable case for closing the landfill.

"There were always two options on the table and both options had pros and cons. In discussions it always came down to two different philosophies, the first being that we’re responsible for handling our garbage, it’s not fair to send it out of the community. The second was that we live in a sensitive alpine environment… and like hiking or camping, when you pack something it, you pack it out again," Barnett explained.

"What I’m trying to do is try to look at the issue factually. To do that you have to talk about the impact of the landfill as it exists now."

According to Barnett, Whistler disposes of 18,000 tonnes of garbage each year. That garbage will in turn produce about 17,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide, as it breaks down in the landfill.

In addition, the study estimates that every 18,000 tonnes of garbage will result in about 64,000 cubic metres of toxic leachate and water runoff that has to be collected and cleaned at the wastewater treatment plant.

In comparison, by trucking our garbage to the landfill site at Cache Creek – one of the options for Whistler’s solid waste – the same 18,000 tonnes of solid waste will only produce 4,500 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. That figure includes the greenhouse gases that will be produced by trucks transporting waste to that site.

The main reason for the difference is that the Cache Creek site, which handles garbage from the Greater Vancouver Regional District, is large enough to have a greenhouse gas collection system. That technology is not economically feasible for Whistler’s landfill site, or for any municipal site that handles less than 100,000 tonnes of waste a year.

In addition, Whistler’s 18,000 tonnes of waste will only produce about 200 cubic metres of leachate at Cache Creek because the site only gets a fraction as much precipitation as Whistler does on an annual basis.

"Those are some pretty important numbers for my process," said Barnett.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler first looked into the possibility of exporting solid waste back in 1996, and was in negotiations with the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) before deciding it was more cost-effective to expand the existing landfill. In 1999 the municipality again made a decision to keep the landfill in operation until 2008, but planned to review that decision again in 2004.

If our annual waste production remains constant and we continue to expand the existing landfill, we could handle our own waste until 2030.

Whistler is already recycling or reusing 50 per cent of its solid waste, and there is a potential to compost up to another 20 per cent of Whistler’s total waste at the new Carney’s Composting Centre in Squamish. Whistler and other communities in the SLRD are committed to becoming "zero waste" communities.

In the provincial government’s recent Community Charter, which replaced the Municipal Act in January, municipal governments were given more legislative power to reduce the amount of solid waste created. For example, a municipality could charge additional fees for plastic garbage bags, ban the bags altogether, or stop allowing certain kinds of packaging.

"We’re looking closely at using these new powers in the future, but we’re not planning that at the moment," said Barnett.

Still, despite expansions to recycling programs and reductions in garbage output, Whistler will continue to produce garbage, says Barnett. For example, construction and demolition waste still represents about half of all Whistler’s solid waste, despite programs to recycle wood, metals, drywall and other materials.

On the economic front, the cost of exporting garbage to other sites will be comparable to existing tipping rates, says Barnett. Whistler currently produces enough garbage to fill one and half trucks a day.

In Whistler it costs $120 a tonne to dump waste at the landfill, which is double the cost of dumping in the Lower Mainland. The figures were inflated to subsidize recycling programs, to encourage commercial customers to cut waste through reuse, recycle and compost programs, and to raise money for an Environmental Legacy Fund. The fund currently has more than $2.1 million set aside, and every year the interest is put towards local environmental projects.

The cost of shipping waste to Cache Creek, which is expected to close in 2007, will also be about $120 a tonne. A replacement facility, which is slated to open in Ashcroft, should cost about the same.

Squamish is looking to build a 100-year landfill, which Whistler has been invited to use, but it will have to be brought up to provincial standards with gas collection and leachate treating systems, says Barnett.

"Obviously it would be better to keep the money in the corridor from a sustainability perspective, but we’ll have to see what they come up with for their site," he said.

There is also a chance that our waste could be shipped to the Roosevelt Landfill in south-eastern Washington state at a cost of $125 a tonne.

The RMOW will continue to subsidize recycling through tipping fees, but will no longer contribute to the Environmental Legacy Fund once the landfill closes. Tipping fees should also remain more or less the same, says Barnett.

On the social sustainability front, Barnett says closing the Whistler landfill will allow the municipality to build thousands of staff housing units in the Lower Cheakamus area, as well as an Olympic athletes village that will revert back to the municipality after the 2010 Winter Games.

"The two things are completely incompatible," said Barnett. "You can’t have the landfill and housing in the same area."