September 06, 1996 Features & Images » Feature Story

feature 336 

Tales from the dump By Stephen Vogler Whistler's favourite bit of homespun lore goes something like this: "Did you know the village used to be the garbage dump?" — "Really?" — "Oh yeah, it was a favourite pastime to drive to the dump and watch the bears dig through the garbage." The tale is usually followed by a moment of silence, in which both teller and listener can savour the irony and try to find in it some strange truth about Whistler. While the dump was moved to Function Junction long ago, there is still a close connection between the centre of our town and our garbage. The village site is no longer the repository for our trash, but it is the source of much of what ends up in the current dump. And just as the future may be read in tea leaves, sifting through our garbage can tell us all sorts of things about ourselves and our community. Skis, stereos, vacuum cleaners, VCRs, Polo shirts and plywood. This could be the inventory from a new department store opening in the village, but it's not. It's a partial list of items found in our dump over the last few years. Dave Rigler, graphic artist with Pique Newsmagazine, has found a working snow blower, three VCRs, nine pairs of skis (of which he still uses three), an endless supply of Lange boot buckles, specially designed European door hinges, two Hoover vacuum cleaners and a partridge in a pear tree. He cautions the prospective salvager that these items were not found on one lucky day, but over six or seven years of perusing the dump. Still, it's safe to say that Whistler has an extremely wealthy dump. Rigler would like to see the recycling station at the dump expanded to include furniture, kitchen utensils and clothes. "It's extremely important to have a site like that. Whistler is the worst place for throwing things out," he says. Rigler, and others who re-use articles from the dump, tend to give away whatever they can't use. But the idea of a free exchange — a covered area where items can be left, sorted and taken by someone else — makes perfect sense in a town like ours. Apart from cutting down on the sheer amount of stuff thrown out, it's a way of redistributing perfectly good items to those who need them. One can already envision the free exchange building: cool jazz pumping through the newly found stereo, a recycled espresso machine serving up cappuccinos, people sharing stories about their great finds, and the village merchants clambering to re-open their own small dump to bring back lost business. The fine art of re-using materials from the dump goes beyond small household items and recreational equipment. With the amount of construction that has gone on in Whistler over the last 15 years, it's not surprising that the dump can become a building supply for the resourceful. A man in Emerald Estates, who prefers to remain anonymous, has built most of his house from dump materials. We’re not talking about the odd door frame or stair railing, but about the majority of the structure, using wood, steel, tiles and a host of other materials. And there's nothing sub-standard about the house. Some materials which end up in the dump have never been used. Mike Carney, of Carney's Recycling, has seen 50 sheets of plywood, still packaged with the metal band, bulldozed under in the dump. He guesses that contractors from large projects who may have ordered too much of something, try to cover their mistake by dumping it. Sometimes building materials can be salvaged even before they reach the dump. When a building was torn down in Function Junction last year, Steve and Suzie Anderson salvaged all kinds of materials for their Adventure Ranch in Pemberton. "We recycled pretty much 90 per cent of it — everything but the drywall and insulation," Steve says. The building, which was only 15 years old, was originally slated to be burned down in a fire practice, or knocked down by an excavator. But after the Andersons were told they could take from it what they wanted, there was very little left to dispose of. They reused the trusses and metal roofing on their hay storage and barns, the cedar siding on their house, and the studs and floor joists for various projects at the ranch. They now have stacks of 2x4s and 2x6s behind the ranch which they refer to as their personal building supply. Including things like sliding windows and doors, the Anderson's probably salvaged $15,000 to $20,000 worth of material which otherwise would have been destroyed. Salvaging material from soon to be demolished buildings often takes knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time. When the old Christianna Inn was torn down in 1985, long-time residents who heard about its imminent demise rushed over and hauled out everything from chandeliers to sliding glass doors. Pieces of the legendary Christianna Inn now live on in many households in Whistler. But while resourceful salvagers have kept some things from being bulldozed into the landfill, the majority of unused building materials still end up in the dump. Mike Carney says that on a busy day, 10 to 15 truck loads of construction debris are dumped in the landfill. And this is with the new tipping fees of $12 a cubic metre for commercial, $5 for private and $50 for drywall in effect. Carney says they tried to recycle lumber for awhile, but the costs were too high. People are now able to salvage materials from the dump, he says, if they sign a waiver at the recycling station. Still, construction debris only makes up about 20 per cent of what goes into our dump. Over 20,000 tonnes of waste was generated in Whistler last year and only 4.2 per cent of it was diverted by recycling. It is estimated that 75 per cent of our so-called waste is reusable, compostable or recyclable. Whistler has been slowly improving on its recycling programs, but the government target of cutting each regional district's waste in half by the year 2000 is forcing us to drastically step up the process. As usual, necessity is the mother of invention. As our dump is quickly reaching its capacity, we are forced to learn what so called "undeveloped " countries have known for centuries: that almost everything can be reused in one way or another. To tackle the problem, the SLRD, along with the municipalities in the region, has created the Regional Solid Waste Management Plan. The plan is a compendium of numbers, charts and tables about us and our garbage. For example, the 40,000 people in the SLRD produce on average 1.2 tonnes of garbage each a year. The plan points out various scenarios for remedying that frightening statistic. While one-third of all regional waste is compostable, the study indicates that half of that (17 per cent of all waste) could be diverted through drop-off composting depots, and another 5 per cent through backyard composting. Recyclables such as paper, glass, plastic and metal make up just over half of the waste in regional landfills. Using a combination of drop-off depots and curb-side collection, depending on the municipality, anywhere between 45 per cent and 85 per cent of these recyclables could be diverted from the dump. The management plan also looks at Waste Exchanges and Reuse Centres for such things as construction material, furniture, appliances, toys and clothing. It suggests servicing the industrial and construction/demolition sector first, and then adding a residential component. The cost of such a centre with a covered area is estimated at $12,000, plus an annual $5,500 for monitoring and promotion of the site. The study estimates that waste exchanges could divert 2 per cent of the total waste stream, though in Whistler this figure would likely be much higher. While positive programs like these will be implemented over the next few years, the Waste Management Plan also makes some less encouraging recommendations. Because the Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish landfills are reaching their capacity and don't comply with the new Landfill Criteria for municipal solid waste, the regional district and municipalities have opted to close the landfills and send our garbage to a site in Washington state. The Pemberton landfill is being closed now, and Whistler and Squamish will follow in 1998 and 1999. Brian Barnett, environmental engineer for the RMOW, says the Whistler landfill could be upgraded to comply with the new criteria, but that would be more expensive. "This was decided to be the best option by the SLRD," Barnett says. "We want to make use of a landfill that satisfies the criteria, and that doesn't exist in the region." While this decision may have a sound financial basis, it runs counter to the whole notion of dealing with our own garbage and the fact that we throw out too much. If we send our garbage to some distant place, we no longer have to live with it and deal with it. The physical constraints of our valley and our landfill are what have forced us to change our throw away habits. Without those constraints we might easily forget the importance of reusing things. Our garbage will now make a long and involved journey from transfer stations within the SLRD to the Rabancco Landfill south of the border. Carney's Waste Management will truck the waste to Surrey where it will be loaded onto Burlington Rail cars bound for Washington. Then it will be transferred back into trucks for the final leg of the journey to the Rabancco Landfill. Somehow, loading and unloading our garbage three extra times and shipping it hundreds of kilometres away doesn't bring the words economical or efficient to mind. The waste management plan doesn't mention the environmental costs of the pollution generated, or energy wasted, from transporting our garbage long distances. The redeeming factor in this plan is that we will still be cutting our garbage in half by the year 2000. In addition to shipping solid waste to Washington, composting, recycling and reusing programs will all be implemented and a free exchange may become a reality very soon. And considering the number of people visiting our small valley from other parts of the world, perhaps it's only fair that we send some of our garbage elsewhere. We might even consider apportioning it out to different countries by the percentage of visitors from each. Or we could take the more direct approach of sending a bag home with each visitor — a kind of souvenir with the Whistler logo stamped on the side. In the meantime, we can keep sifting and sorting our own garbage until less and less of it is sent to the landfill. The resourceful salvagers among us have known for years that the best way to deal with our garbage is to jump right in there and get our hands dirty. Because the more intimately we get to know our garbage, the less of it there will be — until the word garbage itself is replaced by a host of other words.

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