August 20, 2017 Features & Images » Feature Story

The dirty side of Whistler 

Dealing with mounting garbage in a resort community committed to zero waste

click to flip through (9) STORY BY ALISON TAYLOR. ILLUSTRATION BY JON PARRIS - The dirty side of Whistler - Dealing with mounting garbage in a resort community committed to zero waste
  • Story by Alison Taylor. Illustration by Jon Parris
  • The dirty side of Whistler - Dealing with mounting garbage in a resort community committed to zero waste

If there was any doubt that the biggest mountain bike festival was here again, the Crankworx swag in the village is enough to set anyone straight.

Trucker hats. Sunglasses. Lanyards. T-shirts. Stickers. Food. All marked and branded merchandise. For Whistler kids, walking through the village during Crankworx is like having unfettered reign in a candy store, with no thoughts to the potential cavities.

There's stuff for sale; there's lots of freebies, too. But at what cost?

Just how much swag is coming in to Whistler from festival vendors? How many baseball caps and bandanas are handed out every year? How are these items packaged? And does anyone actually want this stuff or is it going to the landfill?

Whistler Blackcomb (WB) wants to know.

"This is the first year we're trying to establish a baseline," says Taniell Hamilton, WB's waste-reduction specialist, in an effort to get a grip on what's for grabs during Crankworx.

"We're not trying to restrict the fun giveaways. We just want to start sourcing more sustainable options: products packaged in recyclable packaging, food offered in compostable containers."

These are the kinds of questions you have to find answers to when you make an "Epic Promise," as Vail Resorts did last month, committing to a zero-net operating footprint throughout its operations in Whistler and beyond by 2030.

On the municipal scale, Whistler has some unique challenges when it comes to meeting its stated goal of becoming a zero-waste community. The resort's very raison d'etre is to cater to the whims and desires of more than 3 million guests every year, delivering the experience of a lifetime. They come, they stay, they spend, and then they're off down the highway again, taking their memories and leaving their garbage (often unsorted) behind.

Whistler sent more waste to the landfill in 2016 than any other year of the past decade (save the pre-Olympic year). That's 17,063 metric tonnes of waste, compared to 14,805 tonnes in 2015. Landfilled waste generated per person was also on the rise last year, tipping 500 kilograms per person, far above Whistler's target of 400 kilograms.

While there's no doubt that Whistler is busier than ever, with record-breaking visitation, it continues to hold the line at diverting roughly 50 per cent of its waste from the landfill, down from a high of 55 per cent in 2012.

Something's got to give. Officials think they have some answers.

The Composting Conundrum

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) knows there's wiggle room in its garbage. A lot of wiggle room. There's stuff in there travelling all the way to the landfill at Rabanco in Washington state that could be dealt with right at home. There are, after all, two state-of-the-art composting facilities within 20 kilometres of the village, the municipal composter south in the Callaghan and Sea to Sky Soils to the north. A recent audit of the garbage in the village revealed just 36 per cent of that "waste" was actually garbage. The rest was made up of recyclables, at almost 20 per cent. Nearly three per cent of the so-called waste was refundable and 41 per cent was compostable.

Those stats are nothing new at the RMOW. From 2011 to 2016, garbage produced by commercial and multi-family accommodation properties in Whistler increased by 35 per cent, from 7,514 to 10,017 tonnes. A detailed audit of commercial and family accommodation property garbage in Whistler found that 54 per cent could have been composted.

Armed with this background, the RMOW has been hard at work on an update to its solid-waste bylaw requiring commercial and strata properties to compost: An ambitious, complicated, and potentially challenging change that should have a big impact on the waste stream.

It's one thing, on paper at least, to make composting mandatory; quite another thing when it comes to the on-the-ground reality in a 50-year-old village where the rents aren't cheap and space is hard to come by.

What do you do, for example, when you're operating a busy café in Village Square in a mere 120 square metres? At Ingrid's Village Café, space is at a premium. The café has been running in Whistler for decades. Composting makes up a huge portion of Ingrid's waste. And it has been going into the garbage... but not for much longer.

"We knew these changes were coming," says co-owner Fiona Minton. "We're trying to be proactive."

The trouble is space. Where do you collect the compost and where do you store it when you're maximizing every available square inch? You have to find room. Our changing garbage habits necessitate this.

Behind the café is a basic storage shed. Refundable bottles are collected, plastics gathered, and corrugated cardboard is piled up.

It's impossible to store compost right now because the shed needs to be upgraded to store compost. The café's owners have received a costly quote to get into compliance with the new bylaw.

"We know this is the right thing to do," says Minton. "We've been sourcing compostable materials over the years — spoons, forks, knives, coffee cups. This new bylaw is just a big change and an increased cost to the business."

The thing is: when it comes to reducing garbage, composting works.

In 2015, Hamilton performed waste audits in all WB restaurants.

"We learned that, on average, our restaurants can achieve 90-per-cent diversion without changing any product sourcing," says Hamilton.

The remaining 10 per cent will have to come from working with various suppliers — one restaurant, for example, buys rice that comes in a recyclable container, another buys rice that comes in a bag that has to go to the landfill. Smarter decisions like those will help get them to zero waste.

Hamilton regularly grades WB's restaurants after sifting through the garbage, recycling and compost. If there's a plastic glove in the compost, it's a D. A clean, uncontaminated stream gets an A.

"It's not that people don't want to do it, it's just that they've never been told the right way to do it. For me, feedback is the No. 1 priority," she says.

"Recently, all of our restaurants are getting A's."

But what happens when someone isn't grading you on your recycling or requiring you by law to compost?

Claire Ruddy, executive director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), admits transitioning to zero waste is not an easy goal.

"It takes commitment and it takes thinking outside the box on items that we see currently as essential," she says, pointing to disposable coffee cups, water bottles and individual plastic packaging on retail clothing as a start.

"Whenever we're talking about waste, the biggest thing we can do... is not produce waste in the first place."

Always focus on reduction first, she stressed.

"Just because something can be recycled doesn't mean we should be thinking of (it) as not having an impact," added Ruddy. "The more we can do to reduce, the better."

Hemmed in at the depot

At the Nesters Waste Depot, cars are backed up to the road and patience is wearing thin. It's hot. Wildfire smoke clings to the air. There's no way around it: Recycling is a dirty, thankless job. Cars are hemmed in as people jockey for their five-minute spot, everyone constrained by the small site.

If ever there was a case to be made for the new and improved neighbouring recycling depot — set to officially open in a month with a soft opening last week — just spend 10 minutes at the current site on a holiday Monday. Moving day can't come soon enough.

"Where do I dump these wire coat hangers?" asks someone. "What about all this Styrofoam-like packaging inside this box?" asks another.

The queries are endless but they are music to Rheo Lefebvre's ears. He knew it was going to be busy today as hordes of people get ready to leave Whistler after the August long weekend. People want to dump their stuff and go. But not so fast, he says. Putting wire coat hangers in the rigid plastics will contaminate the load — it's a product, not packaging. The Styrofoam-like packaging can't be recycled, it's garbage.

He's the man with the answers to just about everything to do with garbage and recycling. All you have to do, he says, is ask.

"That's what we're here for — to help people out," says Lefebvre of the attendants who are always onsite at Nesters and Function Junction.

Mistakes abound. People aren't reading the signs, he says. Or, they're ignoring them.

"The residents like to hide things — oils and stuff like that, which should go down to the Callaghan," adds Lefebvre. "And they like to put their old plastic furniture behind the machines and hide stuff like wood when the attendants are not looking. We don't like that either."

And one of the most common mistakes of all? Dirty recycling.

"The people cleaning their recycling are great," he says. "But the people who are not cleaning are ruining it for the people who are cleaning and just contaminating the whole thing."

The program, run through Recycle BC, is responsible for residential packaging and printed paper recycling and is largely funded by the products' manufacturers.

And yet, there's still between seven and 7.5 per cent contamination at Recycle BC stations throughout the province.

"Compared to North American standards, we're probably the lowest contamination rate in North America," says Alan Langdon, managing director of Recycle BC, the non-profit organization that has been running recycling programs throughout B.C. for more than three years. "If we were to compare ourselves to the city of Toronto, for example, which manages roughly the same amount of material as our entire program, their contamination rate is probably three-and-a-half times our rate."

While a seven-per-cent contamination rate is good by comparable standards, it's still more than double the three-per-cent target. Recycling — the do's and the don'ts — remains a work in progress.

Keeping the Epic Promise

Before the Epic Promise, which falls in step with Vail Resorts' operating practices, WB had long been working toward zero waste.

Since 2000, the company has seen a 71-per-cent reduction in the amount of garbage sent to the landfill from its daily operations.

It's an ongoing battle, constantly evolving and refining best practices.

It's now taking what it has learned to WB-produced events, like Crankworx and the annual Canadian National BBQ Championships, held earlier this month.

Last year, WB provided a handful of zero-waste stations at Crankworx, focusing on public waste. The initiative, called Greenworx, was ultimately responsible for saving 163 bags (590 kg) of recyclable and compostable material from the landfill. Its success, says Hamilton, was due in large part to having crew members at each station, educating and directing the public to the correct bins.

This year, Crankworx is taking the next step. All vendors during the 11-day festival have been required to sign a "waste management agreement." The vendors must commit to using the zero-waste stations or provide WB with their own waste-diversion plan.

"I think the challenge is that recycling is different everywhere you go, so I think the key is having someone there to address the public," said Hamilton.

"It's one thing to recycle and compost; it's another thing to do it properly."

Compostable plastics are perhaps the biggest issue — knives, forks, cups. They go in the compost bin but they're often found in the plastics bin, where they will contaminate the load. (See related STRAW WARS sidebar.)

But what do you do if your very business model depends on a product that cannot be recycled or composted, that must go to the landfill at the end of its life?

There are only so many skis that can be used as a fence around the Re-Use-It Centre.

The topic comes up at industry conferences all the time, says Hamilton.

"There aren't a lot of options," she adds of what to do with skis and boots and boards. And while ski art is awesome — finding creative ways to make something beautiful and useful out of something destined to the landfill — it's not the ultimate answer.

"I do think it's going to fall to a technological solution," she says.

Hamilton is optimistic. There are 13 years to make good on the Epic Promise of zero waste at Whistler Blackcomb.

She adds: "I'm most excited that they put a timeframe on it."

After all, it's time.


Reusing uniforms

What to do with a used green ski jacket, the words "Ski School" emblazoned across the back in black?

Well, if you're at WB, you find people in need of good winter clothing, donate the gear, and scrape off the redundant words with a little heat and a sharp tool.

In April, WB worked with the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society (CCCS) to distribute more than 1,000 old uniform pieces to the Williams Lake community and surrounding area. It was a fundraiser for the CCCS.


Straw Wars

In 2016, WB worked with the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) to establish a plastic-straw-free Whistler — part of a growing global movement called Straw Wars that aims to rid the world of the billions of straws thrown out every year.

WB's Taniell Hamilton says straws were one of the top contaminants in the Sea to Sky region.

Consider this: Straws used in the United States could circle the planet more than two-and-a-half times, never to degrade, never to go away. In one day.

WB, and others in Whistler, made the switch to compostable clear straws last year. They are given out on request. Since introducing the initiative, there has been a 61-per-cent reduction in the number of straws WB purchases.

AWARE has recently received funding through Whistler Blackcomb's Enviro Fund to continue the "war" on straws, confirmed executive director Claire Ruddy. The money will be used to capitalize on the growing momentum in the resort. Stay tuned for more this fall.

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