It’s time for a zero waste strategy in British Columbia

October 12, 2017

Written by Sue Maxwell. Image courtesy of Tom Clohosy Cole (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) via Creative Commons.

In British Columbia, regional districts and their member municipalities have made great advancements in the past decade on improving compost and recycling options. Diversion rates have also increased. Still, the province needs to do its part to reduce the amount of material moving through the system and mandate producer responsibility. In fact, BC is one of only two provinces in Canada that does not have a comprehensive waste reduction strategy.

Why Zero Waste?

BC’s zero waste business case asserts that despite increased recycling, waste levels continue to rise. Without change, the cost to local governments is forecasted to increase from $377 million in 2010 to $450 million in 2025.[i] The case study also asserts that pursuing zero waste has a positive impact with “new jobs, increased GDP, reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and reduced environmental and human health risks.[ii]

Too often the impacts of waste are seen merely as leachate, methane and litter from landfills and ash, GHG and air emissions from incinerators. A zero waste focus helps to reduce the multitude of upstream impacts of how we create and use materials. “Only one percent of the total North American materials flow ends up in, and is still being used within, products six months after their sale.”[iii]

When looking at GHGs by system rather than sector, 49% of US emissions relate to the provision of products and food.[iv] Over 7000 new jobs could be created in BC if materials wasted were recycled.[v] Clearly, the status quo cannot continue.

A Call for Action

A group of elected local officials in BC have decided to work together on a call for action with eight recommendations: [vi]

1. Develop and implement a Provincial Zero Waste Strategy. This should be done with strong engagement of local government and using the zero waste hierarchy. It should include actions on communications, education, knowledge building and adequate resources.

2. Enact measures to focus on the higher measures of the zero waste hierarchy. We need policies and incentives to reconsider, reduce and reuse.

3. Enhance existing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs. EPR programs place the responsibility for the products at the end of life on the producer, which can incentivize design for environment. BC is committed to the Canada-wide Action Plan for EPR[vii] and has implemented many new programs; however, the existing programs need to be strengthened.[viii]

4. Add new EPR programs. BC should fulfill its commitments and map out the next suite of products to be covered, thus giving local governments certainty for their waste planning.

5. Reduce and compost organics. This can include developing and sharing food waste reduction tools, assisting with barriers to composting and researching nutrient circulation.

6. Work with specific sectors. There is a need to develop actions for activities and sectors, such as work camps, large events, wood waste, partnerships with First Nations, etc. that meet the needs of different local governments.

7. Maximize use of existing disposal capacity and minimize environmental impacts. A province-wide look at disposal capacity should assist in setting targets to increase the lifespan of these assets by reducing waste. Collaboration among regions, especially to assist smaller regions, would be beneficial as well as action on illegal dumping. It is critical that no new waste incinerators are built as burning of waste is very expensive, polluting and wastes the energy embodied in products and materials where far more energy is saved through higher steps on the hierarchy. Thermal treatment reduces the volume of waste but still requires landfilling and in some cases, creates more toxic waste. It also can provide a disincentive to reduce or recycle, as certain volumes are required. Waste to energy was seen as the least desirable method in the zero waste business case[ix].

8. Advocate to the federal government for zero waste policy. For zero waste to be possible, all levels of government and sectors need to be doing their part. The federal government can have influence on warranty times, product labeling, trade agreements, fostering design change and banning certain problematic materials.

Hope for the Future

While UBCM has had over 80 waste-related resolutions on specific aspects since 2003, at the recent 2017 convention in Vancouver, a resolution calling for a comprehensive provincial zero waste strategy was passed. It is not only local governments pushing for action on waste, but also citizens and environmental groups concerned about resource extraction impacts, climate change, waste, litter and marine pollution. We eagerly await the Province’s response.

What is Zero Waste?

Zero waste is an aspirational goal like zero accidents, a driver to keep improving systems. The Zero Waste International Alliance has the only peer-reviewed definition:

“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.

Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”

This peer-reviewed aspect is important as some waste management companies try to push alternate definitions that allow for waste incineration with terms like “zero waste to landfill” which can be meaningless. For this reason, a zero waste hierarchy was adopted by the Recycling Council of BC to clearly outline where to focus actions to have the most impact, instead of the all too common end-of-pipe project.

Sue Maxwell is the coordinator for the BC Inter-municipal Working Group on Zero Waste; a councillor for the Resort Municipality of Whistler; a long time volunteer for zero waste organizations and a consultant for over a decade on waste plans, EPR programs, communications, waste reduction and sustainability.

[i] BC Ministry of Environment. Zero Waste Business Case
[ii] ibid.
[iii] Hawken, P. Natural Capitalism. (1999) p. 81.
[iv] Stolaroff, J. Products, Packaging and US Greenhouse Gas Emissions,
[v] Lee, M., Maxwell, S., Legg, R., Rees, W. Climate Justice Project – Closing the Loop.
[vi] BC Intermunicipal Working Group on Zero Waste. Discussion Paper
[vii] Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment. Canada-wide Action Plan for EPR.
[viii] BC Auditor General. Report on Product Stewardship
[ix] BC Ministry of Environment. Zero Waste Business Case