— Core Questions —

ZeroWaste Edmonton

For nearly 30 years the City of Edmonton was the world leader in waste management with a goal to divert 90% of residential waste from ending up in the landfill by 2020.

To support this ambitious goal Edmonton became the first major Canadian municipality to offer curbside recycling and home to the largest municipal composting facility in North America. Investments in ‘waste-to-energy’ systems and other cutting edge technologies helped Edmonton’s integrated waste management system extend the life of the city’s only landfill by up to 20 years and put the city on track to be “the first metropolitan area to eliminate landfilling of municipal solid waste on a basis that is both economically and environmentally sound.”

In 2018, an internal city audit revealed that waste services was a dumpster fire: waste diversion rates had peaked at just under 50% in 2013 and were trending downwards. Poor asset management led to the unexpected closing of the composter due to structural issues, failure of the groundwater diversion system and the waste-to-energy biofuels plant was 8 years behind schedule. The old system did not even require multi-family residences to provide facilities for recycling. The audit concluded that spending in the waste branch was not aligned with the most basic and commonly accepted principles of waste reduction: prevention and reuse.

City Council responded to the audit with a request to administration for a new waste strategy and a stern warning for taxpayers that ‘the more ambitious the plan, the higher the cost’ as well as a promise of ‘more responsibility at the curb’ if citizens wanted to maintain the old ‘Cadillac’ system of waste management. Less than a year later ‘The Future of Waste’ strategy was adopted and reaffirmed the commitment to a 90% diversion rate but proposes a ‘zero- waste’ approach to achieving it.

Zero-waste systems focus on waste prevention rather than waste management. Prevention seems like an ideal strategy for a city that generates 1,000,000 kg of solid waste per year and needs a budget of $200M to collect, process and dispose of all of it. Due to lack of a landfill, out-of-service composter, and China shutting down nearly all imports of plastic and paper scrap all of Edmonton’s solid waste has to be stored on-site or shipped off-site for disposal.

As promised there is ‘more responsibility at the curb’ in the new strategy, residents will soon be required to separate recyclable and organic waste before setting it out along with fees for the collection of excess residential waste at the curb. The new strategy also plans to address single-use plastics through restrictions or an outright ban and implement Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which charges companies for the waste they create, instead of allowing it to become the burden of taxpayers.

Edmonton’s strategy may seem very forward looking but we already know that the Federal Government plans to ban single-use plastics, including plastic bags, forks and straws, across Canada by the end of 2021. British Columbia has has EPR in place since the 1970s. France just passed a broad anti-waste law banning luxury goods companies from destroying unsold or returned items. In 2016, France also mandated that supermarkets donate usable expired food instead of disposing of it. The entire European Union is proposing a single standard for mobile chargers and is implementing ‘right-to-repair’ legislation which requires appliances are manufactured to be repaired and that spare parts will be made available for up to 10 years.

It is quite easy to live a modern urban life while creating very little waste. The ‘zero-waste lifestyle’ movement popularized by Bea Johnson’s Zero-Waste Home blog offers a blueprint for achieving what Johnson’s family did – fitting an entire year of household waste in a single mason jar. This ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle is predicated on the same principle as Edmonton’s municipal waste strategy: prevention. It starts with simple actions, carrying reusable bags for shopping, bringing your own containers for bulk foods, and carrying silverware for takeout meals. Once the zero-waste mentality takes hold perspectives begin to change. The choice to buy less, consume less, and create less waste become second nature.

What if every person in Edmonton adopted a ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle? Would that solve our waste woes? Unlikely. Of the million tonnes of solid waste our city generates only about one-third is residential, the remaining 660,000 kg is from the institutional, commercial, and industrial sector. If we are meant to take ‘personal responsibility’ for our waste it will be through our places of work, our institutions, and our political power. We need to support robust policies which eliminate single-use plastics, not just a few select bits, we need to support EPR which pushes producers to bear the full cost of production, including the waste which is left behind.

There will always be a cost to dealing with waste but if there were less waste altogether?