Beyond Landfill

Alberta's cities confront the worst garbage habit in the world.

By Evan Osenton

Until the 1970s, one of Banff’s most popular unofficial tourist attractions was the dump. Out-of-towners didn’t visit to marvel at the mounds of garbage produced by the city’s 45,000 summer residents; they went to see the grizzly bears combing the trash mountains in search of two substances bears crave that are scarce in their natural diet—meat and sugar. While it was surely obvious even then that, along with discarded crème brulée from the Banff Springs Hotel, grizzlies probably shouldn’t eat batteries, broken plates and dirty linens, it took decades for officials to finally shut down the dump. Recalls ex-warden Sid Marty in The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, Banff’s visitors would miss watching “shaggy behemoths gorging on road-killed elk, [seeing] others roll, moaning with sensuous pleasure, through the garbage piles like cats in a patch of catnip, making the gas-distended garbage bags pop like stinky balloons.”

Human Albertans today are likewise immersed in garbage—though we take far less pleasure in the experience. Landfills create environmental problems, namely leachate—garbage juice comprised of decomposing organics, fingernail polish, battery acid, paint et cetera, which ends up in groundwater and surface water—and methane emissions, a contributor to global warming. Proximity to landfills lowers property values. Landfills eat up space that could otherwise be neighbourhoods, wilderness or farmland. On a social and cultural level, garbage produces denial and shame. What to do with the stuff—how to evolve our thinking around the entire issue—is one of the most important issues facing Alberta’s cities today. It’s also a challenge with a unique provincial twist.

Residential waste in typically only a third to a half of our garbage—the rest we generate at work.

Albertans, if you can believe this, generate more garbage than anyone else in the world. It’s true: per capita, we toss away more plastic burrito wrappers, old couches and soiled diapers than even our supposedly wasteful US neighbours. It boils down to this: Alberta is the most wasteful province in the most wasteful country in the world. In 1997, Canadians generated 490 kg of municipal waste per person per year, and ranked 19th among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations. By 2002, we were throwing out 640 kg of waste per person per year. By 2005, we’d moved from 19th to first place, tossing away 791 kg—well above the OECD average of 610 kg and almost twice as much as Japan, the least-wasteful country in the OECD. Even more recent data from Statistics Canada pegs Canadians with what may be the highest levels of municipal waste generation ever—971 kg per person per year.

Here’s where Alberta really stands out. Between 2004 and 2006, the amount of garbage we generated increased 18 per cent compared to an increase of 6 per cent in Canada. In 1998, Albertans threw out 870 kg per person. By 2004, we were up to 959 kg. By 2006, we’d broken through the magic one-tonne-per-person-per-year barrier, throwing out 1,133 kg of garbage annually. In contrast, British Columbians were throwing out half as much (675 kg) and Nova Scotians one third (430 kg).

To put these numbers into context, the garbage thrown out by just one Albertan every year weighs as much as a car. Try lifting a Toyota Corolla, and you’ll get a small sense of how many bags you lug to the curb, alley or dumpster yearly, how many are heaved into the jaws of the garbage truck, driven to the landfill and squished under millions of others, how much energy and space they consume. All the garbage you generate counts; not just residential (which is typically a third to a half of your garbage), but also what you and your company generate at work, the waste created by Alberta’s hospitals, schools, construction sites et cetera. It’s amazing how it adds up: Clean Calgary Association estimates that an average school-age child generates 30 kg of waste per year just from non-renewable lunch materials.

Numbers tell only part of the story; Alberta seems to have a different garbage culture. While cities across North America push garbage away (Toronto will exile theirs to Michigan until 2010), Albertans seem to embrace it. In the mid-1980s, for example, Alberta communities actually competed for the right to host the world’s most advanced hazardous waste incinerator. Its 320-acre facility and 55 jobs were awarded to the town of Swan Hills in 1987; community leaders from the town of Ryley were said to be “outspoken in their disappointment.” Other jurisdictions were wise to take a pass; within three years, Swan Hills Waste Treatment Facility started to leak, and workers and surrounding wildlife started showing high levels of PCBs in their blood.

Alberta has a unique relationship to garbage for a number of reasons: our affluence combined with a changing consumer preference for more disposable products; lots of construction activity; larger homes than the Canadian average, with fewer people living in them; the vast wilderness at our doorsteps, which creates an illusion of limitless dumping potential. Perhaps most importantly, local governments—with exceptions—haven’t done much so far to encourage reduction or diversion.

Municipal waste is at once a problem and a fascinating phenomenon. We take great pains to conceal wasted food, evidence of bodily functions and broken household items; it’s no coincidence that garbage bags are a solid colour while recyclables—which project virtue—are collected in clear bags. But after carefully keeping our garbage private, we push it into the public domain. The moment the garbage man hoists your bulging bags is the moment at which the public and private intersect. Your garbage is now every Albertan’s concern.

Students tour the EWMC's recycling facility.

Students tour the EWMC’s recycling facility. (Courtesy of the City of Edmonton)

Not only do we hide our garbage, we lie about it. In 1973, University of Arizona professor William Rathje founded “The Garbage Project,” in which researchers studied landfill—discovering, among other things, that alcohol consumption is far greater than people reveal voluntarily. (At one point the Census Bureau considered using Rathje’s data; they found that the male population can be more reliably estimated by analyzing garbage than surveys, since illegal immigrants and people cheating the welfare system can avoid survey takers, but not trips to the trashcan.)

Garbage is a local and a global issue. Whatever we discard has to be buried, burned or recycled, and nearby is almost always most convenient. The citizens of Lethbridge are thus reminded on a daily basis: the guts of an old private landfill can be seen from Highway 3 near the banks of the Oldman River, spilling out of a former coulee. The global angle is becoming better known. Edward Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes (2006) showed how discarded computers, cell phones and other high tech gadgets are recycled by hand in China. Working outdoors with no health protection or safety equipment, workers inhale lead, mercury and cadmium as they melt circuit boards, pour acid over chips and burn wires and plastic parts to salvage metals. The UN banned the export of “e-waste” in 1995, but estimates are that 80 per cent of North America’s e-waste still goes offshore, 90 per cent of it to China.

Garbage has been an urban problem for a long time, of course. Victorian Englanders were accustomed to tossing food scraps, human waste and even corpses into cesspits, which overflowed into the streets of London and mingled with the outfall of factories and slaughterhouses. During the particularly hot summer of 1858, the stench of sewage and thriving bacteria nearly paralyzed the city, then the world’s largest. Politicians resolved the crisis behind lime-chloride-soaked curtains in the Houses of Parliament. “The Great Stink” led to some improvements in waste treatment—but mostly just created more jobs for “nightsoil men,” who carted human and animal waste to farms.

Garbage-initiated urban crises continue (see: Toronto and Vancouver garbage strikes, 2002 and 2006). They’re resolved, typically, by sending garbage farther away, to communities downstream, downwind and down on their luck. And while some old dumps make fascinating archeological sites, others comprise toxic legacies. The US Environmental Protection Agency lists 413 dumps in its Superfund Sites, while Canada’s Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory lists at least 200 former landfills, including one in Banff National Park, two near Red Deer and Drumheller, an aircraft fuel dumping ground outside Cold Lake and a Second World War-era dump at CFB Wainwright.

The dumps and landfills that are Alberta’s garbage legacy are alive. They shift. They swell and belch. They leak liquids. Their stenches waft for kilometres. The cost to clean up dumps is often prohibitive, as is the cost to build new landfills. (“Landfills” are, essentially, “lined dumps” that come with their own set of problems.) As estimated by Waste Management (one of Canada’s largest private garbage companies), new landfills can cost as much as $500,000 per acre to build. Alberta has nearly 350 landfills, many full or nearly full, and, despite appearances, we’re running out of land for more. Edmonton’s only public landfill will be full by this summer, after which garbage will be trucked to Ryley. Calgary’s three public landfills have 35 years left. But with the closure of landfills from coast to coast, all cities will face pressure to take others’ trash. Even Calgary’s dumps will fill up, probably sooner than later. We need a way out of this mess, fast.

In their book Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins explain how the environmental debate has been drearily predictable: science discovers more bad news (“landfills spew methane!”), business counters (“that’s categorically false!”), the media try to report both sides (“they’re both right!”) and the public ends up feeling paralyzed. As the authors write: “Environmentalists appear like Cassandra, business look[s] like Pandora [and] apologists sound like Dr. Pangloss.” In this situation, no one listens, nothing changes and no party—not even business, ultimately—wins.

Natural Capitalism offers strategies to deal with our various environmental crises, especially the more general problem of waste (of which garbage is one of the biggest forms). The book’s strength lies in its non-partisanship and the simplicity of the overarching metaphor on which it rests. Briefly, the book equates the Earth’s environment to natural “capital” (the sum of all of our wealth). Humans inherited a 3.8-billion-year store of natural capital; resources such as water, minerals, plants, animals, soil and air, and living systems such as grasslands, rain forests, wetlands, coral reefs et cetera. For most of our existence, humans lived off the “interest” of this capital; we used fewer resources in a year than nature replenished. More and more humans, however, placed a greater strain on the planet, and eventually we stopped living off Earth’s “interest” and started draining the principal. In short, our natural capital is plummeting as we convert it, literally, into garbage. It doesn’t take an accountant to explain the result. Say the authors: “At present rates of [resource] use and degradation, there will be little left by the end of the century. This is not only a matter of aesthetics and morality, it is of the utmost practical concern.” Happily, this is also not a partisan concern—all of us are similarly keen on keeping Earth habitable.

Few of the strategies in Natural Capitalism will seem unfamiliar. In fact, we’re already using most of them, and, in the case of certain Albertans, using them with gusto. As it so happens, Edmonton—yes, the home of the world’s fifth-largest shopping mall—is leading the charge toward a “zero-waste” future. Edmontonians are not far different from other Albertans in the amount of goods they consume. But put the contents of an average Edmontonian’s garbage bag next to that of an average Calgarian’s, and it would be like looking at the remnants of two different cultures. The typical Calgary bag will contain cardboard, metal and plastic. The typical Edmonton bag? Almost none of these. (Not surprisingly, it would also be smaller.)

What’s Edmonton’s secret? As every elementary student knows, eliminating garbage starts with the three Rs. “Reducing” garbage can be done by buying fewer goods, by making resources go further and by “reusing” instead of buying new. Here again Edmontonians are not far different from other Albertans. The secret to their reductionism lies, simply, in redefining garbage.

What we call “recycling,” Natural Capitalism calls “biomimicry.” It shows how garbage—indeed, the very idea of waste—can be eliminated by redesigning human systems along biological lines; essentially, by mimicking nature. After all, a tree doesn’t send its leaves to the dump, and a moose doesn’t foul the forest with its waste; both create food for other living things. If our industrial processes similarly cycled materials in continuous, closed loops, we would never create garbage and never need to dispose of it.

According to StatsCan, Albertans recycle 113 kg of residential waste per capita (a mere 10 per cent diversion rate). Edmontonians, however, divert 60 per cent of their residential waste from landfill into recycling programs, one of North America’s highest rates. The City’s goal is a 90 per cent diversion rate by 2012. While many cities (including Calgary) have a stated mission to get to “zero waste,” Edmonton seems serious. It began its curbside recycling program back in 1988 under the watch of a Council that included eventual mayor Jan Reimer. Twenty years later, the program is a huge success and a testament to the City’s vision, with a citizen participation rate of 90 per cent (houses and apartments alike are included in the blue box/bin program).

While the City’s motive was practical—the landfill was filling up—Edmonton has reaped benefits. As recently as 2005, nearly half of the “garbage” received by Canada’s landfills was paper or paperboard. Today, because of the greater availability of materials thanks to cities such as Edmonton, it’s cheaper than ever to make new things from recycled material. Making paper from recycled paper, for example, uses 75 per cent less energy than using raw wood fibre (and making glass, plastics and steel from recycled materials uses 30, 35 and 75 per cent less energy, respectively). Paperboard, pop can and plastic manufacturers are only too happy to buy raw materials from cities. Edmonton’s recent customers have included Alberta Newsprint Company, Can-Cell Industries (insulation from newsprint), EMCO (shingles from cardboard) and AltaSteel (rebar from metal cans).

The price of recyclables—as with any commodity—rises and falls; in late 2008, the price of everything from recycled paper to polyethylene plastic to steel fell due to a decrease in demand. As the economy improves, prices will rise again. What will likely not change is the steadily rising cost of new landfills.

The Edmonton Waste Management Centre (EWMC) is the jewel in the city’s waste-treatment crown, self-described as “North America’s largest collection of modern, sustainable waste processing… facilities.” Such is its paradigm-shifting power that TV networks and documentarians from across the world have visited. The EWMC houses a materials recovery facility (where 40,000 tonnes of recyclables are sorted and baled), a 25-hectare composting facility (where non-recyclables are turned into 80,000 tonnes of compost every year) and, as of March 2008, an electronics recycling plant. The $10-million e-waste facility has capacity sufficient to handle all of western Canada’s e-waste; aside from generating revenue, it also means that Albertans no longer contribute to the misery of workers in China’s e-waste industry. The CBC’s Rick Mercer filmed a segment of his Report at the EWMC, calling the facility’s small mountains of computer monitors, hair dryers and photocopiers “apocalyptic” and noting: “I could spend all day here… just smashing things.”


Edmonton’s innovativeness isn’t limited to recycling and composting. Since 1992, Clover Bar landfill has been mined for gas; enough is captured each year to power 4,600 homes. In addition, much of the 40 per cent of Edmonton’s waste that is currently landfilled will soon be “gasified,” turned into a synthetic gas which is later converted to methanol and ethanol. The world’s first industrial-scale municipal waste-to-energy initiative, the facility will be operational by the end of 2010 and should help the City achieve a 90 per cent diversion rate, reduce GHG emissions—and enable its remaining garbage trucks to fill up with fuel made from the very trash they once collected.

Comparing the City of Champions to that other large city in Alberta would be unfair—if it weren’t so informative. Calgarians currently divert 20 per cent of their garbage from the landfill (recall Edmontonians’ 60 per cent rate). Calgary is aiming for an 80 per cent diversion rate by 2020 (Edmonton: 90 per cent by 2010). As it lacks Edmonton’s state-of-the-art facilities and has a much lower rate of voluntary recycling, it’s harder to see how Calgary will achieve this goal. The determining factor will be local government. As Alderman Brian Pincott blogged last October: “Our waste collection system is broken. It is not sustainable environmentally or fiscally. Environmentally, we know that we are lagging behind everyone else by not just years but decades.” (The City might dramatically kick-start efforts with a “pay-as-you-throw” program such as in Toronto, where residents pay according to how much garbage they discard.)

There are encouraging signs. Curbside recycling for 300,000 homes starts this month (though condos and apartments are excluded, and plastics and organics will not be collected). In January, aldermen debated a ban on single-use plastic bags, some 740 million of which end up in Calgary landfills every year. The City began collecting small amounts of landfill gas at East Calgary and Shepard in 2006. Calgary has also been innovative in “reclaiming” old landfills, for example by planting 6,000 trees on top of the former Blackfoot landfill. The small forest offsets some of the site’s GHG emissions, slows erosion of the earthen cap, and, if nothing else, is a lot nicer to look at than the 243,000 tonnes of garbage hiding a few metres beneath the forest floor.

There remain major challenges for all of Alberta’s cities. A short list includes non-residential waste (especially from construction and demolition), illegal dumping, non-recyclable materials (e.g., Styrofoam, disposable diapers, pet feces) and the fluctuating economics of recyclables. Even if we recycle everything, Albertans still consume huge amounts of goods, which means someone, somewhere is creating garbage on our behalf. We need to continue reducing as well as recycling.

But let’s dwell on the positive for the moment. Albertans may have the worst garbage habit in the world, but we also have the knowledge, ability and even the will to change. The hard part is taking the initiative—and Edmonton has already done that, figuring out, in a mere two decades, how to eliminate fully 60 (and soon 90) per cent of the garbage it creates.

Some years ago, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day was asked by a fan what “punk” was. He kicked over a garbage can and replied, “That’s punk.” The fan kicked over another can and asked, “That’s punk?” Armstrong replied: “No, that’s trendy.” Starting a new movement is difficult, whether artistic or environmental. But while copying others’ ideas makes for bad music, it can also make for smarter, cleaner cities. It’s time all Albertans joined Edmonton’s garbage revolution.

Evan Osenton is the Associate Editor at Alberta Views.


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