Reducing waste – A collaborative approach
A comprehensive waste tracking system is required to provide local governments with the monitoring and reporting needed for truly effective policy development
Recycling, circular economy, waste minimization – even though the lexicon may vary, the goals are the same: reduce waste and its associated environmental impacts. With many, even most, stakeholders sharing this common focus, how is it that we can take advantage of this opportunity to work collaboratively to achieve common goals?
The good news is, thanks to organizations like Statistics Canada and the U.S. EPA, we have an unprecedented foundation of evidence to support the sectors we need to target and the approaches that will provide the strongest environmental benefit.
In terms of best management options for waste, approaches like life cycle assessment have helped to validate long-held assumptions, such as the waste management hierarchy, suggesting that focusing waste policy on the “3Rs” will lead to the best environmental outcomes, rather than being distracted by disposal technologies like waste-to-energy, which should be reserved for managing true residuals with no diversion options.
The EPA, Environment Canada, and firms like Sound Resource Management, have developed useful tools that evaluate environmental impacts of various waste management alternatives, assisting governments and businesses in setting policy direction. These tools almost invariably confirm that the 3Rs hierarchy is valid; however, municipalities are often challenged with making trade-offs between the environment and economics. This is where higher level governments (provincial and federal) have a role to play in introducing policy that provides incentives to encourage the best environmental outcomes. At the same time, the increased engagement of businesses through models like the circular economy offer the opportunity for government and the private sector to collaboratively develop more progressive environmental policy approaches.
However, work is still needed to provide additional layers of information required for comprehensive planning and evaluation.
For example, the Industrial, Commercial and Institutional (ICI) sectors produce much more waste than the residential sector, and yet we continue to focus the majority of our efforts on residential programs – largely because that is the sector municipalities directly manage and control.
We are starting to see some movement towards increasing focus on reducing ICI waste, as is seen with municipalities like the City of Calgary which is introducing bylaws to require businesses to divert recyclables and organics. Continued focus on ICI waste by both municipal and provincial policy makers will be necessary to make significant waste reduction strides.
As primary service providers, waste haulers and processors play an important role in reducing ICI waste. Not only do they need to place an increased priority on diversion opportunities, but they need to join policy makers at the table to share the data necessary for measurement and evaluation of policy initiatives. This need for comprehensive measurement is one area where collaboration is required. Municipalities only have access to measurement of the material streams they directly manage – in most cases, residential waste. Haulers have historically been reluctant to share their data from the ICI sector, primarily for proprietary reasons. This impasse prevents local governments from accurately measuring progress towards municipal waste reduction and diversion goals. As a case in point, the Alberta municipal waste stream is composed of up to 75 percent ICI sources. Without accurate data from this sector, municipalities are literally flying blind when it comes to measuring progress towards waste reduction targets.
This lack of reporting is compounded by the fluid nature of waste management, with increasing volumes of waste flowing between jurisdictions as the private sector consolidates its control over disposal infrastructure.
A comprehensive waste tracking system is required at the provincial level, and ultimately national level, that will provide local governments with the monitoring and reporting information they need for policy development and review, without threatening the proprietary nature of this largely privately serviced sector. This system will be developed either top-down, as dictated by government, or preferably on a collaborative basis through extensive consultation with industry and all levels of government. Groups such as the Recycling Council of Alberta are working hard to establish a system based on the latter; however, the success of this initiative is dependent upon the private sector stepping up and becoming positively engaged in the process.
If our waste reduction and environmental goals are truly genuine, rather than just marketing hype or political pandering, a collaborative approach between business and government offers us a significant opportunity for real progress. Issues like waste measurement and the waste management hierarchy are immediate opportunities to test our abilities in this regard.
Christina Seidel operates sonnevera international corp., a waste reduction consulting firm, and is the executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta, which holds their Annual Waste Reduction Conference September 28-30 in Jasper, Alberta.
This article also appeared in the September, 2016 edition of Recycling Product News, Volume 24, Number 6.