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Talking Trash

As Whistler moves towards environmental sustainability, the future of the landfill is still up in the air

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On a clear day, when the wind’s just right, they say you can smell the garbage in Bayshores, two kilometres up the road from Whistler’s landfill and sewage treatment plant.

It is a crude and surreal distraction from the natural beauty of the valley, an unwelcome and unnatural intrusion into the clean mountain air that brought so many of us here in the first place. The great outdoor fantasy we live in is brought back down to earth by the stark reality of the dump and sewage plant. It refuses be ignored.

That smell is our smell, our legacy, and our fault. The byproduct of a consumer culture is waste, and as Canadians we used to produce more per capita waste than any other nation on earth – 1.7 kilograms (3.74 pounds) per person, per day in 1988. That figure was higher than the U.S. and Australian average (1.6 kg/day), double the Swedish average (0.8 kg/day), and more than three times the daily per capita waste of China (0.5 kg/day).

The federal government recognized the problem early, and actually did something about it. In 1989 the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment agreed to targets and a schedule for reducing waste by 50 per cent by the year 2000, and through municipal recycling programs and other initiatives they have come close to the mark. A second initiative, the National Packaging Protocol of 1991, sought to reduce packaging by 50 per cent of 1988 levels, and has also been successful.

Through these initiatives Canada was able to cut waste from nearly 19 million tonnes a year in 1988, our worst year on record, to less than 12 million tonnes in 1996. The average Canadian now dumps less than 1.4 kg/day into the landfill after diverting a portion of waste into the recycling bin or composter.

While many recycling programs are 15 years old, there is still a lot more we could be doing. According to the Fraser Institute, only 32 per cent of all paper and cardboard is recycled – that’s up from 20 per cent in 1980, but still unnecessarily wasteful. Less than 20 per cent of glass makes the round trip.

Composting programs are starting to make headway, with Halifax, Nova Scotia leading the way with a biweekly compost pickup program and a centralized composting centre. Through recycling and composting, they have reduced the amount of waste going to their landfills by more than 60 per cent.

If such composting programs were widely available, it is estimated that we could cut down on our waste output by between 20 and 30 per cent with full participation, dropping the per capita waste mark to just over one kilogram per day.

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