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The business, and politics, of garbage

With the landfill closing next month there are short-term and long-term solutions to Whistler’s waste

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This month, as Whistler businesses start to ramp up for winter, Sandie Blair and her management team at Wildflower Lodging Company took a look at a perpetual issue that is becoming more expensive to deal with: waste generation.

"We are looking at our present practices and we know we could do a better job, so we are challenging ourselves to be better," said Blair, whose company manages Le Chamois.

The challenge has been raised with the understanding that in less than three weeks Whistler’s waste tipping fees will go from $87 per tonne to $110 per tonne. That’s because the landfill is expected to close Nov. 1 and all waste will then be shipped out of Whistler.

The economic incentive to reduce waste is obvious, and the environmental argument is no more difficult to understand. But it may take something like the closing of the landfill to get people to take a really hard look at their practices. That’s what Wildflower is doing, but some people still don’t realize the landfill and the landscape are changing.

The present Whistler landfill, next to the Cheakamus River and across the highway from Function Junction, opened 28 years ago, in 1977, after it was decided that the previous landfill would become the site of the new Whistler Village. Assuming the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District gives its approval, on Nov. 1 the Cheakamus landfill is expected to close, again to make way for a new village. This time it’s the athletes village for the 2010 Olympics, and the post-Games Legacy Village, which will become a new Whistler neighbourhood.

The Olympic athletes village is influencing the timing of the landfill closure but closure was inevitable. The landfill, in its current configuration, is reaching capacity and wasn’t expected to last beyond 2008.

Starting next month, the garbage that has gone to the Whistler landfill, which includes solid waste from Whistler, Pemberton and D’Arcy, will go by truck and train to the Rabanco landfill in south-eastern Washington, more than 900 kilometres away. Long term, it’s hoped that the Squamish landfill can be expanded and upgraded to meet provincial environmental standards so that all the solid waste from the north end of the corridor can be dumped there.

More than 18,000 tonnes of solid waste annually ends up in the Whistler landfill. Whistler has set a goal of producing zero waste, and while some people, like Wildflower, are working towards this goal, it’s going to be some time before Whistler has no need for a landfill. And most of the rest of the world is in the same position.

Need, or demand, is one of the most basic tenants of economics, and explains why garbage is a business; a cost for some, and an opportunity for others.

It’s also a political football. Most of us like to assume that our waste is being safely and responsibly disposed of after we close the door on the garbage compactor, but we don’t really want to think too much about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But it goes somewhere, where someone else has to deal with it.

The closure of the landfill is an opportunity to look at how Whistler deals with its garbage, and what not having a landfill will mean. It’s something we’ve been contemplating for years, even though it may catch some by surprise.

A long time coming

In 1996 the plan was that all landfills in the Sea to Sky corridor would be closed by 2000. Whistler, Squamish, Pemberton and other communities within the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District agreed to a Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) that would have seen garbage from the corridor go to the Rabanco landfill in Washington.

In 1997 the Ministry of Environment approved this SWMP, as part of the province-wide directive that every regional district develop a plan to reduce the amount of solid waste generated per capita by 50 per cent (from 1990 levels) by the year 2000.

But even before the province approved the SWMP, Squamish and Whistler were having second thoughts. A staff memo to Squamish council on Dec. 5, 1996 – less than two months after SLRD members had approved the SWMP – recommended closure of the Squamish landfill be delayed due to budgetary impacts.

A Jan. 2, 1997 memo from staff to Whistler council recommended that extending the life of the Whistler landfill be investigated. In July 1997 Whistler council approved the phase I expansion of the Whistler landfill, which was expected to add another 2.5 years to the life of the facility. In the same resolution Whistler chose to begin "exploring the option of extending the life of the Whistler landfill after the year 2000 for a period of 10 to 20 years." In addition to looking at a phase II landfill expansion Whistler also notified the SLRD that it recommended no further negotiations be carried out with regard to exporting garbage.

In January 1999 Whistler council authorized the phase II expansion, guaranteeing use of the landfill to at least 2008. Whistler also decided it would review alternative disposal methods in 2004 to determine a course of action beyond 2008. Last year Whistler did that review and, with the Cheakamus site for the athletes village already chosen, announced the landfill would close in 2005.

The motivating factor, which took Whistler, Squamish and consequently the rest of the SLRD from approving in October 1996 a SWMP to close the landfills and export garbage, to cancelling the export plan and expanding landfills in July 1997, was money – the landfill is a revenue producer. As well, the cost of exporting garbage was significantly higher than originally anticipated. Increased tipping fees were planned to cover this additional cost, but when the decision was made to keep the landfill open the higher tipping fees were maintained. They went into effect on Jan. 1, 1997.

But the additional money collected by the municipality didn’t go into general revenue. An Environmental Legacy Fund was established in 1999, administered by the Community Foundation of Whistler, and $300,000 in additional revenue produced annually by the landfill tipping fees hasbeen used to build up this fund for the last seven years. Interest generated from investing this fund has gone to a number of environmental projects over the years, including a community composting project by AWARE, black bear studies, trail upgrades and fish stewardship programs.

With the closure of the landfill this year the municipality’s contribution to the Environmental Legacy Fund has been reduced from $300,000 to $100,000. The municipality hopes to be able to continue to make a $100,000 contribution each year.

The landfill closure also means new costs. The cost to dispose of a tonne of solid waste in Whistler is currently $25.54. That is expected to increase to $69 when garbage begins to be exported. For Whistler residents, that means tipping fees will increase from the current $87 per tonne to $110 per tonne. As well, the annual residential parcel tax for solid waste will increase $29, from $145 to $174, although this could be offset by a $29 decrease in the sewer utility charge.

Pemberton and Area C are also facing higher tipping fees with the landfill closure, and they will be losing the annual equalization payments from Whistler that used to cover part of those fees.

The cost of physically closing, or capping, the Whistler landfill will be close to $4 million. In anticipation of this cost the municipality has been building a closure reserve fund. But with the closure sooner than originally anticipated, the municipality, earlier this year, had to transfer $1.5 million from the General Fund Operating Reserve to the Landfill Closure Reserve.

Building a transfer station is another capital cost facing Whistler; $200,000 is budgeted for a temporary transfer station and $85,000 to find a site for a permanent transfer station.

From money to politics

A slightly cheaper, and closer, alternative to the Rabanco landfill was preferred by Whistler, but earlier this year the provincial government shot that down.

Cache Creek, which landfills garbage from a number of B.C. communities, including the Greater Vancouver Regional District, was originally chosen over Rabanco. Although the GVRD-owned Cache Creek landfill is expected to close in 2008, the GVRD purchased the nearby Ashcroft Ranch several years ago with the expectation that part of it could become a regional landfill after Cache Creek closes. The Ashcroft site had apparently met all the environmental requirements when in June the Minister of Sustainable Resources, George Abbott, surprised everyone with the announcement that more assessments must be done. That meant that for the time being at least, there is no alternative after Cache Creek closes in 2008. Therefore applications by Whistler and the Cowichan Valley to send their waste, and Powell River’s request to renew its agreement, were all put on hold.

Abbott’s announcement confused a lot of people. Jon Kingsbury, mayor of Coquitlam and chair of the GVRD’s waste management committee, told The Province newspaper: "We had thought we’d exhausted all possibilities of options and had picked the very one (Ashcroft) that was laid out according to the province’s terms of reference we were dealing under."

The GVRD, which sends about 450,000 tonnes of waste to the Cache Creek site each year, is even more anxious than Whistler to find a long-term solution to its garbage problems. But it’s not just an environmental issue. The suspicion is that First Nations land claims may have prompted Abbott’s June announcement. That idea is supported by a July 12 opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun by Robert Pasco of the Nlaka’pamux Nation that advocated thermal gasification of garbage, rather than dumping in Nlaka’pamux traditional lands. "Figuratively and now literally, indigenous communities are being dumped on," Pasco wrote.

"We let it happen in the past. We will not let it happen again."

If there was any doubt that garbage is a political issue it was put to rest last month with two more opinion pieces in The Sun . On Sept. 20 Wolf Nickel, president and general manager of Highland Valley Copper, which operates the open pit mine near Logan Lake, suggested the mine site could become the regional landfill. The mine is expected to close sometime between 2008 and 2013. Nickel cited the Gibraltar Mines near Williams Lake as a successful precedent.

Nickel’s piece was followed a week later by one from Cache Creek Mayor John Ranta, who wrote that the Highland Valley landfill "is a textbook case of predatory economic development, and it has the potential to wipe two rural communities right off the map." Ranta also wrote that the motivation for Teck Cominco, operators of the mine, to open the site to garbage is to save millions of dollars in mine remediation costs.

On another political level, some politicians in Washington D.C. are supporting bills that would restrict shipments of waste across the Canada-U.S. border. That’s not an immediate threat to Whistler’s plans to export its garbage, but it’s another indication that a long-term solution still needs to be found.

And that’s what Wildflower Lodging, the Chateau Whistler, Four Seaons, Boston Pizza and others in Whistler are working towards. Zero waste is the goal but it takes a step-by-step approach to get there. Wildflower started with paper.

"Paper is easy to understand, handle and recyle," said Denise Imbeau of Carney’s Waste Systems, which worked with Wildflower. All paper is recyclable as long as it doesn’t have a waxy, foil or plastic coating.

"Additionally, if the current trends in China’s paper demands continue we will not have enough paper by 2010 to satisfy their needs – even if every piece of paper currently in use is recycled," said Imbeau. China has 4 per cent of the world’s forests but is expected to provide 20 per cent of the world demand for paper. That will put pressure on Canada’s forests and paper supply.

Boston Pizza began its waste reduction effort with composting its organic waste and then looked at what remained. The business is now looking at getting rid of its garbage bin altogether.

"With the compost gone we were looking at what was left and our staff decided that we would try recycling the remaining waste and have our garbage bin removed altogether," said Kevin Schimpf. "It’s a leap of faith, but as a society I believe we rely too heavily on that blue bin as solution."