Our mountains of trash

If your European vacation involves much walking or cycling off the major tourist routes, you will find community trash recycling sites at pretty regular intervals.

If your European vacation involves much walking or cycling off the major tourist routes, you will find community trash recycling sites at pretty regular intervals.

Large bins are usually set up where residents separately toss their waste paper, glass and metals. This is in addition to local neighbourhood garbage pickup, as far as I could tell.

A good idea, I thought, except that most people need to drive to the site as a separate errand in their daily lives. Such a program likely wouldn’t get much compliance here.

Visiting Miami, I noticed pickup sites had separate dumpster bins for paper, metals (including beverage cans — there are no deposits and no depots to recover them), glass and plastics, as well as for household garbage.

Good idea, I thought. At least there’s centralized collection. Except when the garbage truck arrived, all the bins were dumped in together and taken to the mountainous landfill north of the city. Compliance from citizens but not the city.

So if Red Deer’s Waste Management Master Plan isn’t rolling out on schedule, the only waste we’re still creating is the waste itself. We may be not be recycling as much as we thought we would be at this point, but at least we’re not wasting money creating systems that are not used.

As of last year, we were supposed to be able to throw almost all of our plastic waste into the blue box, where it could be ground up and sent off to a plant to be made into new things. Not quite.

A report to city council last week says that part of our recycling effort is delayed, because there’s no secure market in which to sell ground-up mixed plastics. So we’re stuck with only recycling the white No. 2 plastic jugs, such as those that have the vinegars and cooking oils we use.

Plastic milk containers carry a deposit, and you can get your money back on them when you take them with your other returnables to the depot.

But if there’s no back end market, there can be no front end collection program and these things just end up in the landfill.

Years back, when thinking green and urban recycling programs were much in their infancy, good old (and now-defunct) Alberta Report denounced efforts to reduce landfill waste as a waste of money.

They pointed to mountains of paper, pyramids of crushed glass and piles of plastics with no place to go. Another do-gooder scheme to milk money from the taxpayer, the magazine said.

The campaign drained support for more such programs and set back efforts to curb our municipal waste problems.

Meanwhile, Zhang Yin became a self-made billionaire buying huge bales of compacted waste paper at U.S. West Coast ports, shipping it to her native China, to be recycled into the boxes that contain all that stuff we buy from China.

If you can make money recycling waste, recycling works.

Right now, Chinese recyclers who used to buy ground-up mixed plastics are no longer doing so. And a local scheme to convert them into fuel and electrical power just devolved into a bad dream.

No financially-viable end-use for what is essentially a resource, no program to collect it. So most of the plastics in our homes and businesses will all eventually end up in the landfill.

Right now, plastics makes up about 12 per cent of the volume going to our landfill. Paper — despite our blue box program — makes up about 20 per cent.

The largest portion of our garbage is organics.

Some of that can be composted at home, but overall, compostables are not a very big slice of the total waste pile (it’s a small part of the 30 per cent of garbage produced by residences — still very useful in the garden, but not an earth-saver on its own).

Fortunately, there are local efforts to make it financially worthwhile to convert organic waste into fuel.

We wish those efforts far more success than that achieved by Plasco (the company behind the failed energy conversion scheme), whose name is not uttered with favour in municipal offices.

Alberta produces a lot of garbage — 1,122 kg per person, against a national average of 777 kg, according to city documents. Red Deerians each produce 812 kg of garbage a year, and the goal is to reduce that to 500 by 2023.

Most of that has to be achieved on the commercial side, which produces 60 per cent of all Red Deer’s waste.

But it’s not going to happen until someone can make a good buck doing it.

So, as reported Monday, Red Deer is behind the master plan’s schedule for recycling plastics.

Not great, but better than creating recycling programs whose products have no end-use, or setting out separate bins where people self-sort their recyclables, which are simply dumped together in a mountain of trash anyway.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.