A revolution in waste management might be at hand—and the unlikely group leading it could end up being our local business improvement associations (BIAs). They are the biggest customers of the garbage industry and they could drive needed change in the service mix provided by that industry.
BIAs are beginning to understand that we took a wrong turn a hundred years ago when our waste system became oversimplified, resulting in 20th century "state of the art" waste management that often ends up looking like the photo above.
Dumpsters and the monster front-loading trucks that service them are not only a blight to today's gentrifying downtowns. They are the reason that businesses in our region are laggards in recycling. Businesses using dumpsters include the property management companies in apartment buildings as well as small and large local businesses—to say nothing of the ubiquitous construction companies with dumpsters on work sites. Together they produce three-quarters of the garbage in our region, largely because they use dumpsters instead of separating their wastes.
Five years ago, a half-dozen of Vancouver's downtown BIAs tried to fix this problem by working together to get rid of the Dumpster. They were following the lead of Seattle and Kelowna, which are already enjoying benefits from going "Dumpster free".
Things were progressing well until the recession hit. At that point, the garbage hauler that the BIAs had signed on to deliver the new services presented a revised estimate of the cost. The current economy and failing recycling markets meant a huge jump in cost for recycling. And so the plan was scrapped.
But now there has been a new policy development.
By 2015 all those businesses will be prohibited from putting "compostable organics" in their Dumpsters. This could be a total game changer.
Unlike recycling, compost doesn't rely on volatile global commodities markets. Metro Vancouver is busy putting local organics processing facilities in place. There will soon be strong, ongoing, recession-proof local demand for feedstock. There is a whole range of local uses for compostable materials ranging from soil amendments to biogenic fuel.
The requirement for separate organics collection will force the garbage industry to provide businesses with convenient, low-cost alternatives to the Dumpster.
Could we see micro-scale solutions that fit with gentrified city alleyways? I'm picturing vast fleets of United We Can bicycles collecting trailer loads of fresh organic wastes from neighbourhood restaurants and produce stores and hauling them to local mini-processing plants that supply soil for the City of Vancouver's 2,010 new community gardens.
Helen Spiegelman is a Vancouver-based environmentalist and blog coordinator. Read more at Zero Waste.