Let’s talk trash.
No, really. (!) Having spent the last three months doing exactly that (talking trash, reading trash, thinking trash), I’ve come to the conclusion that people need, in fact, to do some trash-talking a little more often.
My term as a Greenest City Scholar at the City of Vancouver finished at the end of July. While I was there, I spent my time researching about some ways that the City can eventually get to its long-term ‘zero-waste’ goal – a pretty tough target. The amount of waste that gets thrown away daily in Vancouver (and most areas of the world) is astonishing. I’m as guilty of its creation as the next person. That coffee cup, the plastic wrap here, even the gum wrapper you toss absent-mindedly into the garbage. Annually, the amount of waste created in Vancouver and its metropolitan area is about 3.4 million tonnes. While about 55% of that is diverted from the landfill, that’s still more than one and a half million tonnes of waste going to landfill each year. And that’s in just one metropolitan area.
The City research allowed me to get a real grasp over not only the waste system, and how it operates, but the numerous challenges that municipalities must face as they try to get citizens to waste a little less. In particular, I was struck by the tough choices that staff and policymakers are expected to make. As a student of public policy and sustainable development, I had thought I understood the challenges and trade-offs which must be made in policy decisions. I guess I didn’t realize that when you’re the person actually employed to make recommendations or decisions, that the whole process seems so much harder.
Moving towards goals like ‘zero-waste’ are all the more difficult because there’s no tried and trusted way of getting there. How do you change a system where profit is built from the creation of waste, to exactly the opposite? There’s no real ‘right’ answer to questions like these. Indeed, there’s no real answer – but some cities experimenting with solutions, and who are hoping to have found part of the answer. One of the main issues is of course, when you’re making decisions in the name of the never homogenous public interest – and using public funds to do it – that the opportunity cost of making the wrong decision becomes that much higher. It gives me a new understanding for the reasons behind the slow progress being made towards sustainability overall, and the amount of faith and risk involved for the institutions and people involved to make the leap to a new program or policy (politics notwithstanding!)
I think it’s also true that, even with the best of stakeholder consultation, not everyone is going to like a given decision. Perhaps one of the things that we must realize is that change, as we move forward on this ill-trodden path towards “sustainability,” isn’t going to benefit everyone, at least without some major adaptation. In fact, I think this fact is one of the main hurdles to things like consensus-based decision making really working on a large scale. The waste system is an example of one of these areas – waste generators, regulators, collectors, recyclers, and more – are all going to have different needs and interests in getting to zero-waste. However, I would still note that the cooperation of all these stakeholders is going to be needed. And for that to happen, we’re going to need to talk trash.
Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.