British Columbia

'We can do a lot better': Metro Vancouver recycling, composting rate stalls at 63%

The amount of garbage kept out of Metro Vancouver's landfills continued to stall in 2017, meaning the region is likely to miss its waste diversion target next year — but one expert says more could be done.

Metro could implement simple interventions to increase waste diversion, says researcher

Metro Vancouver's average diversion rate for 2017 was 63 per cent. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

The amount of garbage kept out of Metro Vancouver's landfills continued to stall in 2017, meaning the region is likely to miss its waste diversion target next year —  but one expert says more could be done.  

Metro Vancouver is the regional authority that brings together 21 municipalities to coordinate common issues like transportation and waste. According to a report presented at its sewerage and drainage board of directors on Friday, the region's waste diversion rate increased by just one per cent to an average of 63 per cent.

The figure includes residential, commercial, and construction waste. 

Andrew Marr, Metro Vancouver's director of solid waste planning, says it's better to look at longer trends than compare the rate year-to-year.

"It's still steady, slow progress," Marr said prior to Friday's meeting. "What you're really hoping for is that it improves over a longer period."

Marr says Metro Vancouver's waste diversion rates compare favourably to other major North American cities. 

But University of British Columbia researcher Jiaying Zhao says the university's Vancouver campus has already met regional targets of 80 per cent waste diversion, and intends to reach zero waste by next year.

"I think the city can do a lot better," Zhao said.  

'Aspirational' goal

Metro Vancouver set the 80 per cent diversion rate target in 2010, Marr says, but it was always considered "aspirational."

"It wasn't necessarily something we thought we could achieve," he said.  

Marr points out that the diversion rate only includes recycling and composting — it doesn't include efforts to reduce packaging and consumption or to reuse materials by buying them second-hand. 

Food waste is still the largest part of waste that's not diverted, Marr says, adding that the region is looking to target those rates specifically in the short-term.

He says the closure of the Harvest Power composting facility in Richmond made the situation worse for commercial and industrial users like restaurants, because many of them now have to pay more for that service. 

Regional planners will likely review its waste diversion goals in about a year, Marr says, and possibly redefine how it's measured. One possible solution could be to look at per capita rates instead. 

'Simple interventions'

The highest recycling rate in Metro Vancouver is in the construction sector at 77 per cent, while the lowest is in multi-family homes like condos and townhouses at 31 per cent. 

Zhao, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia's psychology and sustainability departments, says diversion rates in multi-family homes can be improved. 

"We shouldn't be happy with just 60 per cent," she said. "We can do a lot better using several simple interventions."

Zhao's research has shown that making it easier for people to compost and recycle is key.

The most effective solution she's found so far is to increase the number of recycling and composting bins and put them closer to people's doors. 

UBC researcher Jiaying Zhao says clearly labelling recycling bins increases recycling rates. (CBCRA)

Other interventions she suggests include simplifying signs that explain what can and cannot be recycled or composted. 

"It's kind of comedy to watch people sort — the signs are not helping at all," she said.

"If anything some signs are so confusing that the residents just give up and just throw everything into the garbage."

Zhao says she disagrees that a diversion goal of 80 per cent is aspirational.

UBC's Vancouver campus intends to reach a goal of zero waste by next year, she says, and has already surpassed the region's goal of 80 per cent waste diversion.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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