Thick skin needed to overhaul Edmonton's failing garbage system, expert says

Edmonton councillors have some tough decisions to make if they want to modernize the city’s garbage collection and disposal system.

'That’s going to involve change for citizens, there’s no sugar-coating that'

More than half the city's garbage goes directly to the landfill instead of being recycled, reused or repurposed, as planned 20 years ago. (YouTube)

Edmonton councillors have some tough decisions to make if they want to modernize the city's garbage collection and disposal system.

At a utility committee Wednesday, councillors will be asked to approve new programs aimed at reducing the amount of garbage going to the landfill — by recycling, reusing and sorting.

On the list: changing the regular pick-up of grass, leaf and yard clippings; introducing an organics green bin program and reducing single-use plastics.

Edmonton's waste management centre, which sorts and processes various materials, from plastics to compost, is 20 years old.

An audit in February showed the current waste management system is failing, with about 51 per cent of residential waste over the past five years being diverted from the landfill — short of the original target of 90 per cent.

Coun. Michael Walters said Edmontonians will need to start separating materials at home. 
Coun. Michael Walters said the city will be mindful of people with different abilities when changing garbage pick up. (CBC)

"We need strategies to do that," Walters said. "That's going to involve change for citizens, there's no sugar-coating that."

Walters said the city will give people time to adjust.

"We're trying to do that in a way that's gradual, sensitive to people with different needs and different abilities, seniors for example — and do it in a way that the public understands what we're trying to achieve."

Green bins

While the city is introducing a volunteer-based green bin pilot program next spring, residents around the city won't be asked to separate organics from other garbage until 2020.

"A good thorough pilot, that's not going to last forever —  that gives us an opportunity to make sure that we get the full roll-out correct," Walters said.

You have to change your habits, which is hard.-Daryl McCartney, professor at U of A environmental engineering

Daryl McCartney, a professor in environmental engineering at the University of Alberta, said a pilot will allow city staff and residents time to get familiar with the system.

Although far from new, he said the technology gets small improvements all the time.

"So you want hear from the other municipalities that have had these things for years, 'What did you like, what didn't you like?'"

25-year outlook

Councillors will also review a 25-year strategic outlook for the city's waste services.

"They didn't really have a strategic plan for the last 25-30 years," McCartney noted. "And they've got a lot to do. It's going to be overwhelming for councillors and decision-makers."

Although it took an audit to unravel the deficiencies, Walters said there were signs the city wasn't measuring up to its goals. 

"When something … doesn't look right or smell right, we need to have the auditor take a look through it," he said. "[The auditor] did that and gave us a fairly stark picture of reality, which didn't align with what most citizens had in mind about our waste system."

Grass and leaves

Councillors are also being given three options to deal with grass, leaf and yard clippings.

One suggests the city continue picking up grass from the curbside as they always have, but that wouldn't help in easing the pressure on the landfill.

Another option will be to do a seasonal spring/fall pick up of leaves and yard waste but not collect grass at the curb at all.

All of this will require a lot of public education, McCartney said. 
Daryl McCartney, a solid waste engineering professor at the University of Alberta, said public education will be key in getting people to change their habits. (University of Alberta)

"You're doing behaviour modification," he said. "So, you have to change your habits, which is hard — takes a lot of effort and a lot of patience and thick skins for politicians because there's going to be some push back on a lot of these things."

That education, he said, has to be ongoing to be effective long-term.  

But not all of the onus will be on residents.

The city will also need to work with industrial and commercial sectors and even try to influence companies in how they package products.

Councillors will discuss what's called "extended producer responsibility," which gives incentives to companies to use less packaging.

Walters cites cameras cards, memory sticks and electronics that come in an "absurdly large package, plastic package."

Changes there will require partnering with the province and with industry, he said.


About the Author

Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.