Thoughts on waste management consultations

One of the closing sessions at last week’s GLOBE 2014 conference was a special session on waste management. Organized by the National Zero Waste Council, a fledgling organization sponsored by Metro Vancouver, the session, entitled Advancing a Waste Prevention and Reduction Agenda in Canada, involved a panel of generic policy experts involved not only with waste management but also with other environmental and social issues. The panel was chaired by Erica Johnson, host of CBC’s Marketplace show.

The most interesting part of the session was the opportunity provided to the 150 or so audience members to ask questions and make proposals for the work of the NZWC. Although held as part of GLOBE, this particular session was open to anyone who might be interested. Vancouver is currently going through a strategic planning process for waste management, including the construction of a thermal component commonly but not quite accurately known as an “incinerator”. Thus the session attracted a fairly activist group of people and organizations who have thoughts and notions about waste management.

In GallonDaily’s editor’s experience from more than 30 years of work on waste management issues, waste management is one of those issues, like hockey in Canada, where everyone considers themselves an expert. The suggestions brought forward by the audience covered the full range from banning polystyrene, putting a refundable deposit on all glass bottles or on all packaging, taxing homes according to the amount of waste generated, requiring retailers to take back all packaging, and asking the NZWC to ban the construction of an incinerator in Vancouver. One could see where the ideas were coming from but few if any of them were practical, politically viable, and economically sound whether for Canada or for the NZWC.

As almost everyone involved with public consultation, especially around waste management issues, will know, people frequently promote ideas that are based on an incomplete understanding of the facts. But the frustrating part of the GLOBE session was that no one on the panel or in the room attempted to explain why some of the ideas presented were not likely to fly. Thus the participants presenting these impractical ideas most likely went away feeling that they had made a contribution. When, in a matter of months, the NZWC announces its first workplan and none of these ideas are included, some of the activist participants will feel that they have been ignored. They will be angry and many will begin to promote their proposals even more aggressively. The panel led GallonDaily to two conclusions:

  1. consultations of this nature should include experts who can respond immediately to suggestions coming from the public and can discuss the pros and cons of each idea in a way that increases understanding of the complexity of the topic and of the considerations that have to be taken into account when developing waste management policy; and
  2. the industry must recognize that public opinion is eager for waste reduction initiatives that may be quite harmful to industry and, in some cases, to the environment. Unless the Canadian packaging industries and commercial users of packaging ramp up their public education efforts, local and provincial governments, possibly also a future federal government, will start implementing policies based on suggestions coming from public meetings such as this.

In GallonDaily’s opinion, industry will only have itself to blame if packaging bans, taxes, levies, and take-back programs become mandatory.

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