Zero Garbage

December 8, 2000

By Michael Jessen

The garbage can is on the road to oblivion in a number of West Kootenay communities.

In a bold and daring move last month, the Board of Directors of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary voted to endorse the concept of zero waste. They thus became the first Regional District in British Columbia to publicly state that garbage CAN be eliminated.

"It's a small step, but a step in the right direction," says RDKB Solid Waste Coordinator Raymond Gaudart. "It has the potential to open the flood gates wide for waste reduction initiatives."

Not one to favour clichés, Gaudart nevertheless said zero waste is the product of "thinking outside the box".

"We're embracing this idea and we'll sit down and figure out how to launch this in the spring," he said, adding that he has been directed to work toward a zero waste strategy in the southeastern BC Regional District that includes the communities of Greenwood, Grand Forks, Christina Lake, Rossland, Trail, Montrose, Fruitvale, and a number of smaller towns.

So just what is zero waste? It's the next step in the success story called recycling. It is taking recycling to the next level. It is about challenging people to go for the ultimate. Zero waste builds on the success of recycling and gives people and businesses a call to action to be the best they can be. Frankly, we don't have a detailed map of how to get there yet, or even an exact picture of what zero waste will look like. It will undoubtedly include something we haven't even thought of yet.

But let's put the waste issue in context. Would we tolerate a health care system in which 50% of the patients died? Would we accept an accident prevention program that only reduced accidents by 50%? Would we abide manufacturing methods in which 50% of the products were defective?

No, we strive for zero deaths, zero accidents, zero defects. Zero may be impossible to reach but we try to get as close as possible. And that's the most important part of zero waste, just to imagine the disappearance of waste. The participants in the process will work out the details and it is imperative to involve the most people possible.

For 11 years British Columbia has had a goal of reducing waste to landfill by 50% per capita of 1990 levels by the end of this month. At the end of 1998, the province had reduced waste to landfill by 36% and there is very little chance the 2000 goal will be met. At the other end of the country and despite not starting until 1995, the province of Nova Scotia recently became the first territory in Canada to surpass 50% waste reduction through a comprehensive strategy. One part of the plan made it illegal to put recyclables and compostable organic materials into landfills. The City of Edmonton in Alberta is claiming close to 70% waste reduction through North America's largest cocomposting project.

Edmonton and Nova Scotia are only two of many "zero heroes" in Canada and you can find a wealth of information about the others on the new web site, set up by the Earth Day Canada organization. The site also allows prospective new members to join a zero waste network that already numbers more than 70 members and includes businesses, recyclers, and government departments.

Now the RDKB Board is agreeing with many other companies, counties, cities, and countries worldwide that a new goal is needed for the new millennium. Just like Canberra, Australia and Del Norte County in California, this progressive West Kootenay Regional District has agreed the goal can be zero.

There is already widespread recognition that waste is a major cause of inefficiency and unprofitability in corporations. Companies like Xerox, Sony, Hewlett Packard, SaskPower, Bell Canada, and Toyota are committed to zero waste and are reaping the financial benefits.

"The magic of setting an outrageous goal lies in the aggressiveness of the question," says Jacquelyn Ottman, an internationally recognized expert in environmental marketing and innovation. "Furthermore, brainstorming with an outrageous goal of 'zero impact' yields a spectrum of several new ideas, some of which may seem to be unlikely solutions at the present time, but may prove to be possible down the road."

At the municipal level, the most encouraging examples come from New Zealand where 26 of 74 local councils have committed by resolution to send zero waste to landfill by the year 2015.

Delegates at the recent 2nd annual Zero Waste Conference in Kaitaia, New Zealand heard Opotiki mayor Don Reisterer (whose council was the first to aim for zero waste) say his district has cut landfilling from 10,000 tonnes to 3,500 tonnes per year and expects to recover 80 per cent of all municipal waste by November 2001.

In Kaitaia, 67 per cent of all material arriving through transfer stations is recovered. Recycling Centre manager Cliff Colquhoun says it has become clear that waste can easily be reduced by 50 per cent through the diversion of greenwaste and a basic collection system for recyclables.

"What we are seeing around the country is that there is no excuse for communities not to cut waste by 50 per cent immediately," he says. "Reducing waste from 50 per cent to 70 per cent becomes a little more challenging, but the final 30 per cent is likely to be easier because communities will no longer tolerate goods that aren't designed for reuse and recovery."

The Zero Waste Conference is an opportunity for zero waste councils to share information and compare progress. Their tactics include reducing the size of household collection bags, reducing the maximum weight of bags, promoting greenwaste collection, collecting a levy on trailer-loads at landfills, and introducing a penalty payment for unsorted loads. In Kaikoura District the council has withdrawn its household rubbish collection, a move it says is one of the most well supported decisions it has ever made.

It's not surprising that the RDKB is the first Regional District to endorse zero waste. It has already undertaken four important waste reduction initiatives. First, it has partnered with a private company to make and sell compost for $26 per cubic yard from organic waste delivered to its McKelvey Creek Landfill; its reuse depots are diverting about 7 tonnes of waste per month; the results of its pilot residential Blue Box recycling service indicate a 13 tonne decrease in waste from Warfield and an 11 tonne decrease in waste from Fruitvale compared to the same three month period last year; and it has banned all paper products and refundables from its landfills. The RDKB Board made its decision after I made a 25-minute presentation to them about zero waste.

Now we need to get more Regional Districts and other local governments to buy into the zero waste movement. The time for wasting is over.

ONE SMALL STEP - Shannon Hames is the kind of "ecopreneur" that will make zero waste happen. The Nelson woman is already the successful owner of Snowline Designs. Her new business venture is called Tubular Pursuits, a variety of carrying bags in which she reuses old bicycle inner tubes. They were a big hit at a recent Victoria craft fair. She wants to use at least 30% reused materials to make her carrying bags and other products. Her slogan - "A flat tire is not the end of the line."

RESOURCES - The California-based Materials For the Future Foundation has produced a book entitled "Manufacturing with Reused and Recycled Materials: Fifty Small Business Opportunities." It can be ordered from the foundation's web site at The report "Just Plain Good Business" which contains 108 efficiency case studies of businesses that have achieved financial savings of over $55 billion with an average payback period of 1.9 years is available on the web site The book "Creating Wealth From Waste" by Robin Murray sets out a zero waste program for the United Kingdom and can be ordered from Demos at The article "Sustainable Waste Management: A New Goal for the New Millennium" published in the Sept/Oct 2000 issue of Municipal Solid Waste Management magazine is available online at The Zero Waste New Zealand Trust web site is at The GrassRoots Recycling Network at has links to zero waste initiatives around the world.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a Nelson, BC consulting firm that helps businesses and communities profit from environmental leadership. He is the author of "Discarding the Idea of Waste: The Need for a Zero Waste Policy" which can be downloaded from his web site at He can be reached by telephone at 250/229-5632 or by e-mail at

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