Until the late-’80s Edmonton was much like any other city in North America. We dealt with our garbage by digging a big hole—referred to in the industry as a “sanitary landfill”—and filling it with the mountain of plastic, glass, paper, metal, food scraps and other waste that we were creating, using and throwing away.
Just two decades later, Edmonton is a global leader in dealing with its garbage, keeping 60 per cent of the waste produced by households out of the landfill through an innovative combination of recycling and composting.
In contrast, Calgary city council only endorsed the introduction of a city-wide curbside recycling program last year, and the program won’t be in place until 2009.
Ironically, the fact that Calgary is more than 20 years behind us is the result, in part, of better planning on their part. Were it not for a perfect storm that started in the early ‘80s and became a full-blown municipal garbage crisis by 1990, Edmonton might still be sending all its garbage straight to a landfill.
In 1981, it was predicted that the Clover Bar Sanitary Landfill, which had been taking Edmonton’s municipal solid waste since it opened in 1975, would be full by as early as 1986. In response, city council commissioned a study to identify an alternate site for the city’s garbage, which identified 12 possible sites.
One by one the sites were ruled out in the face of opposition from acreage owners, rural politicians and citizen’s groups. Alternate plans were developed to site the dump in northeast Edmonton, but it was defeated by area residents. Subsequent plans for a regional dump site and a municipal dump in Lamont similarly failed due to local opposition.
The recession of the late-’80s extended the life of Clover Bar to 1989, allowing more time to find a new site.
By the time Jan Reimer was elected mayor in the 1989 municipal elections, city administrators had found what they said was the best option: an $8.5-million dump at Aurum, in the city’s northeast. Like previous options, the Aurum Dump proposal was met with fierce opposition.
“Aurum dump became this huge municipal campaign that included all manner of community and environmental activists to stop Aurum dump,” recalls Myles Kitagawa, the current director of the Toxics Watch Society, which got its start during the mid-’80s in response to concerns about hazardous waste. “And it was so big that Aurum dump in fact got stopped, which is pretty amazing.”
Brian Mason, the current leader of the Alberta NDP and at the time a rookie city councillor, says that environmental concerns about the Aurum site, which had porous soil and abutted the North Saskatchwan River, was the main factor in its defeat.
“The real opposition came as a result of the environment. Aurum was located directly over an aquifer with vertical potential for seepage right into the aquifer. Eventually there was enough of a level of opposition and scientific reasons not to proceed that it was denied by the Edmonton Board of Health. So the city was then left in a position of no landfill identified and the existing landfill fairly quickly running out of space.”
“And it created the waste management crisis in Edmonton, which pushed off in a couple of different directions,” Kitagawa says. “One of which was we need to pay more attention to increasing the lifespan of Clover Bar and the other was we need to look at other waste management alternatives.”
While the alternative adopted by many cities in North America, garbage incineration, was floated, growing community awareness around air quality issues meant the idea didn’t get very far.
That left the option of expanding the city’s community recycling program, which had begun with the introduction of the blue box program in 1988, and looking at other means to divert waste from fast-filling Clover Bar.
“I think the real credit here belongs to Jan Reimer who pushed forward with a program that was based on not just recycling but also composting of organic or wet garbage,” says Mason. “We were in a crisis of a sort and there was political leadership to move in the direction of recycling and that made the difference.”
Kitigawa says that of particular importance was the effort by the City to involve Edmontonians in developing solutions.
“I think it’s just a fairly textbook example of social marketing … and what a city can do to help shape that behaviour amongst its citizenry. So I think the credit goes to that integrated program of media, print, literally training people, offering training, coming up with ‘Michael Recycle’ who visits kids in school. I think it just demonstrates how effective that can be.”
The success of curbside recycling again extended the lifespan of Clover Bar to 1992.
By 1998, 14 per cent of municipal waste was being recycled and participation rates were over 80 per cent.
“Edmontonians embraced the recycling program when it was first implemented in a very big way. We also had programs called the master composter program where the city waste management branch gave courses to people on how to do home composting. So there were a lot of things that were being done to draw people in the community into recycling and composting programs.
“And we were able to connect groups of people and organizations in the community to put together a community-based solution and I think that went a long way towards building the consensus, and indeed even building the pride in the community of our programs so people were ready to embrace them.”
Kitagawa agrees that the partnership between government, community groups and citizens dating back to the mid-’80s was essential to making alternative ways of dealing with garbage a part of what he calls the “civic and political psyche of the city.”
“The first community-based depot was a partnership between the Environmental Resource Centre and the City of Edmonton … on Saskatchewan Drive. And that was really the proof of concept that showed that there was significant enough participation in community depots, that they could be deployed in other places in the city. And people became pretty attached to those community depots, but eventually the blue box curbside pick-up was established and then people in turn got very attached to their blue boxes. And it really demonstrated the appetite for the citizens of Edmonton to participate in this kind of thing.”
Around the same time there was also increased awareness around the threats posed by household hazardous waste, and with the 1987 opening of the Swan Hills Treatment Centre offering a way to deal with such materials, separation of household toxins offered another opportunity to divert material from the landfill.
“The first household hazardous waste program was conceived and implemented and that was a three-day event at the Prince of Wales Armoury and then eventually Clarke Stadium to encourage citizens of Edmonton to bring all of their household hazardous waste—so used oil, paints, batteries, unused pesticides, chemical cleaners, all of this stuff—which had previously been disposed of in the municipal solid waste stream. And these were the Toxic Roundups, which started in 1986 and in Edmonton continued for eight years until the administration responded to the need for year-round hazardous waste disposal with the opening of the first Eco Station.”
The success and popularity of these programs in the late ’80s and early ‘90s changed the culture of how the municipal government and administration looked at waste.
“You get the household hazardous waste fraction, you get the recyclable fraction, you get the compostable fraction and this interest by the City of Edmonton to be known for responding to those things in the most appropriate way and just the accumulation of all those things, you wind up with the kind of situation where we’re at today, where we have this Centre of Excellence, where we’re actually doing research into where we can go next. What’s the next best thing to do to deal with the waste generated by … a city?”
These efforts, along with raising the site by one metre, meant that the Clover Bar landfill, originally slated to be capped in 1986 is still accepting garbage until next year, and the site has become an epicentre for pioneering new methods of handling municipal waste in North America.
In 1999 the blue bag program was phased out in favour of blue bag collection, with the sorting of recyclable material is done at the Materials Recycling Facility. Since 2000, all non-recyclable household waste has been sent to the city’s composting facility, where it is mixed with sewage sludge to create compost, meaning only 40 per cent of waste now goes to the landfill. In March, the Global Electric and Electronic Processing facility began recovering the city’s accumulated electronic waste to take harmful heavy metals and recyclables out of the waste stream. By 2012 a new gasification facility will turn garbage into biofuels. In total, all but 10 per cent of municipal waste will be diverted (see sidebar) rather than shipped to a massive new landfill in Ryley, 68 kilometres from the city, where all municipal waste will go after Clover Bar shuts next year.
Mason says that the success of Edmonton’s programs, as out of place as they may seem in a province not renowned for its commitment to the environment, shows that other pressing issues like the tar sands can be addressed through a willingness to innovate and involve organizations and the community.
“I think it comes down to a question of political leadership. At that time there was political leadership in the city of Edmonton that was progressive and innovative and willing to take positive steps to improve the situation and willing to work with the people and work with community organizations, but the current provincial government just doesn’t think that way at all.
“It’s pretty clear to me that the people of Alberta would be willing to embrace positive environmental steps in the tar sands if it could be shown that we could maintain a good level of economic prosperity, and I think that can be done.” V
For an in-depth flowchart of how the Edmonton waste management facility works, click here (PDF download).