Edmonton’s long-praised waste management system struggling to divert 50% of residential garbage
For years, Edmonton’s waste management centre has been lauded as state-of-the-art and world-class. But on Thursday, a city official addressed an audit that criticized the system and offered eight recommendations to improve it.
“There are aspects of it that are very good and there are aspects of it that were very good 20 years ago, and they age,” said Doug Jones, a deputy city manager for city operations.
“For example, the compost facility is one that was built almost exactly 20 years ago — state of the art at the time. If you were to ask me today: would we do the same thing? Probably not because technology has changed.”
“It’s an evolution. You can’t stay at the top forever.”
A report from the city auditor found that Edmonton’s facility — built with the goal of diverting 90 per cent of residential waste away from the landfill — has been diverting less than 50 per cent.
Jones said the diversion rate is an area where “we’ve been struggling,” adding it’s been hovering around 50 per cent for a number of years.
A rate of around 35 per cent was recorded in 2016, but Jones says the diversion rates dipped because Edmonton started accepting commercial, industrial and construction waste in 2012.
“Edmonton is one of the few municipalities in the country — that’s my understanding anyway — that accepts and processes the commercial and demolition waste to try and recycle as much as we can,” Jones said, adding that decision came from a council directive.
“The 50 per cent diversion that we’re referring to and the target of 90 per cent always refers to the residential or regulated component,” he explained. “Within the auditor’s report, they’re talking about all of the waste that comes into the waste management centre, which includes industrial, commercial, construction and demolition waste.”
Scroll down to read the administrative response to the waste services audit.
Still, in order to meet the city’s goal of diverting 90 per cent of residential waste from the landfill, changes will need to be made.
“If we do not make changes, we will never hit 90 per cent diversion rate. We can’t do it using technology from 15 or 20 years ago,” Jones said.
“What was acceptable or state of the art even five years ago or 10 years ago is changing so much now,” he said. “We have to change with it.”
To do that, Edmonton will look at how other Canadian cities manage waste successfully and consider systems that have high diversion rates, including ones that require residents to separate waste, recycling and organics.
“For 20 years, we’ve been processing our waste on a combined basis,” Jones said.
“What do other municipalities do? A lot of them separate kitchen organics and then some of them will take a look at recycling streams and they’ll say: ‘Do you separate paper from plastics and metals?’ Because the more separations that you have, the better your result will be.”
Watch: Edmonton is the only city in the region that doesn’t make residents separate their organics, such as dinner scraps and banana peels. But a new waste contract may change that. Fletcher Kent reports.
While the city is not yet considering options like a garbage bag limit, Jones said Edmonton could revisit something like a green bin program, but it would take a couple of years to implement. Public education, as well as collection, sorting and storage infrastructure, would need to be rolled out.
“Because everything is all thrown together in one bag today from residents, you end up with bits of plastic, broken glass, pieces of metal that’s all mixed in with the compost and there’s no way to extract that once it’s all been combined together.
“You end up with a very low quality type of compost that is very difficult to market commercially.”
An auditor has reviewed Edmonton’s Waste Management practices and has put forward eight recommendations to improve the system.
City administration has accepted all eight recommendations.
“These recommendations, for the most part, did not come as a surprise to us,” Jones said. “We’ve known about the issues for many months. Following the city’s transformation in mid-2016, we’re looking at all of our branches, all of our activities with a new set of eyes, a different lens and we recognized that work had to be done in waste services to improve their performance.”
He believes with some changes, the new waste-to-energy facility, the approval of council — and most importantly, the public will — Edmonton can be a leader in environmental stewardship and waste management once again.
“One thing about being the best is that it’s cyclical.
“You learn from what other people are doing, put things in place, you invest properly. I think once we do that, we’ve got the waste-to-energy facility up and running, we’ll be at the top of the pack again, and other people will be racing to catch up and beat us.”
The recommendations will be presented to the Utilities Commission on Feb. 23.
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