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BY Paul Provost, M. Sc., National Coordinator, Environmental Protection Programs
With all the effort and sacrifice involved, who would start a diet to lose weight without weighing themselves first? It is difficult to set a realistic goal without a reasonable idea of the starting point. And how else would we keep measuring our progress? Similarly, to determine whether a program to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill has achieved its objectives, it makes sense to weigh what we throw out!
Although the practice of estimating the volume of waste is a common one, it does not give a very reliable or accurate measurement because factors like the degree of compaction of the waste can change the figures without any real reduction in quantity. To assess the progress attributable to institutional recycling or composting programs, we need ways of assessing how much weight our garbage bags have lost. The Quebec Region has introduced an innovative approach based on a simple but reliable technology: a portable scale for garbage trucks.
The 2003 edition of the Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS) set the target for reducing the amount of solid waste disposed of in landfills at 1.3 kg/occupant/day by March 2007, which is a 20 per cent reduction relative to the reference year (2000), when waste landfilled was estimated at 1.6 kg/occupant/day for all of CSC. The ambitious target of 0.6 kg/occupant/day set in SDS 1997 was moderated to 1.0 kg/occupant/day in SDS 2000.
Certainly, over the past decade, we have seen how difficult it is at the corporate level to reduce the amount of trash we produce. We must also acknowledge that waste management is something that holds little interest for the average person. Despite the initial enthusiastic response to the implementation of institutional recovery and recycling programs, maintaining the measures introduced has proven particularly demanding over time. Composting projects are equally complex and have also proven quite challenging to support, specifically because of the low costs generally associated with landfilling waste in Canada.
So why the insistence on reducing the amount of waste going to landfill sites? The first reason is an environmental one: landfilling waste creates contaminated sites, pollutes groundwater (and eventually surface water) and releases greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change. The next reason is an economic one: recycling waste is generally far less expensive than using virgin materials; it also conserves energy (thereby indirectly reducing other sources of GHGs), water and a disproportionate quantity of natural and in some cases non-renewable resources.
Decisions and actions based on meter readings of water, electricity, oil and natural gas can help us get on the right track and manage our progress in the area of water and energy conservation. But, as far as solid waste is concerned, we just need a way to measure it with a certain degree of accuracy. In this regard, some institutions have used their waste disposal contracts to require contractors to weigh waste on a fixed basis. Others have opted instead to conduct waste audits, and Regional Technical Services (RTS) for Quebec Region has suggested the use of a portable scale that can be moved from institution to institution to weigh garbage trucks on a regular basis. Under the supervision of the regional environment team, the project got under way in the fall of 2005, to the great satisfaction of the institutions that have been obliged to introduce a waste measurement system to meet the accountability criteria associated with this environmental target.
Finally, although it may seem strange to have to weigh our waste, it is important to remember that lack of knowledge breeds uncertainty. The time has come to consolidate the solid waste reduction achievements of CSC and back them up with statistics. The environment concerns us all and future initiatives demand that we take this approach. Otherwise, we will never have an accurate idea of our corporate performance. ♦