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Monique Keiran: Growing pains along the road to zero waste

The Hartland landfill faces a revenue shortage. The $107 tipping fee covers the costs of running the dump and the region’s Blue Box recycling program.

The Hartland landfill faces a revenue shortage. The $107 tipping fee covers the costs of running the dump and the region’s Blue Box recycling program. Although the powers-that-be are considering solutions, shortfalls in user-pay income at the dump will likely continue. As more and more items are diverted from the garbage stream, less material will end up at Hartland, and fewer fees will be paid.

We’ve all experienced other versions of this scenario. We’ve upgraded to energy-efficient appliances, draft-proofed our homes and brought household energy use down. Yet our hydro bills are higher than ever. We’ve switched to water-efficient dishwashers, toilets and showers, landscaped our yards with drought-tolerant plants and now use less water than ever. Yet water bills have increased.

Even as we recycle more and more, the costs of managing our waste — be it materials that are reused, recycled, composted, turned into fuel or landfilled — are unlikely to go down. How we pay those costs will change.

New provincial recycling regulations, coming into effect May 19, will shift costs from taxpayers to producers and, ultimately, to consumers. But as traditional user-pay revenue streams shrink, more and more pressure will be placed on governments (read, taxpayers) to make up shortfalls.

And with the Capital Regional District aiming for an eventual zero-waste goal for the region, the question of how to pay for the Hartland landfill will become ever sharper. To quote CRD communications and education development supervisor Monique Booth from the March 29 edition of this newspaper: “Our direction now is to move up the hierarchy, in the sense that if we reduce or reuse these items, we don’t even have to deal with recycling them. It’s about only buying what you need, buying items that are higher quality so you don’t have to replace them as frequently …. So it’s about being smart with your purchases and only buying what you need.”

Zero waste is a laudable goal. The world is awash in waste. A Texas-sized island of plastic garbage floats in the mid-North Pacific. Beaches and bays along the coast accumulate refuse brought in on currents and tides. Landfills are filling up. The waste-incineration industry, which zero-waste proponents insist falls outside the “reduce, reuse, recycle” definition of zero waste, is booming in many countries.

But turning toward a zero-waste economy entails excruciating growing pains. Our global economy thrives on throw-away consumerism. Under the current scheme, economic growth requires ever-increasing production of goods. When existing markets for goods are maximized, businesses must either find new markets or ensure existing markets ditch old goods and pay for new. Built-in obsolescence ensures constant demand.

And so, energy-efficient appliances rarely outlast their warranties. Computers might continue running, but no longer support the required software updates. Vehicles, televisions and even kettles and toasters run on micro-computers, so handy home-mechanics can no longer troubleshoot malfunctions and put Humpty Dumpty back together again to function well for another 15 to 20 years.

Implementing a zero-waste economy requires completely overhauling the world economy. Not altogether a bad thing, but during the transition — the period in which we scale back spending and turn to darning needles, screwdrivers and Mr. Fix-It to reuse, repair and repurpose goods, and before new-economy businesses and industries establish themselves — growth will stagnate. Businesses and industries will fail. Shareholders will panic. Jobs will be lost. Debt will skyrocket.

We will forgo our morning double-lattés. We will plant kitchen gardens and learn to pickle and preserve produce to feed ourselves. We will dry our laundry outside on the line to lower our hydro bills. We will turn our clothes, darn our socks and make underwear out of old sheets.

Our parents and grandparents reluctantly lived through a zero-waste economy — a time called the Depression.

We’re even more unprepared for the experience than they were. And, yet, what are our choices? Continuing on this path of unending wastefulness and pollution? Or seeking solutions to this mess we’ve made, and creating opportunities to grow from it?