Global lessons from a local Recycling Depot

Few weeks ago, I was surprised to learn that Gibsons Recycling Depot, one of the first organized efforts (actually a role model) to promote Resource Recovery in Canada, was obliged to suspend 90% of its services. The award-winning recycling depot, operated by  Buddy Boyd and Barbara Hetherington, announced on Jan. 1 that it is suspending a number of its programs and closing the Zero Waste Store as of Jan. 15.

zero waste, circular economy, wasteless future, community involvement, waste management, extended producer responsibility, local governance

Barbara Hetherington and Buddy Boyd

Maybe someone is already wondering why do we have to deal with the problems that a small Resource Recovery center faces in Canada? My answer is simple. The reasons that drive the suspension of the services in Gibsons Recycling Depot are not only or mainly local and site specific, instead they represent the broader challenges that we face as we try to shift towards circular economy.

Public tenders and contracts always drive waste management evolution, as long as they stick to business as usual approaches, no shift to circular economy would happen.

Buddy Boyd, explaining the situation, wrote that “We had been waiting and waiting for reuse, repair, upcycling and Resource Recovery contracts to be tendered, none have ever even been considered, and instead, we got stuck with fake Zero Waste green-washing…”. It seems to me that this is a more general problem. Municipalities and public authorities tend to restrict their services to traditional recycling services, ignoring the fact that recycling is below waste prevention, reuse and repair in the famous waste hierarchy.

Let me put it in broader context. If big multinational companies promote built-in obsolescence and fast consumption and public authorities, despite any wishes and big words, restrict their services in recycling and disposal, how will reuse and repair find their place in our daily lives? How circular economy will be promoted? The answer, unfortunately, is simple as well as sad. Such practices leave no space for local, small-scale, decentralized reuse efforts that promote community involvement and drive social change. Public tenders and contracts always drive waste management evolution, as long as they stick to business as usual approaches, no shift to circular economy would happen.

zero waste, circular economy, wasteless future, community involvement, waste management, extended producer responsibility, local governance

Reading about the facts involved in this specific case, and having a Skype call with Buddy Boyd, I also realize that the local Extended Producer Responsibility scheme was part of the problem. As Barbara Hetherington mentioned “… many of the items they have dropped are simply too expensive to handle. Even where Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs are in place–such as for thermostats, smoke detectors, oil and antifreeze–subsidies do not cover the real costs of handling. This is particularly a problem on the Sunshine Coast, since almost everything has to be shipped off coast by truck and ferry”.

This is not a local problem too, it’s a global problem about the scope and the way EPR problems are implemented. At first, let’s speak about the scope of EPR. I strongly recommend everyone to read the study “Redesigning Producer Responsibility: A new EPR is needed for a circular economy”. In brief, the study (made by Zero Waste Europe) says that we need “…a broader definition and a more comprehensive approach to producer responsibility which includes the use of economic instruments. The introduction of legally binding eco-design requirements as well as better EPR schemes with full-cost coverage, individualization, targets for separate collection and considering expansion of the current EPR scope to include more products and incentivize reuse”.

The inconvenient truth is that if we want to give emphasis to reuse and repair and strengthen the links with resource management, we need a shift towards recycling programs that provide pure materials and not the usual EPR dirty, cheap materials’ mix that, sometimes, are suitable only for secondary fuel!

Buddy Boyd is more radical on the role of EPR. He insists that EPR schemes have replaced/destroyed community recycling. In addition, all EPR programs must be subsidized, as they provide no full cost recovery. I know some good EPR systems that more or less achieve full cost recovery, but I also know a lot that they are only interested to find public subsidies, instead of improving their own business models. Unfortunately, one more usual problem of the EPR systems is that in many cases they are too much focused on urban centers and they tend to ignore the services in rural, semi-urban areas.

It is very difficult to sustain “zero waste islands” in an ocean of business as usual practices

zero waste, circular economy, wasteless future, community involvement, waste management, extended producer responsibility, local governance

The whole situation gets more clear, if you forget local particularities, problematic governance patterns and maybe efforts towards what Buddy Boyd mentions as “Fake Zero Waste”. Barbara Hetherington says “We really believed that zero waste is possible in our community, but basically we’ve gone as far as we can go alone in it and it’s now time for others to step forward”.

I would put it in another way. It is very difficult to sustain “zero waste islands” in an ocean of business as usual practices. It will never rain reuse and repair practices, they will not be delivered as natural phenomena because there are so many and so different barriers against them.

The only way to overcome those barriers, as it has already happened in several communities, is to combine three elements: effective community involvement, public policies that support circular economy not only in theory but with specific economic incentives, and a gradual, but strict, obligation for eco-design products.

It’s never easy, but it can be done. It’s not going to be dominant soon, but it highlights the realistic opportunity for a wasteless future. Above all, it stresses the importance of a very simple but absolutely important lesson we have learnt: the social human-made barriers are much more important than the technological ones. But this is exactly what is hopeful: if the main barriers are human-made, humanity can still choose to remove them. After all, waste is a daily social and individual choice.

PS 1bourbon, zero waste, buddy boyd, gibsons, recycling, circular economy, wasteless future

I have never met Buddy Boyd in person. But, following him in Facebook and reading his posts and comments, I feel like I have spent several evenings with him drinking bourbon, discussing the conflict between our principles and daily routines, trying to identify the right paths for our lives and confirm that we are still on track with our ethics and philosophy.

Some of those evenings, before the bourbons, during the first coffee cup, we started our discussions speaking about waste management and recycling. We were trying to find out how waste reflects each and every social behavior, how recycling policies are linked with the broader political context, and finally, how we would be able to move from waste to resource management in the best way.

We usually agreed on principles, sometimes we disagreed on the tactics and the required steps, but I think finally we have a common understanding of the key-issues:

  • We need to find the right ways for a fruitful dialogue, between scientists, professionals and practitioners. Such a dialogue is absolutely required if we want to support the shift towards zero waste societies. Waste management and recycling is the definition of what we call “citizens’ science”.
  • There is no way to create a viable resource and waste management system without substantial community involvement, and this is exactly what, most of the times, decision makers ignore, or, even worst, try to avoid.
  • More recycling is better than disposal, but it is not always possible or productive, especially as long as societies are educated to close their eyes in the real potential of waste prevention, reuse and repair practices. Actually, we both felt that, sometimes, formal big recycling systems provide the perfect alibi for a more wasteful behavior because they cultivate the illusion that “curbside recycling is enough”. 
  • A lot of experts possess more data than judgement.

I forgot to mention that, all those nice evenings, the fire was always burning…

PS 2

“Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.” ― Eduardo Galeano

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