Down in the dumps

This week our columnist Rob Brown talks about garbage and living a zero-waste lifestyle

The reality show I surfed into a week ago was so real it was surreal and so ghastly in part that it beggared my imagination.

The show was about how India dealt with its waste. India, it turns out, recycles about 80 per cent of its garbage, putting North America’s paltry record of somewhere around 35 per cent to shame. If you want to know about waste, you follow the trash, which is just what the documentary’s crew did. First, the expensive waste – metals, electronics and so forth – were sorted and shipped. Next wood and large plastic containers were culled. So it went until all that was left was offal, decomposing vegetable matter, waste that couldn’t be burned, and plastic bags.

One of the largest cities in a country with more people than any other can generate a lot of this stuff in a day. The documentarists followed a  seemingly endless procession of garbage trucks, each with its bunks overflowing with the aforementioned waste, to the garbage dump in Mumbai.

There is a hell on earth, and this was it. The dump was so massive that it extended beyond the horizon. While fighting off waves of nausea, the host described an otherworldly stench – a fetid malodorous bouquet of decaying matter and toxic chemicals so thick it hung like fog over the entire place.

As each truck dumped its load, men, women, and children, all of them barefoot and clad in rags, swarmed over it like flies on rotting flesh, chattering and yelling in apparent delight at the opportunity to scavenge the putrescent pile for plastic bags. These wretches, standing ankle deep in toxic sludge, were the ragged end of Mumbai’s recycling system.

“How much money can you make in day gathering these?” the host asked a woman with an arm load of plastic. “That’s 10 pence,” he said, stunned,  after converting the answer into British currency.

Our waste disposal woes may pale in comparison to Mumbai’s, but they are serious and pressing. All the dumps serving our area are substandard and every one is located dangerously near valuable wildlife habitat. The Kitimat dump is only a stone’s throw from Hirsch Creek. Thornhill’s unsanitary landfill is perched near Thornhill Creek, high in the Lakelse drainage, and the Terrace dump is only a short distance from one of the world’s greatest salmon rivers.

Given the topography of the Skeena Valley and it’s wet coastal climate, there  is really no good place for a dump, but some places are better than others – and almost any place would be an improvement on the dumps now serving Terrace and Kitimat.

The design of the dump proposed for Forceman Ridge would be a vast improvement on the existing dumps but there is no escaping the fact the site chosen for it will have deleterious effect of vital grizzly bear habitat and create a latent threat to fisheries and in Kitimat and Lakelse drainages. My good friend, Dionys deLeeuw, demonstrates that there may be an alternative.

Dionys has put out one small garbage can in the last four weeks, and last year he achieved his personal recycling best by going for six months without having to put out the trash. So how does he achieve this?

Dionys pointed out that, though there is still lots of room for improvement, recycling opportunities in this area have got a lot better recently. He takes all his plastic and metals to the bins that were until recently located near the train station and, unfortunately, have now been moved to a more inconvenient location on highway 16 near Wal-Mart. Bottles have never been hard to dispose of. Dionys takes his to the depot near Sears (which also takes worn electronic devices, incidentally).

The deLeeuw’s milk cartons are burnt in their wood stove, which has a catalytic converter. Dionys and Mary take their own bags when they shop and they make a point of not buying items that are over packaged or contain materials that they suspect will pose recycling difficulties.

Dionys stores sugar, salt, and other kitchen items in plastic containers that many of us throw out. When it comes to organic matter, everything is composed or fed to the dogs. Dionys has three composters working in rotation at once.

Sure this takes time and effort but there is much pleasure to be derived from the exercise of avoiding waste and much pride to be gained achieving an almost zero waste household. If we all emulated the deLeeuws and various levels of government and retailers got behind our energies with the appropriate incentives and legislation, there would be no need for a new landfill.