Course:CONS200/2020/The Truth about Recycling and Waste in Vancouver

From UBC Wiki
Map of British-Columbia.

Analyzing recycling and waste management in British Columbia reveals insight into the efficiency of Recycle BC, as well as the positive and negative ecological impacts of waste. Furthermore, exploring Vancouver's Zero Waste 2040 report identifies the issues currently hindering Vancouver from reaching its goal of producing zero waste within the next 20 years.

History of Recycling in British Columbia

The iconic blue box recycling system used today in British Columbia can be traced back to 1981 in Ontario when Resource Integration Systems partnered with Laidlaw International to test the recycling system as a pilot project in the city of Kitchener, Ontario[1]. They began by collecting and recycling at the curb-side around 1,500 households[1]. The success of the project lead to the proposal of incorporating the system city-wide, and eventually the system was adopted by the rest of the country[1].

In 2011, the Province amended the BC Recycling Regulation (part of the Environmental Management Act) to make businesses supplying packaging and printed paper assume responsibility for the cost of collecting, sorting and recycling these materials[2]. This was done to shift recycling costs from B.C. taxpayers to producers, and to give producers more incentive to be environmentally friendly by producing less packaging and waste[3].In 2014, a not-for-profit organization known as Multi-Material BC (MMBC) was formed in order to help businesses meet their recycling quotas and would later be re-branded as Recycle BC[4].

British Columbia's Current Recycling System

Recycling and trash bins on the curb in the streets of downtown Vancouver.

Recycle BC currently manages the recycling accumulated from 156 communities across the province which includes 1.8 million households, making up 98% of British Columbia's population [4]. The recycling materials that are placed at curb-side, multi-family recycling locations or depots are collected by trucks designed to transport said materials to the next stage of where they will be processed[5]. They then get sent to a materials recovery facility (MRF) where they get sorted on a conveyor belt. Non-recyclable items get removed first before the rest of the materials go through numerous processing machines such as rotating drum screens, magnetic separators, optical sorters and air classifiers in order to sort the materials into their designated categories [5]. Once a truck is loaded with the sorted materials, they are then shipped off to end markets to be reprocessed into new materials. The materials can either be shredded, crushed or spun into fibre. Afterwards, these reprocessed materials are then sold as commodities to manufacturers and turned into new products [5]. A lot of the processed materials tend to be recycled back to their original purpose such as paper products and plastic bottles. Others are used for completely different products like furniture and car parts. Materials like steel and aluminium can be recycled and reuse countless times. By recycling materials more often, we reduce the need to extract raw materials for products [5].

Vancouver also uses a waste-incineration facility called Covanta Burnaby to generate energy and at first glance, this may seem like a win-win solution. However, it is problematic. As David Suzuki says in his article David Suzuki: The problems with incinerating waste, "turning unsorted and usable trash into a valuable fuel commodity means communities are less likely to choose to reduce, reuse and recycle it”[6].  Incinerating plastics and other materials continues to create emissions that can contain toxins such as mercury, dioxins and furans as well as produce carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions that contribute to climate change[6][7]. Additionally, burning waste doesn’t make it disappear[6][7]. In fact, on top of the fly ash and pollutants released into the atmosphere, a large amount of toxic “bottom ash” is created as a result, so much so that Metro Vancouver has said that the bottom ash from the Burnaby incinerator is about 17 percent the weight of the waste that’s burned[6][7]. Metro Vancouver has found high levels of carcinogenic heavy metal cadmium in bottom ash, sometimes twice the limit allowed for landfills[6]. Despite this, bottom ash often gets disposed back into landfills[6].

Ecological Impacts

Negative Ecological Impacts


It's no surprise that waste is closely connected to climate change. The Vancouver landfill has 20 years of remaining capacity based on current operating agreements[8]. In 2017, approximately 2.45 million tonnes of municipal solid waste was disposed of in B.C.[9]. British Columbians disposed an average of 506 kg of municipal solid waste per person, down 62 kg per person since 2012[9]. Despite an overall decreasing trend in municipal solid waste disposal rates, much of the waste disposed of could be reduced by being repurposed, composted, recycled or not being generated in the first place [9].  

Within a landfill, biological, chemical and physical changes occur and these changes promote the degradation of waste and result in the production of leachate and gases[10]. Additionally, landfills have the capacity to cause landscape changes, loss of habitats and displacement of fauna[11]. The quality of the soil, which is an important resource that supports a variety of ecological, economic and cultural functions, is deeply disturbed when the movements of heavy machinery cause excessive compaction of topsoil and subsoil, and possibly deeper soil which is sometimes only reversible over longer periods of time[11]. Landfill leachate is recognized to be mainly produced when rainwater infiltrates into the landfill, permeates through the waste and then leaches out with contaminants[12]. Leachate from municipal solid waste contains a wide variety of hazardous, toxic and carcinogenic chemical contaminants and carries potential threat to groundwater and human health[13]. The characteristics of leachate produced however are highly dependable on the composition of the waste, precipitation rates, waste age, site hydrology, cover design and the design and operation of the environment and landfill[13].

Gaseous emissions from landfills cause local, regional and global environmental impact and contribute to the greenhouse effect and damage ecosystems[11]. Greenhouse gas emissions warm the global atmosphere and cause our climate to change[14]. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a key component to limiting the increase in global average temperature and the resulting change in climate[14]. Total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 in B.C. were 64.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent[14]. This is a 1.2% increase in emissions since 2016[14]. Waste reduction, reuse and recycling can reduce greenhouse gas emissions both by lowering the demand for new materials and products (reducing upstream environmental impacts) and by minimizing downstream environmental impacts such as transporting waste over long distances and disposing of it in landfills[15]

Reduction of GHGs through zero waste practices has important environmental benefits in the form of reduced toxins leaching from landfills or pumped into the atmosphere, as well as increased forest conservation and reduced resource extraction[16].

Plastic pollution in oceans which harms marine life and human health when its ingested by fish, and then ingested by humans.


When recycling is not properly recycled, it can cause great harm to the environment. Plastic pollution is an ever growing problem and there is emerging evidence on the presence of plastic in freshwater, soil and even the atmosphere[17]. It is said that the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute and studies estimate that there are anywhere between five to 50 trillion plastic particles in our oceans today[17]. Once in the marine environment, plastic breaks apart into tiny pieces that are often ingested by marine animals, which then have the possibility of either killing that animal, or being ingested by humans [17].

Plastic packaging accounts for the largest source of plastic waste in the environment, as packaging is typically designed to be single-use[18]. Ninety-nine percent of plastic begins its life as oil or gas and its extraction and refining contribute to climate change and air pollution[17]. Current estimates suggest that by 2015, global greenhouse gas emissions related to the lifecycle of plastic could make up as much as 10-13% of the available 'budget' of emissions we have left[17].

Positive Ecological Impacts

This chart shows the ongoing closed loop of recycling and illustrates the different stages that recyclable materials undergoes.

Recycling is essential as waste has a huge negative ecological impact on the natural environment. There are numerous positive ecological impacts of recycling that help us as individual citizens to decrease pollution on our planet. It’s notably very environmentally friendly, and it reduces our energy consumption on a global scale[19]. Recycling reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators[19]. When we recycle, recyclable materials are reprocessed into new products, and as a result the amount of waste sent to landfill sites decreases which reduces emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas[20]. Also, it conserves natural resources, slowing down resource depletion of renewable resources such as timber, water and minerals[20]. Plastic recycling means creating less new plastic, reducing the need for fossil fuel hydrocarbons that feed different types of pollution[21]. Moreover, reducing the need for extracting, refining and processing raw materials all of which create air and water pollution[21].One of the biggest outcomes of recycling is the saving of energy that arises from using recycled materials in the manufacturing process[19]. These use considerably less energy than required for producing new products from raw materials ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which helps to tackle climate change[19].

Extended Producer Responsibility

Ninety-three percent of the Canadian households have access to at least one form of recycling program[22]. Of these households, 97% made use of at least one recycling program[22]. Vancouver’s recycling was passed on from City of Vancouver to Recycle BC in 2016 where this residential recycling organization strives to promote recycling in order to save the environment (cite this). The Recycle BC packaging and paper recycling program is an example of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), where the companies and organizations that produce or distribute a material are responsible for collecting and managing the material at the end of its useful life[23]. Recycle BC is among more than 20 extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs introduced in British Columbia over the past two decades amongst many others such as Health Products Stewardship Association (HPSA) that looks at the safe disposal of medicines and antibiotics or the TELUS Return and Recycle Program that has been recycling used mobile handsets and accessories since 2005[24]. The use of EPR programs as a policy tool aims to incentivize environmental considerations into product design reinforcing the positive ecological impacts of recycling by holding the producer accountable for the end-of-life management of their products 9cite this). An example such as Lush, a Recycle BC member, is reducing the environmental impact of its packaging by sourcing 100% recycled plastic from Merlin Plastics - BC residents’ recyclables for some of its packaging formats[22].

The Assessment of Economic and Environmental Impacts of Extended Producer Responsibility Programs in BC showed the following findings:

  • Reduced waste collection and landfilling costs due to EPR programs are substantial with an estimated savings of over $30 million due to the recovery of EPR materials in 2011[25].
  • The avoided disposal of 150,425 tonnes of garbage. This equates to 11% of Metro Vancouver’s total disposed waste quantity in 2011[25].
  • EPR materials recovered in 2011 achieved net GHG reductions of 173,000 tonnes eCO2 (equivalent to taking 38,500 cars off the roads for a year), with energy savings of 2.7 million GJ (equivalent to the energy content of 440,000 barrels of oil)[25].
  • Other environmental benefits, such as keeping hazardous materials out of the environment and litter control[25]

Improving Vancouver's Recycling System

A study was conducted from 1996-2010 to compare and contrast British Columbia and Alberta’s waste management processes, specifically targeting generation and management efficiency, as Canada is “one of the largest non-hazardous municipal solid waste producers in the world"[26]. For instance in 2008, Canada produced 32% more daily municipal solid waste than the US, and from 1996-2010 Canada’s per capita generation rate increased by 26%[26]. In contrasting the two provinces, Alberta’s diversion rate averaged at 15.1% whereas British Columbia averaged at 32.9% between 1996-2010, and that both provinces generated 26% of Canada’s entire solid waste production[26]. Further, British Columbia produced 30.5% of residential waste in 1996, while Alberta only produced 20.6% of residential waste, and in 2010, British Columbia’s residential waste was 15.8% higher than Alberta’s residential waste[26]. Furthermore, Statistics Canada stated that Nova Scotia increased their composted waste the most out of all provinces and territories from 1998-2000 as a result of enacting a ban from landfilling or incinerating organic waste[26]. Thus Statistics Canada stated that British Columbia would greatly benefit from introducing bans on organic waste disposal, as British Columbia’s highest diversion rate was 84 kg/capita in 2010, whereas Nova Scotia’s highest diversion rate was 169kg/capita in 2008[26].

Although Vancouver has made producing zero waste by 2040 a primary goal in its structural policies, the city faces many challenges in achieving that ambitious target. The 2018 report outlines the Zero Waste 2040 policy as a  structure to govern the management of solid waste in the city of Vancouver through directing staff to achieve smaller interim plans, and obtaining council approval for larger projects [27]. Difficulty arises as many actions requiring council authorization may take immense time and funding, which may not be covered by the existing budgets[27]. For instance, staff sought council approval to initiate a partnership program for the Canada-wide Love Foot Hate Waste Campaign, however as this required policy changes and funding, the license process complicates the staff’s ability to meet their goals within their deadlines[27].  

British Columbia generally, and the city of Vancouver more specifically, lacks data and accessibility to information regarding waste management and production, thus making it extremely difficult for policymakers to enact plans to better Canada’s current recycling system. A goal of the Zero Waste 2040 is for it to be constantly updated with new knowledge and plans, however reaching this is extremely difficult as British Columbia lacks sufficient data reports concerning waste management[27]. As a result, Vancouver has committed to better their research and accessibility to information collection[27]. Concerning the Report’s 2040 goals of having zero building demolition waste, zero food waste and zero production waste, a common threat delaying the goals is the shortage of available information on how to achieve such goals[27]. Specifically in regards to product waste such as packaging and electronics, there is a significant separation between the knowledge of product designers, consumers and waste managers, which reveals a large network-wide gap in data production and data sharing[27]. This absence of information between different sectors and industries may be a massive hindrance to Vancouver’s 2040 Zero Waste goal as the facts and figures are foundational to creating policies and plans for change. 


Ultimately, issues that plague British Columbia's recycling system are not unique to the province. It is crucial to understand British Columbia's current recycling paradigm in order to contemplate ways to address certain issues. As aforementioned, curb-side recycling materials are transported to MRF to be sorted before the sorted materials are transformed into fibres to be sold as commodities and repurposed into new products. Further, waste has many negative ecological impacts which recycling can offset -- recycling reduces waste in landfills, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, recycling has positive economic outcomes such as creating jobs. In terms of landfills, they result in biological, chemical and physical effects which harm the environment; they produce harmful gases into the atmosphere, destroy habitats and soil quality, threaten groundwater and the health of all species (from marine animals to humans). It is precisely destructive outcomes of waste such as these which prompted Vancouver's Zero Waste by 2040 report. The report's ambitious target is a double-edged sword; the 2040 deadline is pivotal for counteracting climate change, yet the tight timeline makes many of the goals difficult to achieve as a result of lengthy bureaucratic processes.


Please use the Wikipedia reference style. Provide a citation for every sentence, statement, thought, or bit of data not your own, giving the author, year, AND page. For dictionary references for English-language terms, I strongly recommend you use the Oxford English Dictionary. You can reference foreign-language sources but please also provide translations into English in the reference list.

Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[28]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Humphries, Dianne (July 1997). "The Blue Box Story". Durham Sustain Ability.
  3. "Recycle Packaging & Paper Product".
  4. 4.0 4.1 "About Recycle BC".
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Suzuki, David (September 10 2013). "David Suzuki: The problems with incinerating waste". The Georgia Straight. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Lee, Marc; Legg, Ruth; Maxwell, Sue; Rees, William (March 2013). "Closing The Loop: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Creating Green Jobs Through Zero Waste in BC" (PDF). Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office and the Wilderness Committee: 18.
  8. General Manager of Engineering Services (April 20, 2018). "Zero Waste 2040" (PDF). Policy Report: 12 – via City of Vancouver.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Environmental Reporting BC (April 2019). "Municipal Solid Waste Disposal in B.C. (1990-2017)". State of Environment Reporting – via Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, British Columbia, Canada.
  10. Danthurebandara, Maheshi; Van Passel, Steven; Nelen, Dirk; Tielemans, Yves; Van Acker, Karel (January 2013). "Environmental and socio-economic impacts of landfills": 41 – via ResearchGate. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Danthurebandara, Maheshi; Van Passel, Steven; Nelen, Dirk; Tielemans, Yves; Van Acker, Karel (January 2013). "Environmental and socio-economic impacts of landfills": 45 – via ResearchGate. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. Xing, Wei; Lu, Wenjing; Zhoa, Yan; Zhang, Xu; Deng, Wenjing; Christensen, Thomas H. (February 2013). "Environmental impact assessment of leachate recirculation in landfill of municipal solid waste by comparing with evaporation and discharge (EASEWASTE)". Waste Management. Volume 33, Issue 2: 382–383 – via Elsevier.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Danthurebandara, Maheshi; Van Passel, Steven; Nelen, Dirk; Tielemans, Yves; Van Acker, Karel (January 2013). "Environmental and socio-economic impacts of landfills": 42–43 – via ResearchGate. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Environmental Reporting BC (September 2019). "Trends in Greenhouse Gas Emissions in B.C. (1990-2017)". State of Environment Reporting – via Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, British Columbia, Canada.
  15. "A Guide to Solid Waste Management Planning" (PDF). Version 1.0. September, 2016: 12 – via Ministry of Environment, British Columbia. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Check date values in: |date= (help)
  16. Lee, Marc; Legg, Ruth; Maxwell, Sue; Rees, William (March 2013). "Closing The Loop: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Creating Green Jobs Through Zero Waste in BC" (PDF): 16 – via Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office and the Wilderness Committee. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Greenpeace USA (September 2019). "Throwing Away the Future: How companies Still Have it wrong on Plastic Pollution "Solutions"" (PDF): 3. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. Greenpeace USA (September 2019). "Throwing Away the Future: How Companies Still Have it Wrong on Plastic Pollution "Solutions"" (PDF): 4. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 Everett, Jess (2012). "Solid Waste Disposal and Recycling, Environmental Impacts". – via SPRINGER Link. External link in |journal= (help)
  20. 20.0 20.1 "Recycling Basics".
  21. 21.0 21.1 "7 Benefits of Recycling".
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 "RECYCLE BC 2017 ANNUAL REPORT" (PDF).
  24. "EPR Programs Summary".
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 Konrad Fichtner, Morrison Hershfield Veronica Bartlett, Morrison Hershfield Christina Seidel, Sonnevera International Corp. Glenda Gies, Glenda Gies & Associates Maura Walker, Maura Walker & Associates (Feb 5, 2014). "Assessment of Economic and Environmental Impacts of Extended Producer Responsibility Programs in BC" (PDF). line feed character in |title= at position 27 (help); Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 26.4 26.5 Bruce, Z. Asha, T. W. Ng, Nathan, Aklima, Kelvin (January 26, 2016). "Analysis of solid waste management systems in Alberta and British Columbia using provincial comparison". Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering. 43: 351–360.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 27.4 27.5 27.6 General Manager of Engineering Services. Zero Waste 2040. Vancouver: 2018. Print.
  28. (2018). Writing better articles. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].

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