Stumbling into sustainable design

At the zero waste conference in November, 2014, both Lisa and I got to listen to a good number of folks talk about reducing waste at all levels. Among the many interesting things I learned those days, one idea emerged from all others.

We should just start by creating less waste.

It seems like a simple idea too. If we create less waste, then we have fewer things to recycle, fewer things to compost, fewer things to throw into the landfill.SIMBY-LessWaste

Let’s just say, it’s a work in progress. I create less waste where I can. I try to not buy things that come with extra packaging, even if it means more work.

Which brings us to now. In August of 2015, then-city officials at the City of Nanaimo proposed, and voted to pursue a plan to replace the current fleet of trucks with a new, automated fleet. Their reasons for doing so are based around injury rates: the injury rate of trash collectors is currently around 100%, meaning 100% of workers who currently work in trash collection will sustain an injury at some point during their career.

The automated trucks will eliminate the repetitive strain of lifting cans and bins, eliminating injuries along with it. They’re also faster: they allow staff to collect more waste, more quickly.

Included in the proposal were some new bins, specially designed for the new automated collectors. City staff are recommending purchase of some 90,000 bins at a cost of several million.

But over 25,000 households here in Nanaimo already have one or more garbage cans—and they won’t work with the automated trucks, so all of our existing bins will be made redundant over the next few years.

OK, maybe not all. In the case of the green bins (those used to collect compostable household materials), Charlotte Davis, Nanaimo’s Manager of Sanitation, Recycling and Public Works Administration, suggested that users may be able to drop them off at the City, though she’s hoping people will re-use them.

One of the reasons I started writing here on SIMBY was so I could learn about sustainability, and I’ve been struggling in this case to find examples of sustainability anywhere in the city’s plan.

That was until I talked to Lisa, who pointed me in the direction of “sustainable” systems design. And once I’d looked at it through that lens, well, that’s when it hit me. I hadn’t found “sustainability in my backyard” because sustainability had only been applied selectively. The city had set out to solve a problem, very specifically, the problem of injury caused by repetitive strain (and the costs associated with it). And they’d solved it, but they’d also created new problems.

Sustainable design is a four-pillared approach to building anything, whether it’s a running shoe, or a complex system. It asks us to consider whether the economic, cultural, environmental, and social (i.e., people) impact of the thing we’re designing is “sustainable,” meaning all impacts evaluated over time.SIMBY-Sustainability-Balanced

In this case, the social impact of fewer injuries is good, but we’ve instantly created a tremendous amount of waste, and a large burden on the community by not having a plan for old bins. The economics are there: over time, the new system will cost less. We’re providing folks with the opportunity to dispose of more organic waste (minimally 120 litres over the current 48) and garbage (minimally 120 litres over 77), and considering that the landfill is currently at capacity, it’s hard to imagine how the capacity to collect more waste is a good thing. The bins are massive too, so there are some inherent physical challenges bound to arise. In conclusion, where they’ve scored a few points, we’ve lost ground on others.

trash cans
This is what I have now. The trashcans and recycling are 75 litres, the green bin is 48. Under the new system, my trash and recycling will be (minimally) more than 1.5 times larger, where the green bin will be nearly 3 times bigger.

Taking sustainability into our own hands.

Waste diversion is one thing, but it’s not the same as waste reduction, it just refers to how much of our waste is diverted from the landfill after it’s been used. Compostable waste is still waste. It still has to be processed and stored. Ditto with recycling.

Once the automated collection goes into effect, you’ll have a choice to make. You can probably recycle your old bins, have a look on the bottom-—usually there’s a logo with a number in it. So long as that number isn’t 3 or 6, according to the NRE, you’re good to go.


The other choice, the option I’m considering, is re-purposing. Recycling large items like trash bins probably has a fair number of costs associated: the logistics of storing them, shipping them to the mainland for processing, etc.

You might remember some time ago, the RDN offered rebates for households incorporating large-scale rainwater harvesting. For some time, I’ve wanted to look at harvesting rainwater in my home, but I didn’t want to buy a new barrel from the hardware store.

A two minute Google search turned up this article on Instructables, which satisfies two things. My 3 B’s of Sustainability tells me to ‘build before I buy,’ so by re-purposing an old can (or two), I’m keeping something out of the landfill/recycling exchange, and I’m limiting my consumption. Doubleplusgood!

I’m also getting the kick in the pants I need to move to rainwater collection. Tripleplusgood!

What else can we do with our old bins? Well, the good news is that for anyone with a bit of free time, there’s plenty. Here are some of the ideas I’ve collected:

You can make backyard or porch-based composters, which I think is what I’ll do with the third (wheeled) bin. It’ll save me a walk to the compost heap in the winter, which I like.

You can also store bird or animal feed in your old bins, or use them as planters. Look to Pinterest for an infinite-scrolling list of ideas, if none of the above are suited to your needs. Or, and this is one of my favourites, if you (like me) are working with limited indoor storage space, you can use old metal cans to make a quick and dirty root cellar.

The point is, if you can make disposing of your old bins the last choice you make, you’ll be doing everybody—that’s you, and your community—a big favour.

How are you planning to manage your old containers when the new trucks come through? Let us know below!

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