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Nanaimo is a Zero Waste leader. What are the benefits for our community?

The fight to save the Nanaimo Recycling Exchange got me into politics. But my passion for protecting the environment and reducing waste didn’t begin there.

During my undergraduate degree, I studied biology and ecology.  I had the privilege to work in some very remote locations with pristine environments teaming with wildlife. In these places, it struck me that there is no such thing as waste. In the natural world, waste is another resource for the next biological cycle. I see no reason that we cannot design our communities to function like this. When I see perfectly good furniture in the landfill or excessive packaging in the grocery store, I know we can do better. 

Before my election, I was part of the Regional District of Nanaimo’s community advisory committee on the region’s solid waste management plan.  It was our committee that advocated for the RDN to adopt the target of diverting 90 percent of waste generated in our community away from landfill. In the plan that came out of that work, there were recommendations for some “first in Canada” bylaws to reach that 90% diversion rate. One is the mandatory separation of recyclables and organics for everyone in the Nanaimo Region. That meant businesses, industrial operations, multi-family buildings and industrial buildings would be included.

When this new regulation was decided on as part of the RDN’s plan I did not imagine I would be working on implementing it as an elected official. The fight to save the Nanaimo Recycling Exchange is what changed things.

The Nanaimo Recycling Exchange was an important community asset. Thousands of people used it daily and it kept a large volume of recyclables out of the landfill. The NRE accepted materials that are not profitable to recycle. That’s what set the organization apart from commercial depots and made it such an important asset. Unfortunately, the council of the day was very dysfunctional and there was a lot of upheaval at city hall. The NRE was an unfortunate victim of that dysfunction. The organization was not given the help it needed to continue serving the city. That loss motivated me to run for Nanaimo city council in 2018. Six months after the NRE was forced to shut its doors and sell its property, I was elected to the council and appointed to the Regional District Board. 

I became chair of the RDN’s Solid Waste Select committee in charge of overseeing the implementation of the plan to divert 90% of waste from landfill. Developing those “first in Canada” bylaws passed by our RDN board took a lot of work, but it’s an accomplishment I’ve very proud of. Those bylaws are now on the desks of provincial ministers, awaiting final approval.

Many other good things happened during my first term. Our city council and RDN board adopted a circular economy approach to waste systems and economic development. A circular economy keeps materials in circulation, reduces waste and pollution, and regenerates natural systems. Upgrades to our regional composting facility mean it can now accept greater quantities of food waste and other organic waste. That organic waste is turned into higher quality soil for re-sale to the landscaping industry. 

We also created  the Zero Waste Recycling Funding (ZWRF) grant program. This program helps non-profits develop innovative programs that contribute to the circular economy. One local organization created an up-cycling shop that repairs worn-out furniture for resale. Another developed a textile recycling program that creates sound dampening panels and dog beds. A rebirthed Nanaimo Recycling Exchange that operates now without a depot also received funding to help businesses retool their practices to improve their recycling and reduce waste!

The RDN has partnered with School District 68 to help it transform into a zero-waste institution. Students are actively engaged in revamping the recycling systems at their schools.  

Another great program that is just starting up is a recycling program for hazardous materials that accumulate in our garages. You know, the stuff that just doesn’t seem to be accepted anywhere. Soon, you will be able to bring these items to regional district waste facilities for responsible recycling and disposal.

The impressive work that’s been happening to reduce waste in the Nanaimo region has garnered national attention. In 2020 our city was featured on the CBC in an episode of “Good People with Mark Sakamoto” dedicated to the topic of waste. I strongly encourage you to watch it if you haven’t had an opportunity. We can and should be very proud of the leadership our community is demonstrating, to the rest of Canada and to the world.

This is an excerpt from “Good People with Mark Sakamoto”. You can watch the full episode on CBC Gem. The part about Nanaimo starts at the 10:30 minute mark.

 Despite Nanaimo’s efforts, the pandemic and changes in global supply chains have been hard on waste diversion. Many materials that were easy to recycle, like drywall or plastics, became more difficult. Focused work will be required next term to improve our recycling system and address the waste generated in places like the building industry. One idea that should be pursued is incentivizing deconstruction over demolition. Deconstruction allows for much greater salvage and reuse of materials. With so many older homes and buildings being removed to make way for new construction this is a policy that makes a lot of sense for Nanaimo. 

We were successful in passing a regulation that saw the elimination of single-use plastic check-out bags. More regulations to eliminate other unnecessary single-use plastics should be pursued.   It is also time to revisit the need for community recycling centre like the NRE. It could be a circular economy innovation centre. A place that accepts those hard-to-recycle items, while also providing education and programming.

We live in a world of finite resources. I believe strongly that building a circular economy is a necessary and inevitable path for all communities. It’s also an important strategy to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Mining virgin materials and manufacturing them into new goods is much more carbon-intensive than remanufacturing recycled materials. Communities that embrace a circular economy improve the environment, lower disposal costs, and bring more employment opportunities to their region. We have already seen a soil recycling plant developed out in Duke Point. This plant recognizes Nanaimo’s central location and accepts contaminated soils that go through a process to clean them and make the sands and gravel available for resale to the region. Community recycling facilities also provide important low-barrier employment for people. This increases the inclusivity and opportunity in our community.

Continuing down this path of growing our circular economy is important for Nanaimo. It’s my hope to continue leading these efforts as one of your representatives on the Nanaimo City Council and Regional District.