Meet Our Members – Zero Waste British Columbia

Working Together for System Change 

Interview with Sue Maxwell by Claire Arkin

How was Zero Waste British Columbia founded? 

Zero Waste BC has been around since 2008. It was formed by a group of people committed to zero waste who were facing the threat of a new incinerator. In fact, there was a proposal for up to 6 incinerators just in one region. Instead recycling programs were improved and organics collection was rolled out. As a result waste per capita went down, and the region found that they had no need for the incinerator. Zero Waste BC is part of a committed collection of people networked in different groups who are committed to making British Columbia Zero Waste.

What are your organization’s top priorities?

Promoting Zero Waste in British Columbia by developing policy and advocating for systemic change.

What are your main ongoing campaigns?

Zero Waste for British Columbia, improving Extended Producer Responsibility programs, reducing food waste/increasing composting and better planning to address rethink/reduce/reuse.

What have been your biggest accomplishments/achievements?

Firstly it’s important to say that our accomplishments have been reached with multiple other groups so we don’t want to take all the credit! In the 10 years since our founding no new incinerators have been built; there are newer and stronger systems for EPR; there is much more capacity and awareness for composting and food waste; and more jurisdictions are working towards Zero Waste.

What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?

Climate change (fires, floods, habitat loss, species loss, etc); impacts of mining/logging/oil and gas industries; pollution.

Do you collaborate/work with partners in other regions? If so, how?

Yes, most of our work has been done in collaboration with other groups. Mostly we have had no staff and so it has been volunteers (some of whom have been from other groups) that have done the work. Being a connecting point for different organizations has worked well for us.

How does your work relate to social justice?

It is a principle that we need to keep in the forefront when developing policy and solutions. We have seen incineration companies target some groups with different laws to host new facilities. We also have strong “binner” communities in our bigger cities that make a living from unredeemed beverage container deposits in lieu of better systems. There is always a tension between small local (sometimes non-profit) recyclers versus big business. Policy can impact different groups differently (good or bad) so this should be part of the considerations.

How is your work impacted by the COVID-19 crisis?

COVID threatens to derail or delay progress made so far on single-use items and plastics. The province conducted a consultation on plastics that received thousands of responses and they were going to announce something this year, but now that’s on hold. The federal government planned on rolling out plastics initiatives and that’s on hold. We are concerned about making sure the work on this issue doesn’t get lost. 

There’s also been a lot of confusing messages around safety and single-use plastics vs. reusables– that is understandable given that we don’t know a lot about the virus yet, and it’s good to err on the side of caution but as we know more, we need to  make sure we don’t put in practice behaviours that are detrimental to the environment and also a threat to human health. 

How do you envision a just and equitable recovery from COVID-19?

In Canada, a lot of the focus has been on making sure people have basic income, and that they have sick days and worker protections.  Also now that the fossil fuel industry is taking a big hit, how do we make sure we’re looking after the workers, and at the same time, moving towards a world that addresses the climate and ecological crisis? 

We need concerted action to ensure positive systemic changes happen despite the fallout from the COVID crisis in the short-term. We need to work towards systems change that addresses the waste, climate, social and environmental issues and links them together under “how we produce and consume resources” rather than seeing them all as unrelated issues. They all relate to our current system and the story of our culture at this time.

How do you see your organization evolving in the next years, and how can Zero Waste BC’s work contribute to the systems change we need?

We’re looking to gain more capacity to advocate for change. For example, we held a workshop in conjunction with Canadian Council for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), and it brought a lot of people together. The reason for it was that in 2013 the CCPA released a report looking at climate change and Zero Waste for BC as well as green jobs. A lot of things have changed since then, so we thought it was a good idea to update that report. The workshop was really positive because we had a wide range of participants–academics, business owners, advocacy groups and environmental organizations who are passionate about these issues. We hope to take what we learned from this workshop and create a report on a Zero Waste strategy for BC. We also want to build capacity by connecting people and groups. We are developing our website and registering as a society, formalizing our organization, so that we can apply for more grants to do this work. 

Our goal is to demonstrate that climate change, waste, and all of these environmental and social issues we’re facing relate to how we consume resources, and how wasteful we are with them. Even if we could magically ship waste off to space, we just don’t have enough resources. We must share resources equitably, not just among people but also with other species. 

No community, anywhere in the world, is disposable. We need to be thinking more collectively. 

What is your favorite quote?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Mead