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Recycling by the Sea (Canadian Geographic, 2001)

You would expect David Wimberly to be jubilant — like other Nova Scotians — but maybe that’s not in his nature.

Nova Scotia has suddenly become famous for its environmental achievements. A decade ago, Canada’s provinces set a goal of “50% by 2000” — eliminating, by the year 2000, half the amount of solid waste sent to the nation’s dumps and incinerators. Nova Scotia has done it. No other province has even come close. As we speak, the story is being carried by CNN. Officials from Hong Kong, Ireland and Russia are making pilgrimages to Halifax to see how we do it.

David Wimberly worked hard to bring this about. Bearded, hospitable, obsessive, and voluble,he is a perfectionist, as befits his trade. He is Canada’s only master flute-maker, and in the modest workshop attached to his home he builds elegant, precise instruments in sterling silver and 14K gold.

For eight years, Wimberly was immersed, so to speak, in garbage. On behalf of the It’s Not Garbage Coalition, he prepared documents, did research, formulated strategies, attended endless meetings, issued press statements. With a colleague, he produced 30 one-hour programs on solid waste for community TV. Depending on who you talk to, he is a practical visionary, a headline-grabbing ecological extremist, an exemplary citizen, or a prime pain in the pantaloons.

“Well, no, I’m not entirely in favour of what we ended up with,” he says, sitting in his sunny living room overlooking St. Margaret’s Bay, just south of Halifax. “There was to be no organic material in the landfill, but the private contractor that runs it got permission to leave stabilized organics there.” Stabilized organics consist of compostable material which is only partly composted.

“Also there isn’t enough funding for education and home composting. And the whole system is too mechanized, too technological, too expensive, and it requires too much transportation of wastes.”

But the efforts of people like him have placed Nova Scotia in the vanguard of recycling, right?

“Well, yes,” Wimberly concedes, almost reluctantly. “We do lead the world, certainly the Americas. Our only competition would be a few places in Europe.”

So why this tone of disappointment?

“Well,” says Wimberly, “it could have been so much better.”


One of the standard devices in screenwriting is the ticking clock. The disabled submarine will run out of air in six hours. The bomb is set to explode at midnight. Deal with it or die.

In 1990, the ticking clock in Nova Scotia was a 20-year-old landfill site serving the four municipalities of Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax County, which together include about one-third of the province’s population. It was operated by a Metropolitan Authority and located in suburban Sackville. The site was “brutal,” says waste-management consultant Ken Donnelly. It stank, it gassed, it leaked, and it supported a population of 40,000 noisy, defecating gulls. “You would not expect a landfill like Sackville in Canada,” says Donnelly. “It was like a picture from the Third World.”

And it was full. It would close permanently at the end of 1996. At the time, Metro Halifax was producing nearly 730 tonnes of garbage every day. Where would it go?

Knowing that another landfill would be furiously opposed, the Metropolitan Authority proposed an incinerator in a Dartmouth industrial park. But that plan also evoked fierce protests from environmental and health groups. On May 25, 1993, while the controversy raged, the province elected a new Liberal government, led by former Dartmouth mayor Dr. John Savage. The new Environment Minister, Robbie Harrison, rejected the incinerator.

Great, but what now? The clock was still ticking. Were we back to a landfill? Since a landfill would almost certainly be situated in Halifax County, the County council, led Mayor Randy Ball, now made a surprising move. It took over the planning process for the entire metropolitan area — and it threw the question back to the citizens. If we can’t incinerate, and we don’t want another mess like the Sackville, what do you want us to do? Ken Donnelly was hired to facilitate a Community Stakeholders Committee which would review the options and come up with a plan.

“A lot of people in environmental and health groups — like David Wimberly — had fought the incinerator very hard, and they were well-organized to fight any solution,” says Donnelly, sitting at his boardroom table in a renovated brewery. “So the idea was to get them inside the tent, get them participating. The meetings were open to anyone who lived, worked or played in metropolitan Halifax. We advertised and ran public service announcements for every single meeting. We never had less than 30 people, and we usually had 50 or 60, sometimes 100.” Overall, about 500 people participated.

“Every decision was based on consensus,” Donnelly says. “And we had a lot of excellent people, such as Peter Kidd, an educator and editor who died a couple of years ago. Peter was a really dedicated, positive guy who always saw the big picture. He’d call people up between meetings, work out compromises, break the log-jams. He always put consensus over his own opinion. There were others like that, too — Don Wright, for example, who’s retired and lives in Dartmouth, or Ron Loucks, who’s an oceanographer and a very steady, level-headed person who thoroughly understood the importance of the process.”

As it turned out, the citizens were far ahead of government in their thinking. Governments were chasing technological solutions because they didn’t think people would change their behaviour, but the citizens believed the key was, precisely, changing behaviour. If you don’t want a lot of stuff in the dump, they reasoned, then you shouldn’t put it there. And you shouldn’t think of the waste stream as garbage; you should think of it as a supply of valuable resources. Organic waste, for example, is compost-in-waiting. Why allow it to be dumped in a landfill?

“The citizens came up with the idea of banning organics from the landfill,” Donnelly says. “Nobody had ever said that before, and it doesn’t happen elsewhere in Canada.”

The strategy unveiled by the stakeholders committee in March, 1995, proposed a ban on — “at a minimum” — tires, paper, aluminum, glass containers, fridges and stoves, hazardous waste, tin cans, yard wastes and food waste. The goal was an eventual ban on “all materials that are recyclable, compostable, hazardous or are construction and demolition debris.” The strategy required that households and businesses separate their own wastes, which would then be collected separately and processed separately. A similar strategy was working well in rural Lunenburg and Colchester Counties, and in East Prince, PEI. Why not in Halifax?

The Halifax consultation was “totally open, and participatory to a fault,” says Martin Janowitz, then executive director of the Clean Nova Scotia Foundation and now an environmental consultant. “You had strong-minded community activists, various other interest groups, all kinds of people. It was a bit of a wild ride — but it resulted in a workable plan.”

It also created a dedicated body of citizens who would promote and explain the strategy, lobby for its acceptance, and oversee its implementation.

While the citizens had been meeting, the province had announced the amalgamation of the four participating municipalities into a single Halifax Regional Municipality. The new municipal council took office in April, 1996. The stakeholders committee presented its proposed strategy — and the council promptly accepted the proposal in its entirety. They had very little choice; there was no alternative strategy, and the citizens would not accept any dilution of their plan.

Halifax, of course, was not alone in facing serious waste-management problems. Festering dumps and primitive incinerators were commonplace across the province. In July, 1994, while the Halifax committee was in the thick of its deliberations, Environment Minister Robbie Harrison appointed Marty Janowitz to chair a provincial Solid Waste Management Strategy Public Consultation Committee.

“Robbie really wanted a strategy,” Janowitz recalls. “He saw waste as economic development, and there was some wariness at the provincial level that the Halifax outcome would drive the process for the whole province. Robbie was really focussed on this. It was the first time I ever saw a minister joyfully participating in policy discussions.”

In government terms, Harrison moved at blistering speed. Janowitz had 90 days to get his committee organized, 90 days to hold province-wide hearings, and 45 days to produce a report. The report confirmed that Nova Scotians wanted serious, coherent action across the province, and fully supported the goal of 50% diversion by 2000. During these same months, the province was drafting a new Environment Act, passed in January, 1995, and the 50% by 2000 goal was imbedded right in the Act.

Provincial regulations based on the Janowitz report were proclaimed in February,1996, and they included a phased series of landfill bans. As of April 1, 1996, Nova Scotians could not throw beverage containers, cardboard, newsprint, or tires and batteries in the dump. Leaf and yard waste, paint and anti-freeze were banned in 1997, followed by glass bottles, tin cans, polyethylene plastic bags and compostable organic materials in 1998. By the end of 2000, Nova Scotia had achieved 50% diversion, and Halifax itself had achieved 61%.


It sounds great, but it was not altogether a pretty picture. It’s all very well to ban tin cans and car batteries from the dump, but in many parts of Nova Scotia there were no alternative places to dispose of them. Part of the problem was jurisdiction.

“The province regulates landfills, but the municipalities actually pick up the garbage,” wrote one newspaper columnist — me — in November, 1998. “The province bans various wastes from the dump. The municipalities plead poverty and don’t provide alternative facilities. The province insists: the municipalities have had lots of warning, and sophisticated Nova Scotia can’t wait indefinitely for the foot-dragging yokels. The county resists: these things look simple from an ivory tower in smug, plump Halifax, but the bureaucratic smoothies are living in dreamland. They know nothing about the hard realities of long distances, sparse populations and tiny tax bases.

“Meanwhile the citizens wait amid mounting heaps of garbage, ready to scream obscenities at both crowds and itching to get their fingers on the throats of anyone associated with recycling.”

Provincial officials replied — correctly, I now believe — that without the bans, negotiations with municipalities would have meandered along forever. The province also had a carrot: the Resource Recovery Fund Board, which receives the revenues from bottle-deposit refunds and distributes the proceeds to the municipalities — but strictly in proportion to their success in diversion. Since it has thus far distributed $22.2 million, the RRFB has had some success in capturing the attention of municipal leaders.

Some grumbling persists, but for most Nova Scotians, garbage separation, composting and recycling have become routine. Trash goes into green bags, and thence to 18 greatly-upgraded landfills. More than 80 landfills have been closed, and half the remaining ones will be closed within five years.

Recyclables go into blue bags, which are picked up at curbside everywhere in the province. The disposal of organics varies. Many people compost organics in their own yards, for their own gardens. In some larger communities, notably Halifax and Lunenburg, householders dump their organic wastes — including newspaper — into husky green plastic carts which are emptied by specially-modified garbage trucks.

If you follow an organic-waste truck in metropolitan Halifax, it will lead you to one of two privately-owned bulk composting facilities situated in local business parks. The one in Dartmouth is immense — 17,000 square metres, located on an eight-hectare lot. Incoming loads are dumped on a concrete floor and fed up a conveyor belt. As the stream moves by, workers remove recyclables and other contaminants while a magnetized belt extracts iron and steel. In the main composting room, the residue is piled nine feet deep on an aerated bed, and moved slowly through the building by a huge steel paddle, cooking itself at temperatures up to 55C as it goes. It takes about 90 days to move through the process, and the resulting compost sells briskly to soil blenders, farmers and gardeners.

The recycling plant is an warehouse-sized building in Halifax, where glass, plastic, metals and other recyclable products are sorted by workers as they move along conveyor belts. The sorted materials are shipped off to industries which turn them into new products. Glass becomes new bottles, plastics become everything from carpets and building materials to T-shirts, old paper becomes new paper, waste paint becomes new paint.

Some of these industries are located in Nova Scotia, and more are springing up all the time. In Hantsport, CKF Inc. and Minas Basin Pulp and Power make linerboard, egg cartons and other products from old newpaper. In Debert, Thermo-Cell turns newspapers into cellulose insulation and Inland Fuels re-refines used oil. In Amherst, Novapet grinds up plastic pop bottles into flakes which are sold to manufacturers of carpet and clothing. In Cornwallis, Nova Tire Recylers remanufactures old tires — which are collected at service stations and tire dealers — into car parts, blasting mats and rubber sheeting. These initiatives have created 600 new jobs. Overall, more than 2200 Nova Scotians now work in the solid-waste industries.

All very well, David Wimberley would retort, but materials like aluminum, milk cartons and even glass are shipped huge distances — to Ontario and Quebec, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Even the composting system uses a lot of energy in trucking and processing. Wouldn’t it be better to do more low-tech stuff in our own back yards? And wouldn’t it be better to insist that Nova Scotia’s consumers and businesses produce less waste in the first place?

Undoubtedly that would be better, and in time it will probably happen. But how are we to understand what has already happened? How did Nova Scotia move from a laggard to a leader in waste disposal?

In Ken Donnelly’s view, Halifax led and the province followed — and the key factors in the Halifax process were the ticking clock of the Sackville landfill, the courage of a few municipal politicians and administrators, particularly in Halifax County, and the vision and dedication of the citizen volunteers who were willing to propose and defend the landfill bans.

A succession of provincial environment ministers also deserve some credit — Harrison certainly, but earlier and later ministers as well. John Leefe, in 1989, first accepted the goal of 50% by 2000. Wayne Adams had a special interest in tires and beverage containers. Don Downe focussed on plastics and organics. The present minister, Angus MacIsaac, wants a better program for waste paint. The message from all the ministers of the 1990s, says one civil servant, was “keep it moving.” In addition, the civil servants themselves cared deeply about the issue.

Marty Janowitz would agree with much of this. In his 1998 master’s thesis on environmental policy-making he specifically noted “the power of commonly held or at least commonly understood social vision.” Nova Scotia is a cohesive and manageable province with a powerful sense of its own uniqueness, and on this occasion the provincial legislature shared and supported the desires of the citizens.

“We saw real engagement in the Premier,” Janowitz says. “John Savage definitely supported what Robbie Harrison was doing, and as a former Mayor of Dartmouth he was able to push it through a good deal of municipal resistance.” Other members of the Savage government were also supportive, like John MacEachern, the Education Minister and former environment critic. NDP environment critic John Holm approved, as did John Leefe, the Tory critic and former environment minister.

“If Leefe hadn’t been transferred out of that portfolio, some of these things would have happened years earlier,” says Janowitz. “I briefed both Leefe and Holm, with the knowledge and approval of Robbie Harrison, and their parties didn’t fight the strategy.

“So the stars were lined up, and it happened. But the stars are not lined up for two other strategies that never went forward, on water quality and air quality. And the problem is the usual one: cautious bureaucrats, and politicians with short time horizons. Nova Scotians really care about these issues, too, but there’s almost no realistic mechanism for that vision to be translated into action.”

Nova Scotia’s waste-diversion success involved not just hundreds of people, but thousands — Premiers and flute-makers, civil servants and retirees, educators and householders. And perhaps that is the heart of the matter. The planning process was wide-open, and the opinions of citizens were not merely tolerated, but solicited and respected. The strategy became their strategy, and when it was implemented they embraced it and defended it and made it work. Now it is the envy of the nation, and every Nova Scotian is part of it. For a little province unaccustomed to national admiration, this is a gratifying experience — and a motivating one. By 2005, Canada’s oldest settlement, Annapolis Royal, plans to celebrate its 400th birthday by generating no solid waste at all.

This is a complex story, but in a way it is simple. The people of Nova Scotia believed this was the right thing to do, and wanted it done — and their government did it. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work. Once in a while, it does.