Reflections on Norms and Attitudes: Site Visit to SIMS Recycling Facility

PART I

I like to consider myself to be more or less the average environmentally semi-conscious person.

I try to consume only what I need, reuse and recycle as much as possible, and compost when it’s convenient (though lately, it never seems to be). Recently, this behaviour has been driven by personal interest, but historically it has been fuelled by a dominant culture of sustainable thinking present in my hometown and alma mater.

Thus, as someone who entered the sustainable mindset somewhat laterally, I’ve always been bothered by my lack of concrete knowledge regarding the nuts and bolts of waste management. How are plastics even made? What happens to products and packaging at end of life? How much are we as a society using—and rather, how much are we abusing—when it comes to this process of material accumulation that invariably results in the hauling of the worst byproducts of us into the confines of the earth?

As such, I was thankful for the talk that Eadaoin gave us before our walkthrough of the site. I learned a lot about the municipal level processes that contribute to recycling, and the many players that allow for the process to follow through: building management, haulers, truckers, facility management, buyers, and more. My biggest takeaway from her presentation was a reminder to consider city-wide capacities and capabilities when making everyday purchasing decisions. What are the incentives for every player to act in a responsible way? What misconceptions might they have? And how can we work together to make environmental consciousness a shared value, rather than a top-down source of irritation? As I come from a city in which sustainability has only become a dominant communal concern within recent memory, I am optimistic about our ability to influence behaviour in ways that make people feel ownership over their waste management decisions.

PART II

Last week’s visit to the SIMS recycling facility was the second time I’d been to an end-of-life processing centre, the first being a waste-to-energy plant back at home. As such, this is a bit of a comparison between my two experiences.

The primary difference between the two was of course that the SIMS facility is a place for recycling rather than for waste. For me, this distinction was evident in every aspect of the facility’s spatial design: from the open air pre-processing chamber, to the bright and colourful educational centre, to the very mild odour that was well contained to the facility’s active areas. I feel that this is a mirror to our thoughts as consumers: we consider the action of recycling to be distinct from that of ‘throwing away’. Speaking to Eadaoin, I learned that less than 2% of the material they process could potentially be diverted to compost. I doubt the same could be said for landfill processors.

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The facility doesn’t take away from the riverside landscape. Source: SIMS Municipal
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By contrast, the WTE facility looked like this. Source: 24Hrs Vancouver

At the WTE facility, I was greeted by an engineer in a hard hat, keen to educate on the molecular-level benefits of the waste-to-energy process. The tour was fantastic, and it was also gritty, dimly lit, and smelled—well it smelled like walking through piles of garbage.

These two experiences combined have made me reconsider the action and language of disposal in our society. We don’t “throw away” bottles; we recycle them. I wonder if it’s possible to use less distancing language in the process of creating waste, to remind ourselves that we never really part from waste in our communities, and in our lives.

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