To his adversaries, Dr. Paul Connett is an environmental evangelist – the Jimmy Swaggart of Trash.
But this doesn’t faze the zero-waste expert.
“God recycles, the devil burns,” said the retired chemistry professor, with a grin.
If it’s not already obvious, Connett is not a fan of incinerators.
And after visiting the Yukon this week, he’s particularly worried about Yukon Energy building an incinerator to convert waste to energy.
The corporation is considering burning trash to make electricity and heat buildings, says spokesperson Janet Patterson.
“In the end, maybe it won’t be a viable option,” she wrote in an email. ‘But we think it’s at least worth researching, which is what we are doing.”
This worries Connett.
“Yukon Energy is tempted by this superficial notion that they can burn waste safely and cheaply,” he said.
“I don’t think they realize how complex it is to burn the dirtiest fuel in the world. It’s crude, toxic stuff.”
Instead of building incinerators, like the $563,000 gasifier soon to be built in Old Crow, Connett wants the territory to focus on its zero-waste targets. (The Yukon has committed to cutting its waste 50 per cent by 2015 and reaching its zero-waste target by 2040.)
Incinerators create one ton of toxic ash for every four tons of garbage burned, he said.
Instead of building incinerators in front of ash landfills, Connett wants to see the Whitehorse landfill with a better sorting facility, so all garbage is thoroughly screened before it gets through the gate.
After pulling out the recyclables, the compostables and the toxic substances, Whitehorse would have a much smaller, safer landfill, he said.
But reducing trash is only one small part of his mission.
The sorting facility would also create jobs, inspire research and even help feed the homeless.
Connett sees scientists working at the facility alongside the staff, researching the waste that can’t be reused or recycled.
“They would be students of industrial design,” he said. “Their job would be to stop industry from producing crap we can’t reuse.
“We have to copy nature and design waste out of the system.
“Nature recycles everything.”
He also wants to see the Yukon hold its commercial and industrial businesses to account.
“Right now, there is no incentive for businesses to recycle,” he said.
That’s why Connett wants to see tipping fees go way up.
“We need an economic driver,” he said.
In San Francisco, for instance, it’s 25 per cent cheaper for restaurants to dump clean food waste than mixed trash, dramatically changing the face of garbage disposal in the region.
San Francisco now diverts more than 78 per cent of its trash from its landfill.
Italy is not far behind with more than 200 communities diverting upwards of 70 per cent of their trash.
“There are communities all over the world doing this incredibly quickly,” said Connett.
So, Whitehorse has no excuse.
“Not everyone can have a windmill or a farm, but we all can do waste right,” he said.
“We just need good political leadership.”
Creating strong incentives so businesses reduce, reuse and recycle is only part of the picture.
He would also like to see supermarkets make better use of their wasted food.
Rather than waiting for food to expire, he would like to see stores pass it onto homeless shelters or the food bank a few days before the best-before date.
This is how he ties zero-waste into homelessness.
“We have to give hope to people that we can move toward a sustainable society,” he said.
Connett didn’t mean to become one of the world’s leading waste whizzes.
After getting his doctorate in chemistry, he thought he’d settled down to a good teaching job at a small U.S. college on the East Coast.
“My kids were young and I thought I’d be teaching and watching them play baseball on the weekends,” he said.
Things started off as planned, until a librarian happened to ask him what he thought about a local incinerator proposal.
“My first reaction was that it sounds good – it gets rid of landfills and makes energy,” he said.
But, after a bit more researching, he changed his tune.
“I was staggered because I found out when you burn waste you produce dioxins,” he said.
“That’s the stuff in Agent Orange.”
Incinerators also pour tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, speeding up global warming, he said.
The research done by the company building the incinerator promised the air quality would not be compromised.
But there hadn’t been any research done on its effects on the food chain, he said.
Several studies later, Connett and his team discovered that drinking a litre of milk from cows living in the area was the equivalent of breathing eight-months worth of incinerator air.
Since then, he has been pitted expert against expert in incinerator debates all over the world, travelling to more than 50 countries over the last three decades.
“So many consultants are working for the corporate interest,” he said.
“I am working for the community interest.”
In his travels, Connett has run into many educated communities fighting incinerators and advocating for zero waste.
“The citizens do their research, but they often don’t have validation because they’re not considered experts,” he said.
“That’s my job.”
While he was in Whitehorse, Connett met with several government ministers, as well the NDP, Liberals, city staff and the public.
In terms of its composting system, Whitehorse is ahead of the curve, he said.
But when it comes to recycling, especially industrial and commercial recycling, it’s way behind.
Whitehorse could be an example, he said, mentioning other communities across Canada that have set up comprehensive sorting stations at their dumps.
But local politicians need to be on board.
“Politicians walk this narrow ledge between corporate greed and the public good,” he said.
“And we need to decide if our solutions are going to be designed for corporate interest or the community’s interest.”
Connett holds onto hope.
“Imagine being a 14-year-old kid in school learning about ozone depletion, species loss, rainforest destruction, toxins discovered in newborn babies, our polluted oceans and running out of resources,” he said.
“We’re basically telling these kids they don’t have a future – it’s all used up.”
And if no one is making changes, then why would the next generation bother to change? he said.
“That’s why we have to give them hope. We need to create these stepping-stones for our children.
“We need to be hands-on so there are less toxins for them to deal with and more resources.
“We can do waste right.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at firstname.lastname@example.org