Crisis to Opportunity: 50th Anniversary Reflection

This is the second reflection posted in honour of CPJ’s 50th anniversary. 

Garbage is a challenge for any city. It was a crisis for Edmonton in the 1980s. The landfill was nearly full and the search for a new one was hitting multiple roadblocks. Finding another landfill site and the costs for Edmonton were the primary focus of public discussion.

From dumping to stewarding

CPJ, however, worked with others to reframe the issue. Instead of waste disposal, a stronger emphasis was put on stewardship of resources, with a focus on the “three R’s”: reducing, re-using, and recycling. Turning crisis into opportunity, CPJ worked with allies on Edmonton city council and in the community to build support for the first citywide Blue Box Recycling Program in 1988.

Armed with a blue box full of demonstration material, CPJ staff did workshops in churches and schools to change the mindset about garbage. A student volunteer, Harold Jansen, designed a widely-distributed brochure that linked Biblical teaching about care for creation with the benefits of a different approach to thinking about garbage.

Then CPJ and the Mennonite Central Committee formed the Edmonton Recycling Society to run the first collection and recycling centre. As well as recycling, the project provided employment opportunities for persons with disabilities in a time of high unemployment.

For CPJ, taking a holistic approach was a demonstration of its commitment to do justice and care for creation. Linking social and environmental benefits helped promote the project. Ironically, it was the social aspect that drew some criticism. While the core message was that these materials are resources, not garbage, there was concern that asking persons to sort them was a demeaning occupation.

Thinking differently remains the greatest challenge

In later years, recycling was also critiqued because it justified over-use of resources: reducing still remains the most challenging of the three R’s. At the time, getting people to think differently about garbage was the major hurdle. When the CPJ staff person was named “Citizen of the Year” by the Edmonton Journal, it was recognition of CPJ’s role in changing perspectives so people could see how different approaches could achieve environmental and social goals for the city.

Edmonton now a leader

Now Edmonton is a leader in waste reduction, showing how a small, principled, and dedicated group like CPJ can have a long-lasting and significant impact. Its world-class facilities reached over 90 percent diversion in 2012, leading in Canada and globally on this aspect of stewarding creation’s resources. As a Globe and Mail feature in 2008 acknowledged, central to Edmonton’s success was the change in perspective, “approaching all of its old goop as potential gold.”

About the author

  • Kathy Vandergrift is the former chair of CPJ’s Board of Directors. She has worked inside and outside government at municipal and federal levels to advance social justice.

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