Citizens taking action ~ Vancouver, Lower Mainland, and beyond.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Looking behind the headlines

Garbage is in the news. Last week it was a ban on plastic bags (going to Council tomorrow). This morning we learn that downtown businesses are working with "binners" to get rid of messy dangerous dumpsters. And tonight at 6 pm Global BC news hour is going to take a close look into our garbage cans...

But the big story is that politicians on City Council are hinting that they might give Vancouver ratepayers their money back for services they didn't receive during the garbage strike.

Here's something to think about as you bank that $7.65 that represents the cost of hauling your garbage away for 10 weeks: this is about the price people were paying to have one bag of garbage hauled away by entrepreneurs last summer.

What does this tell us about the efficiency of our municipal garbage services ~ can you think of a better bargain than the garbage services we receive from our city? They take away anything we put into that black bin, week after week, no questions asked, at a rate that ranges from $1.44 to $2.88 a pick-up, depending on whether we use the mini can or the jumbo can that's 5 times bigger...

The question we might ask as citizens is: are these bargain rates for public garbage collection really serving the public interest? Who wins in the long run when it's cheap and convenient to throw things away?

Maybe politicians should be looking at a revenue neutral "tax shift." Raise the rates for garbage collection to discourage wasting... and then put the money into, say, keeping our libraries open longer?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Buy Nothing Day celebration a success

While cross-border shoppers were steaming at 3-hour border line-ups last Friday, a hearty group of Zero Wasters were enjoying trad Irish music (at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church!), swapping CDs and viewing a classic film that diagnoses our society's epidemic of "Affluenza." It was lots of fun ~ and just the first of a series of community events that Zero Waste Vancouver will be hosting in the months to come... Thanks to Vanessa and her musician friends who showed up with concertina, bouzouki, fiddles, guitars and pipes. If anyone wants to borrow the DVD of the film for a community showing, let us know!

Islands of plastic in the mid-Pacific

If you haven't heard about the floating plastic in the mid-Pacific, here are some interesting links. Not recent, but still current. Our casual conveniences can make waves far away...

Most plastic bags end up in landfills, part of the millions of tons of plastic garbage Americans dump each year. But whether jettisoned illegally by ships at sea, washed out from land during storms, or, as in the case of the chalupa bags, accidentally lost overboard from containerships, countless tons of plastic refuse end up drifting on the high seas....

The correspondent who forwarded this link to me commented: Donovan Hohn is one of the really great writers that no one knows about.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The wasteful pay less in Vancouver!

The Vancouver Solid Waste Utility charges us for garbage based on how much we put out, right?


It turns out, the more you waste the better a rate you get.

The city lets you choose between five garbage can sizes, ranging from 75 litres to 360 litres. The problem is that the rates don’t go up at the same pace as the volume.

If you choose a “small” can, you pay $1 per litre of garbage. If you choose the HUMONGOUS 360 litre container, you pay only 44 cents per litre of garbage.

Is this any way to encourage waste reduction???

Tell Vancouver City Council to fix the garbage rates in 2008. They'll be discussing the 2008 rates on Thursday, November 29th, at their City Services & Budget committee meeting.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Let's have a public conversation about plastic bags

Once again, civic leaders in the Lower Mainland are sending a strong signal to retailers about their practice of handing out free plastic bags which become a public nuisance. An unimaginable 4 - 5 trillion of the flimsy bags were dispensed in Europe and North America in 2002, making them a visible target for public concern.

Last year North Vancouver District Council and Coquitlam City Council called for a hefty tax on plastic bags to discourage their use. Next week Vancouver City Council will consider a motion calling for a staff report on options on "phasing out" plastic bags within the city.

Both proposals have legs because they have been successfully implemented elsewhere. Ireland imposed a 25 cent PlasTax in 2002 that almost immediately reduced bag use by 90%. San Francisco considered a tax and then opted for an outright ban last March -- the first in North America.

Most importantly, these tough measures have been popular with the public, despite the plastic and retail industry doing their best to shoot them down.

It's all very well for the retailers to tout the benefits of the bags, but they don't pay the cost for the waste. It's local politicians who have to tax their communities to provide disposal services. No wonder they are turning to harsh measures! The industry has a lot to answer for.

Zero Waste Vancouver supports the motion to look at options to deal with the plastic bag problem. We would like to see Vancouver City Council convene a Waste Advisory Committee to look at this and other priority issues identified by the public and civic leaders. The committee could work with staff to explore the options, evaluate them, and come back with recommendations that would work for Vancouver.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Just say no to throw away water bottles

If you insist on drinking water from bottles, you won't have the option of a home dispenser using non-refillable bottles if Metro Vancouver politicians have anything to say about it.
They took a hard stand on this issue after a local distributor who uses refillable bottles like the one in this photo complained that his competition is introducing a single-use alternative made of thin PET plastic rather than reusable polycarbonate.
When politicians saw two of the single-use bottles fill a large blue recycling container and learned that they would be worth only a 20 cent deposit, they put their foot down: tell the province to simply ban them! BC's beverage container regulation is too weak and the delay to prove that the system needed change would simply cause problems in the industry, said politicians on both the Environment and Waste Management Committees, who called for an outright ban on non-refillable bottles. (image
Of course, with new information emerging about chemical additives in plastics, the market for water bottled in plastic may dry up anyway... anyone see the CBC segment last night? I can't find a link on their website.)

Politicians question focus, assumptions and methodology of study

A report went this week to two Metro Vancouver committees (Environment and Waste Management) and came under fire from politicians. The study, which had not requested by the committees, compared “life cycle environmental burdens” of landfilling and WTE (mass-burn incineration). The intent of the study was to identify major material and energy inputs & outputs and quantify them to “create an equivalent basis for comparison.”

Environment Committee member Lisa Barrett (Bowen Island) said: “You have given us two scenarios, but what about the third: Zero Waste?”

Looking at a table showing emissions under the two scenarios, Hal Weinberg (Anmore) noted that the mercury emissions from WTE were 35 times higher than from landfilling and was told that the study "assumed" that mercury is “bound up” in landfills and not released in emissions.

Weinberg also wanted to know what the reported emission levels meant in terms of impact on human health (staff responded by saying they have “no expertise” in this). Weinberg commented that without the link to health impacts, these numbers are “meaningless.”

Several of the Environment Committee members including Heather Deal (Vancouver) insisted they want more information before they can draw meaningful conclusions from the study.

When the report goes to the GVRD Board, Zero Waste Vancouver will point out another deficiency of the study: it doesn’t talk about inputs. Both landfilling and incineration take large quantities of highly refined materials and remove them from use, acting as a gear that drives the industrial system to replace the lost materials as fast as it can. From a climate-change perspective, the useful comparison, as Lisa Barrett pointed out, is not between landfilling and incineration. It is between wasting and not wasting.
(Image: www.

Zero Waste presents paper at major BC conference

Zero Waste Vancouver will present a paper next week to an audience of 250 local government officials who will be seeking ideas for moving "from awareness to action" in making their communities sustainable.

Joining a line-up of internationally known speakers including Bill Rees, developer of the ecological footprint tool, Zero Waste Vancouver coordinator Helen Spiegelman will show how local governments hold the key to moving "From Unbridled Consumerism to Zero Waste" but must first overcome a daunting barrier: the feeling it is their responsibility to pick up after the consumer society by providing convenient disposal of society's discards. This paper builds on work done by Spiegelman for the US-based Product Policy Institute, but uses Metro Vancouver as a case example.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Open letter to Tony Sperling

Tony Sperling is the president of a consulting firm trying to convince Metro Vancouver to send our garbage to the Highland Valley copper mine, a 4-hour uphill truck ride from here, where his firm and the mine-owner, Teck-Cominco, want to build a "Centre for Sustainable Waste Management." Tony asked for my comments on the proposal. I sent a reply, which he tried to understand. He wrote back again, still

Thank you for asking me to comment on the Highland Valley landfill proposal. I was at the meeting of the MetVan Waste Management Committee in April 2006 when the committee heard a presentation on the HVL proposal. I recall that the politicians had many thoughtful questions suggesting that they had concerns. Speaking as a citizen, I think this proposal will not be accepted because the public is beginning to understand that this is a 20th Century solution to a 19th Century problem.

In the 19th Century garbage was a threat to public health and safety because it attracted rats and caused disease. Citizens like me demanded action, politicians listened, and engineers developed solutions. The most common sanctioned practice was landfilling of municipal refuse in authorized facilities. This practice continues until today.

But waste was different then. Data carefully gathered by municipal engineers at the turn of the 20th Century showed that 75% of the refuse then was inorganics (coal ashes, crockery, etc.), another 15% was organics and the rest (7%) was rubbish, simple manufactured goods like textiles, bottles and cans, etc.

Over the course of the 20th Century waste changed. Today the inorganics aren't even counted any more (homes are heated with gas, oil or electricity). The amount of organics doubled due to suburban yard trimmings. Most significantly, manufactured products and packaging now makes up 75% - 90% of our waste.

Landfilling of masses of manufactured products, many laced with hazardous compounds, is both wasteful and risky. We have a different waste problem today and we need different solutions ~ 21st Century problem, 21st Century solutions!

The HVC has another flaw, identified by members of the Waste Management Committee in their discussion. It is a 4 hour drive uphill to Logan Lake. At the time the committee was considering the proposal, oil had reached the unprecedented price of $65/barrel. This week it reached $80/barrel. Waste export was a solution for a time when fuel still seemed limitless, but it would be a bad investment today.

What I was challenging you to do at the Nelson meeting, Tony, was to come back to us with engineering solutions that address today's waste stream and work within today's limits. The provincial government is providing the legislative tools to redirect the products and packaging out of our municipal waste stream. We will no longer need the massive mixed-waste landfills of yesteryear. Rather, we will need effective, well-designed composting facilities for the organic materials that will remain once the product-related wastes are gone. This is the problem we are asking you and your engineering colleagues to solve for us. There will be huge technical challenges as well as political ones in building solutions for source-separated organic waste.

I'm prepared to help with the political challenges, if you will provide the technical expertise.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Composting grows ~ everywhere but BC!

"British Columbia was the only province where household participation in composting declined from 1994 to 2006," according to an article in Solid Waste & Recycling providing highlights of a newly released Stats Can study of household recycling practices.

The study also found that 40% of Victoria-area households compost, compared with only 23% in the Vancouver area.

The most avid composters in Canada in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where provincial regulations ban disposal of organics from landfills and incinerators.

A regional ban on landfilling of yard waste in Metro Vancouver will come into effect on January 8, 2007. We can catch up to the other provinces as soon as households and businesses in our region have access to composting services for food scraps!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Take burnt-out compact bulbs to IKEA

Did you know you can take your burnt-out compact fluorescent bulbs to IKEA for recycling?

IKEA Canada just posted a release to Canadian News Wire reminding us that they have been taking back both CFLs and batteries since 2001.

Does anyone know who their recycler is? Here's what the release says: IKEA Canada works closely with Raw Materials Company (RMC, A division of International Marine Salvage Inc.) who specializes in battery recycling,hazardous waste hauling and processing, and have been actively recycling formore than 25 years. The bulb goes through a separation process into glass,powder and mercury. Separated mercury goes through a triple distillation whichtakes away all contamination.

I will check with folks who know the marine salvage industry for background on this company.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Batteries not included ~ CBC Marketplace

Did anyone catch the investigation of throw-away batteries on CBC Marketplace (aired on Halloween)? It really skewered the harried director of the rechargeable battery recycling program (did YOU know there was a rechargeable battery recycling program?) but the entire industry that produces the half-billion batteries sold in Canada each year didn't escape derision. You can watch the segment here. The only puzzling moment was at the end when they offered viewers advice on what to do about the battery problem. "Contact your municipality!" they said ~ but the Mayor of Port Perry had been saying all through the show that the producers should provide convenient service, say, through stores...

For another great riff on battery waste see the brilliant photo work of Chris Jordan.

Taking charge of our waste

Yesterday I wrote that two politicians on the Waste Management Committee were “incredulous” about things they found in a staff report on programs and priorities for 2008. It does strain credulity that we would allocate no funds in 2008 for composting while earmarking half a billion dollars for waste-to-energy (incineration) without any discussion.

I singled out Dan Johnston (Burnaby) and Peter Ladner (Vancouver) and thanked them for raising important questions about these priorities, but all 9 members of the Waste Management Committee deserve recognition. They are working hard on our behalf and making great headway.

This is a big change from five or six years ago. The waste committee used to receive reports and adopt staff recommendations with little or no comment. It’s easy to see why. These folks are overseeing the regional waste system - both sewage and garbage - off the sides of their desks, on top of all the work they do in their own municipalities.

This is why Zero Waste Vancouver will be calling on the Committee to form a public advisory committee to support them. Public participation was the key to success in Halifax, which has the most progressive waste management system in North America. The people of Halifax got a place at the table planning their community’s waste system. It got results. Let's do it here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Half a billion dollars for incinerators???

At the last meeting of the Metro Vancouver Waste Management Committee, Vancouver Councillor Peter Ladner was incredulous. Here's how the discussion went:

LADNER: I am interested in the financial projection of the household impacts. I read in the middle of this report that there will be $446 million being spent on waste-to-energy by 2017. Are we saying that we will be hit with a half-billion dollar expense?

TOIVO ALLAS (staff): there will be full discussion by the board of each expenditure as we go along…

But once we issue the Request for Proposals "early in 2008" we will be headed down the road towards that half-billion expense. Shouldn't we be talking about the expenses now, rather than after the RFP is issued?

Why is MetroVancouver willing to earmark half a billion dollars for unproven waste-to-energy technology, when they won't spend any money at all on composting - a technology that local municipalities say they want, and which is an unfulfilled promise from the 1995 Solid Waste Management Plan?

No money for composting???

At the most recent meeting of the MetroVan Waste Management Committee, Burnaby Councillor Dan Johnston was incredulous. Here's how the discussion went:

JOHNSTON: In Solid Waste planning we have said we want a process and strategies to target food composting. Is there going to be money for infrastructure included this year, so municipalities can get going? We are really keen to get going on this.

TOIVO ALLAS (staff): No, there is no money in the 2008 budget for capital for composting…

JOHNSTON: When will composting be actually implemented?

ALLAS: Well, the revised SWMP will be complete in mid-2008, it will include a schedule for implementation and budget for composting… including a capital budget, once we get the plan approved… then we’ll finalize a budget…

Meanwhile today a new government-backed campaign was launched in the UK to tackle the food waste problem, from cradle to cradle. Why is Metro Vancouver moving so slowly on composting, when the rest of the world is charging ahead?

Fire or frying pan?

MetroVancouver is still moving forward on its plans to build a landfill in the pristine interior grassland at Ashcroft, even after the project was put on hold by the environment minister in June 06.
The Waste Management Committee was told at its meeting last month that several million dollars will be spent on archaeological work and detailed design work ~ this is on top of the $1.1 million to keep the cattle & ginseng ranch running in 2008 .
The Cornwall Watershed Coalition and the local First Nations, who have been fighting the project for years, are worried they will be the "frying pan" for MetroVancouver's garbage if we don't go ahead and burn it in incinerators. The then-GVRD Board approved the purchase of the ranch in an in-camera meeting in 2000 to develop into a landfill -- without consulting either their own citizens or the local community in the Ashcroft area.
(The photo above was taken by a youth, Will Morris-Nelson, who came down to Vancouver several years ago to give a moving talk about his ties to this land.) Are we willing to dump our trash in his backyard?