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

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.


Andrew said...

Nice letter.

You must have written this a few weeks ago because oil briefly crossed the $100/barrel mark.

Where would you propose the composting facilities go? UBC has a large composting facility in the endowment lands. To compost from all of the lower mainland, you would need an area about 100 larger (based on population).

Helen said...

Yes, Andrew, in just 2 months since this letter was written the price of crude jumped 20%...

And you can really hear how this is already changing the thinking of politicians. Along with the cost implications from rising oil prices, the climate change impact of trucking waste is beginning to sink in.

At the Metro Vancouver budget discussions on November 14, 2007, Committee member Ralph Drew said this:

"This is kind of the 11th hour, but regarding the proposal of expenditures on Ashcroft (pending action by the province), I think we need to give some thought to how things look today, in the past 12 months, with Greenhouse Gas and the province’s initiatives. I’m of the mind now that we as a body need to re-think trucking solid wastes. There are significant quantities of GHGs."

In answer to your question about siting of composting facilities (which could, collectively, divert an amazing one-third of all our waste!), the answer is to think about many small facilities rather than one huge facility. This will make for a more resilient system, and allow for experiments that don't fail on a massive scale as we develop expertise. ZWV is actively supporting citizen initiatives to push for small-scale community composting developments, for example on Bowen Island (pop. 4,500), where they are presently trucking yard waste, sewage sludge (and garbage) off the island for processing.