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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Council to decide on plastic bag action

Today Zero Waste Vancouver will be on the speaker's list, along with many other organizations and concerned individual citizens, as City Council considers a motion to "phase out" plastic bags.

Will our city join the growing number of communities that are taking tough action to curb plastic bag use?

This blog has taken note of recent landmark legislation in places as diverse as China and Ireland, London UK and Leaf Rapids MB. Even Uganda has a law banning plastic bags.

The sanctions range from taxes (Ireland) to outright bans (Leaf Rapids) to retailer take-back requirements (New York City) to requirements that retailers use only biodegradable bags (San Francisco).

Politicians are safe in taking strong action on this issue, because they are responding to a deep public concern. The plastic bag has become an object of revulsion all over the world.
Photo documentation of the impacts on wildlife has put the plastics industry and the retail industry on notice: do something to clean up your act or lose the privilege of doing business.

Name-brand retailers like Ikea and Whole Foods are scrambling to claim the high ground, while their industry associations still insist that public education will solve the problem (plastic bags don't litter, people litter...).

The Retail Council's proposed fixes for Vancouver do not include retailer take-back. They haven't grasped the principle of cradle-to-cradle recycling, where producers are expected to provide take-back and recycling, rather than counting on public garbage services.
If you can handle it, here are some great online sources of ghastly photos of plastic's impact on marine life:

Planet Ark still photos

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Composting on the Gulf Islands?

Australia's Lord Howe Island may have road-tested a solution for organic wastes on our Gulf Islands. Like the Gulf Islands, all of Australia is challenged with water and soil shortages. They needed a solution that feeds the earth instead of the sky.

Lord Howe Island is an independent principality of Australia, with around 300 locals and 450 vistors at any one time. It is also a world heritage listed region.

Here's what they are doing with their organic wastes. They installed (with aid from other levels of government) a Vertical Composting Unit (VCU) that employs a gravity-feed system to process 0.8 to 1.2 tonnes of organics a day to produce 0.5 - 0.75 tonnes of compost that locals use in their gardens. The VCU can handle all "putrescibles" including sewage sludge.

The composting program is part of a "cost efficient waste minimisation strategy" proposed in a comprehensive study done in the late 1990s.

Learning from the starlings!

How does social change happen? How will we shift our collective destiny to avoid disaster ahead? Let's do what the starlings do.

Research in the UK cracked the starlings' secret for coordinating their movements so vast flocks can veer around in complex formations without crashing into each other, at the same time protecting themselves against predators.

Turns out what each starling does is keep track of the movements of just seven other birds. This forms an interlocking network of coordinated movements that protects not only the individual birds but the whole flock.

There's a message here about social change. Each of us, seven other people, and together we can make change without waiting for "them" to solve our problems for us.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Feed the earth or the atmosphere?

Metro Vancouver has set us firmly on track to cut our waste by 70% ~ hats off to the political leaders of all political stripes for their vision in setting us on this course!

Now the question arises: what will we do with the other 30%.

The incinerator salesmen are all lined up offering us a solution that looks too good to be true: we can make money by selling garbage-fueled energy.

Incineration doesn't get rid of waste completely, they concede, since at least one tonne for every five going into the plant emerges at the other end as ash that must be disposed of.

Sticker shock is another challenge ~ people of our region are going to have to really love incinerators to be willing to pay the cost of building them. (More about that below)

Cities in other parts of the world -- including Halifax NS -- are following a different path. They are setting up simple systems that mechanically and biologically "stabilize" the leftover garbage that can't be recycled. This process reduces the volume of the waste, as well as keeping out hazardous materials. Most notably from a climate change and public safety perspective, it reduces the ability of landfilled garbage to produce the greenhouse gas methane and toxic leachate.

The proponents of "MBT" (mechanical and biological treatment) include environmentalists who see it as a bridging strategy for winding down our landfilling system as we gradually ramp up recycling and composting.

Incinerators lock us into using a machine that feeds the already overburdened sky, while MBT is flexible and will let us benefit from reduced costs as we reduce our waste. Zero Waste Vancouver is researching the experience of these other communities and will be making regular reports to this blog.

(About those costs? A recent European study noted that WTE costs 54% more than landfilling, while an MBT system raises the cost of landfilling by only 8%)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Vancouver & Delta will benefit from new plan

An anonymous ZW supporter who was present at today's historic meeting of the Metro Vancouver Board just posted this report:

Yipee!!! The Board endorsed the WMC recommendation today rejecting a last ditch attempt by Vancouver to delay for 60 days. The good news is that the priority endorsed by each speaker was long term waste reduction and environmentally safe ways of handling waste residuals in district as close to source as possible. A good starting point but many more battles to be fought.

It is amazing to me that Vancouver's political leaders were apparently out of the loop when the new plan was negotiated. Councillor Peter Ladner was clearly taken completely by surprise by the CAO's report on Tuesday.

As a constituent, I hasten to assure Ladner and the rest of our elected representatives that I see this as a huge win for both Vancouver and Delta.

The landfill permit is up for renewal shortly. I have heard from knowledgeable sources that the renewal was not going to be a slam-dunk. My hunch is that a sincere commitment and a good plan for diverting biodegradable organics, recyclable materials and hazardous wastes from the landfill will earn many points when the province makes the permit decision.

Not only does the new plan reduce the environmental burdens during the rest of the landfill's life span ~ it also has the potential of shortening its life span, hastening the day when Delta can turn the area into a park. I hope they have an interpretive centre there that will tell the amazing story of how foolish folks were in the 20th Century, when they dumped their discards in a world-renowned domed peat bog.

Vancouver Sun dithers while the rest of us get busy

Metro Vancouver's landmark decision this week to cancel the Ashcroft landfill plan ~ and indeed decline any offers to ship our garbage up to the Interior ~ has the Vancouver Sun editorial board in a dither.

Good thing they're not in charge of managing our waste for us.

The fact is that the sky is not falling. There are sensible solutions to our waste problem that will not drive taxpayers into penury. These are not hypothetical solutions, but programs that are on the ground and delivering results in other communities in Canada and around the world.

These solutions are now within reach in our region, because our political leaders have put the brakes on the misguided plan to truck garbage up the Fraser Canyon.

While the Sun dithers, Zero Waste Vancouver will help deliver solutions that we can point to with pride when we invite the world to our region in 2010. This region was built by people who believed they could get things done and make the world a better place. The story isn't over yet.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New decision tool measures co$t of incineration

Just when we need it, a new tool has been developed to help communities decide among different waste management options.

A ground-breaking report prepared for the Niagara Region in Ontario showed that the "true cost" of composting organics is two to four times lower than energy-from-waste (EFW) incineration.

The rigorous, peer-reviewed study used a methodology developed by Seattle economist Jeffrey Morris. It also found that disposing of organics in state-of-the-art landfills like Vancouver's, which use methane to generate electricity, has a true cost that is fifty-percent higher than composting.

The "true cost" factors in the environmental and social costs and benefits of different waste management options, allowing policy makers to make good triple-bottom-line decisions.


The results show that in the case of the Region of Niagara, the ‘True Costs’ associated with managing organics are ($15.76) and $32.18 per tonne for composting leaf, yard and brush waste, and food waste respectively, $75.14 per tonne for landfill with gas flaring, 49.37 per tonne for landfill with gas recovery for electricity generation, and from $62.72 - $142.72 per tonne for EFW.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Metro Vancouver cancels Ashcroft Landfill project ~ no future landfill in the Interior

Members of the Metro Vancouver Waste Management Committee were stunned by the recommendation in a report sent to them within hours of their meeting today to "abandon" the concept of shipping our garbage to a new landfill in the Interior.

Commissioner Johnny Carline's report says the long search for a replacement landfill in the Interior finally ran afoul of the New Relationship between First Nations and the provincial government. "Without the support of applicable First Nations, the continuation of a process which will ultimately require Provincial approval will be futile."

The Committee approved his recommendation that the region "abandon" all plans for a landfill in the Interior "and instead focus its attention and efforts on the Zero Waste Challenge, the establishment of local composting and waste-to-energy [emphasis added] processing capacity, and the use of the Vancouver Landfill and/or Washingon State landfill(s) for the disposal of any residuals."

Vancouver Councillor Peter Ladner wanted more details about the implications for his city but the other key stakeholder, Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, expressed firm support for the recommendation. Metro Vancouver will strike a task force with representatives of both cities to work out the details of the Vancouver landfill's future.

Both cities are likely to benefit from this development. The mayor of Cache Creek, on the other hand, made an impromptu appeal to the committee not to abandon the possibility of bringing our waste to an expanded facility in his village ~ a suggestion that was politely turned down.

The committee then went on to pre-view a Draft Discussion Document on a Strategy for Updating the Solid Waste Management Plan that proposed programs and actions to raise our waste diversion from 52% to 70%. The committee members were over the moon to finally be discussing waste reduction rather than disposal.

But the elephant in the room was Climate Change. The Draft Discussion Document enshrines "the 4th R" (waste-to-energy) as a a key component of the proposed plan, pitching waste as "non-fossil based energy" ~ an assertion that ignores the embodied energy, to say nothing of fossil carbon physically present in today's waste.

The public will be invited to comment in March and April, when we can tell them that we're happy our waste isn't going to the Interior ~ but we don't want it to go in the sky either.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Durham ON the front lines today ~ we'll be called up soon

The people taking to the streets in this picture are citizens of the Durham Region of Ontario. They are trying to block the development of a waste incinerator in their community. They have a lot to teach us, because we will soon be facing the same prospect.

The staff at Metro Vancouver have taken the initiative of declaring waste-to-energy incineration a "Zero Waste" process, and they are busy drafting a Request for Proposals for new incinerator developments that will go out early this year. The plan is to burn 1.25 million tonnes of waste per year ~ in addition to the 280,000 tonnes we currently burn in Burnaby and the million or so tonnes we bury in landfills. This is all based on the thermodynamically impossible assumption that we can double our consumption/waste generation in the next 25 years.

It's time to bone up on the subject. To get started, read Zero Waste Vancouver's two-page backgrounder. If you want to know more, dig into this very readable 157-page report produced by a determined citizen in the Durham region. And visit the Durham Environment Watch website for inspiration for the battle ahead.

It won't be long before we're fighting our own battle. Let's be ready.

Styrofoam ban in Toronto?

Communities do their best to pick up after the Throw-Away Society. This is a thankless task that costs local residents and businesses in North America tens of billions of dollars each year and engenders more complaints than kudos.

But when a city goes to the trouble to recycle a product only to find there's no market for the collected materials ~ what's the solution? Check out this interesting article by Adria Vasil in Toronto NOW magazine:
"The new year did not commence well for Canadian recycling, especially right here in Toronto. In late December, 10 months before the city was poised to start adding polystyrene, aka styrofoam, as well as plastic bags to its blue bins, Canada’s only dedicated styrofoam recycler sent out a closure notice, effective immediately...." (pic: NOW)

Metro Vancouver changes the codes ~ to keep citizens out?

Over the winter holiday, elves at Metro Vancouver were busy overhauling the regional government's website ~ with the result that many Metro Vancouver documents that were linked from this Zero Waste Blog have new URLs and cannot be accessed through the links we provided in earlier posts.

We will have to go back and find the new URLs and repair the links.

In addition to changing the URLs, Metro Vancouver also removed all the agendas and attached reports for years prior to 2007. I complained about this right away, received a response that a "focus group" had told them one year of past agendas was sufficient. My complaint resulted in their posting two years of past agendas and reports (2006 and 2007), with earlier years requiring requests from staff for access.

Reports and agendas are part of the public record. Every effort should be made to ensure that the public has easy access to these reports. (pic:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Let them eat grapes

At the invitation-only Sustainbility Dialogue hosted by Metro Vancouver yesterday, there was a lot of discussion about how important it is to "educate" the public about waste reduction. But the public, of course, was not there to hear it.

The sixty or seventy lucky invitees were treated to a buffet lunch followed by brief remarks (and lots of jokes about strict time limits) by a series of speakers. Moderator Rafe Mair then opened the floor to questions and comments from the audience.

First up was a Squamish First Nation invitee, who set a tone by noting, after welcoming us to his people's traditional territory, that we had all just feasted on "sustainable" grapes and pineapples flown in from god knows where. Then he got to his main point, which was First Nations' concerns about Metro Vancouver's plans for a landfill in the Interior.

From there the Q&A lost focus, with the people who were sitting in the rows of folding chairs posing random questions or comments, each one of which had to be ponderously answered by all the speakers at the table at the front of the room... I think I was probably not the only one who wondered if this was worth the cost to the rest of the public.

Speaking of costs to the public, the meeting ended with what was intended to be a positive announcement. Metro Vancouver's $160,000 expenditure on a Holiday Outreach Program achieved a very respectable number of "impressions" on the public. If you're not sure what an "impression" is and you didn't know there was a holiday campaign, you can learn more at a "special workshop" meeting of the Waste Management Committee on Tuesday, January 22nd, in New Westminster.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A junket to look at incinerators in Paris ~ yah, right!

What is it that happens to nice people when they become politicians?

Maybe it's just that their staff put them in awkward positions.

The Metro Vancouver Waste Management Committee is going to consider a report by CAO Johnny Carline that recommends they approve sending their Committee Chair, Marvin Hunt, on a junket to Paris to look at a couple of incinerators.

The visit is hosted by -- who else? -- the "leading waste management company" that owns the incinerators.

The staff report says the company offered to pick up the tab for "incidental expenses" on the trip. Metro Vancouver declined because "the possibility exists that this company may be seeking business with Metro Vancouver in the future," so the company will be limiting its blandishments to "normal hospitality."

Why, I wonder, is Councillor Hunt not heading off to Halifax to take a look at their composting plants? To say nothing of their "Mechanical Biological Treatment" process, installed to prevent the formation of greenhouse gases after the waste is buried?
Which junket do you think would provide more lessons for a sustainable, Zero Waste solution here in the Lower Mainland?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Documentary Film Project: Holding Out for a Hero

Did you know that Zero Waste Vancouver is involved in producing a film about municipal composting?

The plan is to make a short, fun documentary (in the 30 – 45 minute range) that digs for answers to questions like, “why doesn’t Vancouver have a municipal composting program?” and “what would such a program look like for the average city resident who doesn’t get their jollies from handling kitchen waste?” We've got a director on board (the irrepressible Jeff Hicks, recent graduate of the Film program at Niagara College) and a good crew who are now busily researching the topic and applying for funding.

What this project needs now, like any good film, is a hero! While a a ruggedly handsome, monster-slaying hero is probably not necessary, an inquisitive, personable everywoman/everyfellow protagonist definitely is! This character will tie together the film's narrative and embody the quest for answers to very timely questions about municipal composting programs, the cycle of food production and the "yuck" factor.

In addition to the adventures of our hero, the film will also include interviews with people involved in various stages of food production and composting. At this point, we’re particularly interested in finding folks with stories to tell about the food that was once produced in the Lower Mainland - on today’s golf courses - and about the food that is still being grown here on remaining agricultural land.

We'll keep you posted on this blog about progress on this film project.

In the meantime, if you’d like to nominate a protagonist*, other character or interviewee for the film, or if working work behind the scenes on preproduction and production sounds like your cup of tea, please drop us a line at

* statuesque build and flowing locks optional

Monday, January 14, 2008

No more stinky Garbage!

Naples has been in the news lately. The streets are filled with garbage, left there because of an impasse between the mafia-run garbage industry, compliant local officials, and desperate citizens whose lives and property values are threatened by a plan to re-open a poorly managed landfill. This is not a sudden crisis ~ it’s been going on for years. The European Union has censured the city repeatedly for managing its waste so badly. Now the EU is threatening to levy heavy fines on the city.

But if you look outside of Naples, you find 150 communities in Italy that are diverting from 70 – 90% of their waste. The secret, according to Italian waste expert Enzo Favoino, is “intensive separate collection of food waste.”

Based on waste sampling in these communities, separate collection of food waste removes over 90% of the fermentable (stinky) stuff from the garbage. What’s left doesn’t stink, allowing less frequent collection of garbage and recycling.

Toronto started separate collection of food waste, and they have been able to reduce their garbage service to every other week ~ to say nothing of reducing their garbage.

Now why doesn't Naples ~ or Vancouver ~ have such a sensible policy? It sure would have helped during last summer's garbage strike in this city.
(pic: Jan 5/08 AP)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bagged again! New York City this time...

A New Yorker visiting our blog just sent this bulletin:

"The [New York] City Council on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring large stores and retail chains to collect and recycle plastic bags they give to shoppers...."

Under the new law "The Department of Sanitation, which picks up plastic bottles, cans and newspapers, will not collect the bags. Stores will have to contract to have them removed, most likely by companies that will recycle them into new plastic bags or buy them to make into other products, such as weatherproof decking."
Congratulations, Big Apple. Now keep an eye on where the bags go for recycling. Require retailers to show that your bags won't become problems in someone else's backyard. Who ever said it would be easy being green...

Let's all dialogue with Metro Vancouver

A visitor to our blog just noticed that the Metro Vancouver Sustainability Dialogues coming up this month (see coming events at the very bottom of this page) require pre-registration ~ but there is no registration function on the web page.

Turns out that the Dialogues are "By Invitation Only."

To request an invitation, send an email to:

Judy Robertson Communications Specialist, Corporate Communications Telephone: 604-432-6205 e-mail:

It just seems sometimes as though Metro Vancouver is trying to make it hard to get involved....)

Australia gets tough(er) on plastic bags

Australia's new climate-friendly federal government has upped the pressure on retailers, promising to take measures to completely "phase out" the use of plastic bags by the end of the year. See this news coverage for details.

Peter Garrett, Australia's federal environment minister, Peter Garrett (International Herald Trib photo), said: "I think most people would like to see them rid. We think it's absolutely critical that we get cracking on it. We'd like to see a phase-out implemented by 2008."

A voluntary program approved by the former Howard government cut plastic bag use in major stores by 50%.

(Does Peter Garrett look familiar? He's the former lead singer with protest rockers Midnight Oil and ex-head of the Australian Conservation Foundation.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Plastic bags targeted again

What do South Africa, San Francisco, Leaf Rapids (Manitoba) and China have in common? They all cracked down on stores handing out free plastic bags.

The Australian government stopped short of a legal ban, instead challenging retailers to cut back on bag use voluntarily, achieving mixed results. The Irish government imposed a punitive tax on bags and consumption quickly dropped by over 90% ~ prompting the government to ratchet up the tax even higher.

These tough actions have been popular with the public and the plastics industry is going to have to act fast to stem the rising tide of public revulsion against the ubiquitous eyesore, dubbed South Africa's "national flower" because it was littered so profusely along roadsides.

Local politicians here in the Lower Mainland are sensing which way this wind is blowing. Will we be next?

But here's something to think about: the bags are only popular because our local governments obligingly collect them from our homes and dispose of them for us.

Isn't it about time our communities stopped enabling our addiction to waste by making it so irresistably easy to get rid of all our useless throw-aways?

Are we ready to tell our politicians to put a ban on disposing of plastic bags in the city garbage? That would sure make consumers would think twice about accepting a free bag.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Even the "partners" are in the dark!

Transparency. Public access to information. Public participation.

These are hallmarks of good government and a healthy democratic process. But it is a struggle to make them part of the process at Metro Vancouver.

The part-time political directors do their best to provide direction but the workings of Metro Vancouver bureaucracy remain mysterious to most of us citizens. Decisions are made in the bowels of the bureaucracy that we find out later we might really have wanted to know about.

Like the purchase in 2000 of a cattle ranch in Ashcroft to build a 100-year landfill.

And the decision taken last year sometime and suddenly announced in a Communique on October 9 2007 to build several new waste incinerators in our region.

Sometimes, with Orwellian doublespeak, Metro Vancouver stages costly public events with cryptic titles and no clue to the content as a way of "stimulating fresh thought." Such seems to be the case with a series coming up this month of so-called Future of the Region Sustainability Dialogs. It was quietly posted on the Metro Vancouver website over the holiday period.
The website calls these a "series of high-profile debates and discussions is intended to help decision makers shape the future of the region by presenting a range of views which hopefully challenge and stimulate fresh thought on a range of regional issues."
Chair Lois Jackson is quoted as saying: “Expert panelists and highly–engaged participants have provided fresh and stimulating perspectives on regional issues.”

But less than 2 weeks before the first event on January 17 there are no speakers listed on the promotional material - or even any debate topics beyond the generic "waste management."

I try to keep up to date on Metro Vancouver events, but I sure never saw these coming. Nor, apparently, did the sponsors.

We are told that Metro Vancouver is partnering with Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade across Metro Vancouver to provide these dialogs. But a search of every one of the 13 Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade whose logos grace the announcement shows that not a single one has any of the 3 events posted on their websites. In fact, the Surrey and Delta chambers have actually scheduled conflicting events in the time slots for the "Sustainability Dialog" in their sector of the region.

Whose idea was it to hold these "dialogs" and why don't they want us to know what is going to be debated there? (image source:

Thursday, January 3, 2008

CONTEST: how big is a pound of styrofoam?

You could be the lucky winner if you guess the correct answer to this question. Here are some clues:

"Styrofoam" (Expanded Polystyrene/EPS) is:

  • 98% air

  • 1/10th as dense as water (density ranges from 1.0 to 4.0 pcf)

While you work out the math, have a look at this great video of a styrofoam recycling machine!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

How much styrofoam did Santa bring you this year?

If your post-holiday garbage is packed solid with "styrofoam" (aka expanded polystyrene, or EPS), you'll be encouraged by the following notes that crossed my desk today.

The Wisconsin State Journal ran a story about a retailer who figured 80% of his waste was styrofoam. He purchased a simple machine that cuts the big blocks of foam into chips that can be reused as loose-fill styrofoam "peanuts."

In September, New Scientist published a story about a patent application from some Chinese scientists who have developed a new way of making styrofoam so it melts away in water when you're done with it.
Will these be the breakthroughs that solve our styrofoam problem? Probably not. Solutions have come and gone for years.
The fact is, the companies that use styrofoam packaging are not looking for a breakthrough ~ because THEY don't have a problem.
From the electronic manufacturers' point of view, that styrofoam is a solution, not a problem ~ it protects their products from breakage during shipment.
It's only after the products are sold to the consumer that styrofoam morphs into a problem, filling your garbage can and your community's landfill.
And the electronics companies are not likely to give you any help dealing with your styrofoam ~ unless they have to. Which is what "Extended Producer Responsibility" is all about.
This is the new paradigm: if you sell a product, you're responsible for recycling it, cradle-to-cradle. That includes both the product and the packaging.
Once the producers have to deal with their waste, solutions happen.
Instead, what do we do? We put THEIR styrofoam in the garbage where it costs US money. Metro Vancouver is looking at half a billion dollars in capital costs over the next few years to build all those fancy waste incinerators that will vaporize plastics into the atmosphere.
It's our choice: build incinerators, or use the law to compel producers to design products and packaing responsibly so there will be no hidden social or environmental costs.
This is going to be an exciting year!