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

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ashcroft all over again?

On Saturday I spent a couple of hours at the Earth Day celebration at Jericho Park.

I spoke to several dozen people about the plan to build waste incinerators in our region. Not a single person had heard that Metro Vancouver was intending to do this.

Interestingly, two people had seen the ads for the public meetings about waste management, but they had not understood that the meetings were about a plan to build incinerators.

Some of the people I spoke to were worried about possible health impacts. More were worried, as I am, about the climate change effects from burning plastics that will emit CO2. Most of all, people wondered why we would be spending money to burn all those throw-away products that shouldn't be sold in the first place. What better way to lock in the Throw-Away Society?

In 2000, without any public discussion, the GVRD Board agreed to spend $4.5 million on Ashcroft Ranch. Another $5.5 million were subsequently spent trying to get approval for a 100-year landfill there.

That mistake will pale in comparison to the blunder we are about to commit with the staff's new so-called waste solution. The Metro Vancouver Board agreed on Friday to authorize a quarter of a billion dollars in new debt to build incinerators.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A challenge

The provincial government just announced that two more product categories are going to come under the recycling regulation.
Producers of mercury containing products, notably the CFL lamps that are now flooding the market, are going to have to present a business plan for taking back burned out bulbs from consumers. (Major retailers are already taking back CFLs.)

And a broader range of electronic equipment is going to be collected back through programs provided by their producers, like the program for TVs and computer recycling system launched last August. We'll be able to dispose of defunct stereos, cellphones and other hand-held devices in programs paid for by producers and scrutinized by the government.

These programs are the envy of other jurisdictions. In most places, programs for taking back and recycling throw-away products and packaging are provided at public expense.

The purpose of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is to stimulate better product design and marketing systems by shifting the cost of waste back onto those with control over product design.

BC is one of the world leaders in EPR. During the 1990s those of us who were involved in pushing for it had a lot of hope that we had found a way to turn the waste tide.

Throw-away products and packaging comprise three-quarters of everything we throw away. Biodegradable materials like food and yard waste the remaining quarter. We thought we had found the formula for Zero Waste. Zero Waste = EPR + composting.

It makes good sense to make producers take back toxic products. But how about EPR for the high-volume trash that has filled our landfills prematurely? Those huge detergent bottles, for instance. Carpeting. Unrepairable furniture?
If we didn't create such huge haysacks of garbage, the needles would be easier to find.

Something in common

That's me in the second bed on the right. I hope I didn't breathe on any of you out there and expose you to the pestilence that has struck me down. If you get it, cancel all your meetings and go to bed.

While I wasn't sitting in the Alice McKay room last night listening to Metro Vancouver staff talk about incinerators, I was thinking about our region.

I was thinking about the dairy farmers in the Fraser Valley. The fishboats in Steveston and False Creek. The people handing out home cooked food at the Baisakhi festival. Our Chinese Greengrocer. All the coffee shops. The community gardens. The cranberry bogs in Richmond. The artisanal bakeries. The neighbourhood Tim Hortons wherever we go.

What if we just started by getting these people together to offer their pungent wastes as a community resource?

San Francisco sells compost to California vineyards. We've got vineyards. Why can't we do that?

Pic: 1918 Spanish Flu

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Provincial government slips in a surprise

The provincial government introduced a bill last week that appears to make incineration a form of recycling.

Bill 29 contains amendments to the Environmental Management Act that would include:

"... requiring the owner or operator of a waste management facility to recycle certain wastes or classes of wastes, and to recover certain reusable resources, including energy potential from wastes or classes of wastes..."

If you, dear visitor to this blog, have expertise in this area, we'd all welcome your interpretation of where the government seems to be headed with this. There has been a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war over the "4th R" for years. It will be too bad if it is legislated to have equivalency to the 3rd R.


Give us a Green Bin!

What should we tell our civic leaders at the public meeting downtown tonight?

What can they do right now, without waiting for Metro Vancouver to sort out whether to build three new incinerators or six?

What can they do to have an immediate positive impact on the environment?

The answer: give us a Green Bin program.

It is not that hard to get the sloppy wet stuff out of our gargage. Toronto loves their Green Bin program. Food waste is the main source of the greenhouse gas methane that makes our landfills one of the top contributors to climate change.

It's something we should be taking responsibility for.

We have seen the future, and it is green.

The new pollution

The Earth Day celebration spills over into today's morning paper.

Typically, the Vancouver Sun sends us a confusing message, from a reassuring "corporate embrace" of Earth Day in the United States to a grim, rub-our-noses-in-it reminder that we Canadians are the world's No. 3 polluter.

And what is the new pollution that earns us the Bronze Medal of shame? Carbon dioxide.

Who would have thought that CO2 would be called a "pollutant"?

The fact is, we have licked many of the conventional pollutants that worried us in the 19th and 20th Centuries. We solved those problems by exporting our industrial production.

It's someone else's community that suffers environmental and health impacts to produce the low-cost goods that we bring home and stuff in our garages and garbage cans.

Instead of supplying ourselves with daily necessities, we supply the world with fossil fuels. Most of our CO2 pollution, according to the StatsCan report cited in the Sun, comes from "the production of fossil fuels... for export." We are increasing our CO2 pollution this way faster than any other industrialized country.

And the rest of the world suffers twice: first from the direct impacts of supplying us with our daily necessities, and then from the global impacts of climate change caused by our supplying them with fossil energy.

The StatsCan report says we are each responsible for 23 tonnes of CO2 per year. I bet they didn't count "embodied carbon."

Embodied carbon is the CO2 pollution emitted on our behalf by those faraway factories that supply us with our daily necessities. Bill Rees calls it appropriated carrying capacity.

When we burn or bury our trash, we not only dump the physical carbon content of our waste directly into the atmosphere, we simultaneously stimulate those factories to stoke the furnaces to send in the next containerload, creating, of course, secure markets for our fossil fuel exports....and continuing the cycle of waste.

We can do better, but only if we do things differently.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Council of Councils learn about garbage, not recycling

Gosh, if you had a chance to get all the councillors from the 23 municipalities in the Lower Mainland in the same room to learn something new about waste ~ in the context, of course, of the Zero Waste Challenge ~ wouldn't you think there'd be something to talk about besides burning and burying garbage?

But, darn-it-all, that was the opportunity squandered this past weekend, when Metro Vancouver convened the Council of Councils for its first meeting in a year.

Here we are, trying to imagine a path to a world without waste, and our regional authority responsible for planning offers three speakers who address, respectively:

  • Processing garbage through mechanical and biological treatment;

  • Incineration of garbage;

  • Gasification of garbage.

The middle topic was dubbed reassuringly "traditional technologies" guiding the good aldermen and women into viewing striped smokestacks as benign monuments on the urban landscape. Sort of like the church steeples of yesteryear.

Why weren't the speakers talking about the next great challenge in waste reduction: food waste composting. While we're busy building incinerators, the regional district of Nanaimo has just completing a successful pilot of food waste composting.

In 2000, when Metro Vancouver was laying down $4.5 million for a hundred-year landfill, Halifax launched a full-scale composting program that cut their waste by fifty percent within months.

Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto... why are they able to not only talk about Zero Waste, but do something about it? Is it a new set of politicians we need, or a shake-up in Metro Vancouver management so they stop steering us down the path of burning and burying.

Wouldn't it be fun to get busy solving the waste problem instead of talking about ways to prolong it?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Break the cycle of waste

Dear elected officials:

You're starting to wake up to the financial costs of Metro's proposed solution to our garbage problem.

The $1.4 - $3.0 billion dollars in capital expenditures.

The disposal fees that would be double what we are paying now.

The double-billing. We will pay twice to dispose of the same waste, first to incinerate it, and then to dispose of the toxic ash ~ a quarter of a million tonnes of ash will be disposed of each year.

Metro staff refuse to give you hard numbers on the actual costs of their plan, saying they prefer to set "visionary" goals for us to follow.

But what sort of a "vision" is incineration?

An incinerator is a machine that needs to be fed. The incinerators that would be built under the Metro staff's plan would consume one and a half million tonnes of waste each year. For comparison, this is approximately 50% more waste than we dispose of today at all three of our regional disposal facilities.

Where will the waste come from? All the useless products that your citizens complain about will continue to be produced because we will need them for fuel. The excess packaging, the plastic bags, the toxic toys, the Lexan bottles, the unrepairable appliances, the fast-food packaging.

We will continue to be part of the dangerous cycle of poor product design that cities and towns like ours make possible by providing landfills and incinerators.

This is not a new problem: the Throw-Away Society with its rising tide of disposable products has been a concern for generations.

What is new is the global impacts. We are about to enter into a very rocky period of human history: the end of cheap oil and the unpredictable effects of climate change caused by our profligate use of oil.

We have become dependent on people in poor countries to supply us with the food and products we buy, use up, and throw away. Those people are now leaving their workplaces and joining in food riots. They are hungry because we have disrupted grain markets in a desperate effort to fuel our cars with ethanol. We are starving them to feed our cars.

The new container terminals and perimeter roads and incinerators may all be idled if the people we count on to fill them with cheap goods don't have enough to eat.

Will prosperous cities like ours have the courage to break the cycle of waste? Or will we build 19th Century infrastructure to allow it to continue?

Who will decide?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Waste plan coming off the rails?

At 9:30 tomorrow morning Vancouver City Council will receive another strongly worded report from Tom Timm, the City's General Manager of Engineering Services, about Metro Vancouver's increasingly controversial waste management plan.

In a January report, Timm flagged a provision in the just-announced draft regional plan to double the burden on the Vancouver landfill while the region tries to site waste incinerators. This resulted in a rushed motion by the Metro Vancouver Board to seek approval to export waste to the US if necessary.

Now Timm is recommending to Council that it take a political stand along with other municipalities in the region to block the juggernaut regional waste planning process, which has been fast-tracked to drive home a completed plan by the autumn.

Timm suggests the process may not be compliant with the Ministry of Environment's requirements for amending regional waste plans because of its "very abbreviated and superficial consultation process with stakeholders and the public." The last waste plan took four years to complete.

Vancouver is really concerned that Metro's plan would effectively shut down the Vancouver Landfill by 2020, seventeen years early.

This would cost the city significant future revenues from the landfill. The operating cost is $20 while the disposal fee is $68. Metro, Vancouver and Delta share the profits under the provisions of a Tripartite Agreement.

But switching from landfilling to incineration would significantly raise waste disposal costs for every municipality in the region. The regional rate for each tonne of garbage will double.

"There has been no technical, scientific or engineering analyses conducted to support the proposal that waste-to-energy (WTE) s the sole appropriate strategy for handling all of the region's solid waste," the report says.

"There has been no analysis of the sensitivity of the operating costs for WTE to the quantity of waste processed. The significant capital expenditures for WTE facilities also require consideration."

Politicians at the regional Waste Management Committee last week were grilling Metro Vancouver staff about these same concerns. With civic elections on the horizon, they may not want to be committing billions of dollars on projects that are not tested technically, let alone politically.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why didn't the politicians see Guy Dauncey's letter?

At the end of January, Guy Dauncey wrote a letter to the Metro Vancouver Board on behalf of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. But you won't find it in Metro Vancouver's public record.

Dauncey was writing to express the association's concern about Metro Vancouver's proposal to build waste incinerators.

The letter cited the fact that half to two-thirds of the carbon in our waste is of fossil origin (including plastics, textiles and rubber) which will emit 240,000 - 730,000 tonnes of "climate-relevant" carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, just like the CO2 from gasoline and coal.

Dauncey also mentioned health concerns from incineration. He is Co-Chair of Prevent Cancer Now, an organization that has just been awarded a grant to look at the link between waste incinerators and cancer.

But there is no mention of the BC SEA letter in the agendas or minutes of Metro Vancouver Board meetings since the end of January. Did our political leaders see this letter? Why is it not part of the public record?

(I found the letter entirely by chance on the Fraser Valley Regional District website.)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Mixing recyclables a bad idea

Is your city switching to "single-stream" recycling, so you put all your recyclable materials together instead of separating paper products, bottles and cans?

If so, complain!

Single-stream recycling is a slippery slope that will take us right back where we started before recycling. Remember: the more materials you put in a recycling container, the more it resembles a garbage can.

The materials you recycle lose value when they're scrambled together. Someone has to be paid to unscramble them. And that's not all: valuable paper gets contaminated with the dreck from dirty containers. If you want your city to get top dollar for the materials from your home or workplace, insist that they give those materials the careful handling they deserve, starting with your participation at the curb.

Ask how much revenue your city is earning from mixed materials, compared with other cities that collect paper and containers separately.

Single-stream recycling is favoured by garbage companies who want to look good by appearing to divert large volumes of (low-value) material. Mainly they want to reduce their up-front collection costs, even if the cost is passed on to the recycler.

Every nickel they save is a dollar lost for the environment when the messed-up materials can't be used to make new products. Dumbing-down recycling is not the way to build a healthy new recycling economy.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A lot of gasification

First there was the phone call on Monday, January 7th from Mayor Joe Trasolini of Port Moody. He wanted to help me understand the new plasma gasification technology for solid waste. It is not incineration, he assured me. He had visited the Plasco plant and looked thoroughly at it, and he was "pushing" this technology (his word) as the solution to our growing waste problem.

Then a few weeks later the phone rang again. It was a representative of Plasco. He was offering a chance to sit down with Plasco CEO Rod Bryden to learn more about the technology. I told him it was not a good use of either Mr. Bryden's or my time, since I had read Plasco's publicity about plasma technology.

Then last week another phone call. This time it was a familiar name: Ron Unger. Ron was getting back into waste management consulting after a number of years. He wanted to sit down with me and get some background to help him with a new client. I agreed to meet Ron for coffee.

And who did his new client turn out to be? Plasco.

I gave Ron more than two hours of my time and asked him to take back the following message to his client:

There is no way that I will ever support the development of a plasma gasification plant for my region's solid waste. In fact, I will do everything in my power as a citizen to ensure that such a plant is never built in Metro Vancouver.

Like mass-burn incineration, which I also oppose, plasma gasification converts garbage to CO2 and dumps it straight into the atmosphere. This includes biogenic carbon (yard waste, food waste, paper) that could be used to replenish the soil, as well as fossil carbon (plastics) that we should put safely back in the ground where it came from. It also includes the embodied carbon (the energy that was consumed to make the products destroyed through incineration/gasification) -- which may turn out to be the greatest waste of all.
For a really clear explanation of the embodied carbon concept, listen to Clarissa Morawski answering the nonsense peddled by another of Plasco's salesmen, Conservative MP Bob Mills. Mills and Morawski were interviewed on The Current last week. You'll have to wait for the second segment of the show, and the second half of the segment, to hear Clarissa.

Now, Plasco, please take me off your distribution list. It's bad enough to be mined for counter-arguments by paid hacks. But I am particularly uncomfortable when elected politicians "push" specific technologies. This is not their job. It makes me wonder who they are really working for.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A crisis of leadership

Two years after our local politicians committed to a "Zero Waste Challenge," they all seem to be falling off the wagon.

Why are they sitting quiet while their staff enshrine a $3 billion expenditure on incinerators as the lynchpin of a new waste management plan? Did they think we wouldn't notice if they gave us a landfill in the sky, as long as they called it Zero Waste?

Then last week they approved trainloads of trash heading to the USA -- just until we get those incinerators built.

The burdens of leadership are heavy. History will judge whether building better burners will solve the waste/climate change crisis.

And the upcoming elections will judge whether appealing to the public's greed, laziness and apathy will inspire support from voters.

I'm waiting for someone in public office to stand up and say that burning waste is a dumb idea. Is anyone out there?