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

Monday, May 26, 2008

Stop cleaning up after the Throw-Away Society

Today I overheard two strangers talking about how much they hate all the excess packaging that comes on the products they buy. Wouldn't they be surprised to know they were subsidizing it with their tax dollars?

According to the US federal government (which tracks these things) packaging has increased 51% since 1980. And that understates the real impact. Consider how packaging has changed in the past 26 years.

You can fit 600 pounds of old-fashioned glass bottles and jars in a box one cubic yard in size. To handle a comparable weight in plastic bottles and jars, you need a box 16 times bigger. With the increase in packaging, that means we need a box 24 times bigger. Twenty-four times more garbage trucks, 24 times more landfill space... and that's just for the packaging. Throw-away products have increased 86% over the same period. Three times the rate of population growth.

The cost of dealing with all that waste falls squarely on local communities. It's up to us to build the landfills, finance the incinerators, and provide the convenient weekly collection to which we have all become accustomed.

But finance it we have. A report being circulated by Metro Vancouver reminds us that in our country $1.5 billion was spent by municipal governments in 2000 on solid waste management. That cost was offset by a mere $97 million in recycling revenues.

That's over $1.4 billion public dollars spent in a single year to subsidize the producers of excess packaging and throw-away products.

The companies that profit from these subsidies will be sending their big guns to Vancouver this week to participate in an invitation-only Packaging Symposium organized by Metro Vancouver.

They will be happy to hear about Metro Vancouver's draft waste management plan, which will give them a big boost.

The region's plan requires our municipal governments to spend more to recycle plastic packaging (even though there are no markets for the material). And the rest that can't be recycled? We'll build big burners and pump it up into the atmosphere.

Infrastructure that locks in waste.

(The report mentioned above was penned for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities by RIS, the Ontario consulting firm that works closely with the producers of throw-away products and packaging.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Globe columnist slams Ontario incinerator decision

The Globe's John Barber wrote a scathing Op-Ed today about convoluted logic that convinced politicians in the Durham region of Ontario that it was a "prudent" investment to saddle ratepayers with a waste solution (incinerator) that will cost $250/tonne ~ compared, for instance, with the solution chosen by Toronto (landfill) that will cost $70/tonne.
He comments: "Yesterday, a key Durham committee voted to accept the business case supporting the incinerator as the most "prudent" way to dispose of its waste for the next two generations. If regional council follows suit, its far-sighted members will prudently condemn their grandchildren to paying three times as much to dispose of their garbage as their neighbours do - using a technology that was unforgivably primitive even in 2008."

He reminds readers that there are alternatives ~ a "flood of new policies and technologies that promise virtually to eliminate the need for conventional disposal."
He might have been thinking of Extended Producer Responsibility (where BC is a leader). This policy promises to eliminate 75% of municipal waste by giving the problem back to producers.
He might have been thinking of the composting of biodegradable wastes, where Ontario is a leader. Together these policies add up to Zero Waste, or darned close. Never have we had such an opportunity to do away with waste as we know it.
But not for poor Durham, alas.
Barber writes: "Not only will the grandchildren be stuck paying for a hideous, polluting relic on the shores of their lake, they will pay through the absence of the public transit that everybody else will have built by then"

Let's not let it happen here. Metro Vancouver has already approved the authority to borrow a quarter of a billion dollars to build an incinerator here. They can't sign the deal until a new waste management plan is approved. Zero Waste Vancouver has prepared a position paper on the proposed plan. If your organization would like to read the paper and consider signing on, contact us by email: We'd be happy to send a speaker to provide background on the issue.

Transit... or Gateway for Garbage. Our choice or theirs?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Misleading metaphors

A new report has just been released by the province delivering on Premier Campbell's clarion call to the UBCM last fall to pursue "a vision where human activities enhance our environment" rather than having the usual effect of taking us to hell in a handbasket.

The province's bold new strategy for civic redemption is dubbed "integrated resource management."

The guiding principle of IRM is that communities should be building infrastructure to make money from waste rather than treating it as a taxpayer cost. On the face of it, the notion of exploiting the inherent value in waste makes sense. It's been the basis of arguments for recycling (and against waste incineration) for a generation.

But like the traditional waste management approaches it wants to replace, IRM fails to get to the root cause of waste and is therefore programmed to perpetuate the waste problem rather than solving it ~ and make certain business interests rich at public expense.

A quick read of the 122 page report reveals that the authors' main interest and expertise is in liquid waste ~ sorry! resource! ~ management.

There is a plausible case that liquid waste management will benefit from an IRM strategy. And there is a plausible intersect between liquid waste and solid waste, which is food scraps. In the proposed IRM system "wet organic waste" would be processed in sewage treatment plants to produce valuable energy and/or heat. So far, so good.

But the study also suggests a so-called IRM solution for "dry organic waste" (i.e. all other municipal solid waste) and that solution is gasification for syngas, which is presented as "a clean process with significantly lower emissions than traditional incineration."

When you make a business case that waste is a "resource" (something of value to be exploited) this frames waste as a good rather than a bad. It encourages the flow of waste. The more waste, the more resource to exploit.

Public policy matters. This IRM signal from the province opens the door to businesses like Enerkem, Plasco, Veolia, etc. etc. etc) who can deliver revenues from waste.

But it shuts down enquiry that might lead to waste prevention approaches that would deliver broader benefits. Did the authors of this study, which may well guide provincial and municipal policy on waste far into the future, consider the value that is squandered when throw-away products are gasified? Or the impacts that will be felt globally when more throw-away products are produced to replace them?

Same old handbasket.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Upcoming film screening: Recycled Life

Projecting Change, Vancouver's environmental film festival at the Ridge Theatre this weekend, sounds very tasty indeed, featuring buzzworthy films like King Corn and Tableland.

Of particular interest to Zero Waste supporters will be the documentary "Recycled Life", which offers a glimpse into the informal diversion of waste in Guatemala City. The film documents the "beauty, humour and remarkable contrast" in the lives of generations of entrepreneurs who work in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump harvesting anything of value for recycling and reuse. View the trailer here.

Annie Leonard's wonderful short film "The Story of Stuff," which takes a smart, often humourous look at the cycle of production and consumption, will be paired with "Recycled Life" at the same showing. If you can't make it into Vancouver to the Projecting Change festival, "The Story of Stuff" is also available to watch free online at .

Recycled Life and The Story of Stuff play this Saturday, May 11 at 5pm at the Ridge Theatre, at 16th Avenue and Arbutus, in Vancouver.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Is this Zero Waste?

This picture will be of historic interest someday.
It will show how we managed recycling before we became a Zero Waste society.

People will look at this picture and laugh ruefully. Weren't people clueless then! Those were the days when recycling was just an extension of your public garbage service. No wonder people treated that paper like garbage.

In the Zero Waste Communities that are yet to come, "recycling" will be liberated from the Garbage & Recycling Department and integrated into the commercial core of the community.

Recycling shops will occupy cozy storefronts and clean indoor premises rather than being relegated to a derelict corner of a parking lot.

Discards will be "goods." They will be handled carefully, sorted, traded, upgraded. Specialized shops will be able to give you top dollar for your discards, or lose business. Recyclers will entice customers with daily specials.

There will be Designer Recycler outlets specialize in Name Brand products to be returned, repaired or replaced. There will be unique outlets specializing in a particular line of goods: paper products? plastic products? electronics? hardware? athletic equipment? sewing notions? used books? kitchen gadgets? office supplies? bike or auto accessories?

There will be Discard Malls where a whole range of recycling centres will be clustered, one-stop-shopping for cleaning out the garage or the basement ~ or finding that item you need.

This will happen when cities and towns stop competing against private recycling services, but instead use their zoning and economic development powers to encourage the emergence of stores like Urban Ore in Berkeley (closer to home visit Jack's in Burnaby), consignment stores, second hand shops, bottle depots, used book stores...

The evolution to a Zero Waste society will happen when we get our Engineering Services departments working on food waste composting and hand over the recycling file to the Community Planning department.

Planners will help us make recycling part of the fabric of our community, a way to grow the tax base and create jobs, a way to attract tourists, a way to tap into local assets and express the community's unique style and character. And a way to eliminate landfills.

pic: Gibson Park Plaza Recycling Depot, operated by the Sunshine Coast Regional District