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

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The hypocrisy of energy from waste

I woke up today with a severe case of White Guilt.

I am a citizen in a community where my politicians and waste engineers are fatuously promoting waste as "renewable fuel" to heat our gleaming downtowns.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan -- rightly respected by his citizens as a champion of workers' rights -- is insisting that his community has no problem with the waste incinerator that produces valuable steam and electricity there.

Meanwhile the workers producing that fuel are dying from chemical exposure.

It's bad enough that we have squandered our children's share of the planet's supply of fossil fuels. Now we are preparing to compound the offence by building a new energy system that relies on a continuing flow of cheap goods from the so-called Developing World.

And we are protected from guilt by science.

Is this the Greenest City we want to build?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Giants of garbage staking claim on our organics

As reported a couple days ago, the garbage industry is recognizing that landfilling is "flatlining" and they are looking for future growth opportunities. The biggest one looming is biodegradable organics -- up to half our waste is biodegradable and there is big money to be made as local communities get serious about keeping these volatile materials out of landfills.

Already, Wall Street and the Giants of Garbage are laying claim to the territory.

Fraser Richmond Soil and Fibre was their first target. It is a family owned company (mainly in the business of hauling wood chips) that has been processing Metro Vancouver yard trimmings for the past several years. The company just signed a modest contract with Metro to process 50,000 tonnes of mixed food scraps and yard trimmings. The City of Vancouver will shortly announce that they have signed a separate contract and will begin shipping mixed yard trimmings and food scraps in the spring.

This was enough for Fraser Richmond to be snapped up by a bigger company called Harvest Power.

With typical Wall Street hype, Harvest is describing this primitive little facility as "the largest composting facility in North America."

Also, Harvest Power touts itself as a company with "industry leading technologies" but it turns out Fraser Richmond is the only plant they have "up and running." And the Fraser Richmond facility is in fact a very simple windrow composting operation that has never done the anaerobic digestion process that Harvest is marketing as its key product.

Now Harvest has signed a deal with garbage giant Waste Management Inc.

Is this a sign that the garbage industry is re-inventing itself as a composting industry -- or will all this go up in a puff of Wall Street smoke and mirrors?

Friday, January 22, 2010

When corporations leave town

Today's news that the Catalyst's two recycling mills in BC will close is an opportunity to consider the bizarre reality of global marketing -- and the continuing impacts on local communities.

Two decades ago I wrote a newsletter for the Recycling Council of BC that was prompted by a call from Newstech Recycling, as Catalyst was called then. They were ramping up production of recycled newspaper to satisfy growing demand in the US, where we sell most of our newsprint. Their problem was obtaining adequate quantities of recycled newspapers in good enough condition to use in their recycling plants.

Looking into the background of that story I learned that Canada supplied almost 2/3 of the world's newsprint. We were emptying our forests to provide groundwood pulp and paper to countries that didn't have forests.

But the upsurge in demand for recycled paper created serious problems for our industry -- and potentially for our environment.

I calculated that if Canada shifted to just 10% recycled content in all the newspaper we produce to meet that demand, we would have to import staggering quantities of old newspapers (I've forgotten the exact figures) to use as feedstock in our mills.

Furthermore, the amount of toxic ink washed out of the old newspaper to prepare it for recycling would be greater the total tonnage of old newspapers that we throw out ourselves here in Canada. By becoming recyclers of the world's newsprint, we would end up importing far more waste than we avoid.

Any surprise that Catalyst set up a paper recycling mill in Arizona, right next door to the vast "urban forest" in California? It makes much more sense to put the recycling plant where the supply of old newspaper is.

Since the early 1990s when I wrote that newsletter, Canada's share of the global newsprint market has dropped from 62% to 53%, reflecting the rise in recycling. The companies like Catalyst can just shift their assets to where the market exists. But our forests and the communities they supported are left behind to start all over again.

Even with the decline in Canada's share of the market there is still a huge imbalance when a country with 0.5% of the world's population supplies over half of the world's newspaper. This system is going to crumble, piece by piece, one plant at a time.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Big shake-up on Metro Waste Committee

Today brings yet another sign that Metro's waste plan is off the rails.

Surrey Councillor Marvin Hunt -- the chief champion of incinerators -- was demoted from the chair of the Waste Management Committee. Metro Board Chair Lois Jackson, who makes the appointments, told BC Local News reporter Jeff Nagel: "Marvin's been there for a long time and we've been having some difficulties concluding this file. Maybe some new ideas and a fresh look will assist us."

I don't think Hunt deserves all the blame for the mess we're in. It has been my observation that almost all the Metro Board members have been allowing their staff to lead them deeper and deeper, one breadcrumb at a time, into the dark forest they find themselves in now, with no clear path out. They have assented to a series of staff recommendations that shut off debate and drew needed resources from better courses of action.

And this Board is not alone. For a hundred years elected officials all over North America have been relying on their professional staff for guidance in utility decisions. Like most citizens, politicians have very little understanding of the technical issues around waste management. When I started going to Waste Management Committee meetings, the meetings wrapped up so fast I hardly got a chance to pull out my agenda. All of the staff recommendations were approved essentially without discussion, sometimes bundled together and approved all at once as a "consent agenda."

But things have changed on that committee in the past few years. The meetings can go on for several hours of lively discussion.

My impression is that politicians are beginning to realize that we are in a paradigm shift here. Progressive waste policy is acknowledging that the old solutions have patently failed. Public programs to guarantee convenient removal of anything the resident puts out at the curb, no questions asked, is one of the root causes of our Throw-Away Society. Wasting has become normalized. (Never mind that we produce 13 times more garbage than our grandparents did.)

Ask Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, who has just been appointed to replace Hunt at the head of the waste committee.

Mayor Moore is taking political heat in his community for scaling back garbage collection to once every two weeks. Quite a few angry citizens feel a sense of entitlement to waste as much as they want. Never mind that PoCo is offering scaled up organics service to compensate for the scaled back garbage service.

This makes Mayor Moore an interesting pick for waste committee chair. He is the one politician in the region who seems ready to spend real political capital helping his community become a leader in the 21st Century Zero Waste approach. Maybe he can build some teamwork on that committee and spread the vision region-wide.

Metro claims about waste growth contradict waste industry's assessment

When the US EPA issued its latest annual update on waste trends in November 2009, the waste industry's largest trade publication saw the handwriting on the wall.

The article in the December 1, 2009, issue of Waste Age said: "The growth trend between 1960 and 1980 suggested that both the amount of waste generated and landfilled would grow dramatically in subsequent years. However, while 249.6 million tons of MSW [municipal solid waste] were generated in 2008, only 135.1 million tons of that material was disposed in landfills. Disposal at landfills essentially flatlined for the past three decades."

The EPA study also reports (page 9) that incineration has flatlined since 1990. In fact, the amount of waste incinerated declined, per-capita, from a high of just under one pound per person per day in 1990 to just over half a pound in 2008. Less than 13% of US waste is incinerated, a percentage that has also declined since 1990.

The US EPA figures on waste disposal are national averages, showing the broad trends in the United States. But they are entirely consistent with the data from Metro Vancouver's own local waste composition reports, cited in this blog yesterday. Waste disposal here has also flatlined.

Next year's numbers will show a drop in landfill volumes which will last until the recession is over. This is not a good time to be investing in new disposal capacity.

Organics composting is a "recession-proof" waste market. Unlike recycling, composting doesn't rely on global commodity markets. The markets are right here in our own backyard.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tide turns on Metro's incineration plan

It took a few days for the penny to drop but the press seems to be approaching a consensus that Metro's incineration plan is "burning out."

Those were the words of Province reporter Brian Lewis, published yesterday under the headline "Extension buries incinerator proposal." The previous day Coquitlam's former Mayor (and current City Councillor) Lou Sekora laid out several good reasons why he opposes Metro's incinerators in an interview with . "

So the big question hanging in the air is: where will Metro's waste go, now that the First Nations don't want it and the incinerators are off the table?

The first step is for Metro to put the real numbers on the table. Just how much waste is actually there to be disposed of?

Every three years Metro does a "waste characterization study" looking at samples of our waste to see what kinds of things we're throwing away. Then they look at "the total municipal solid waste stream received by the entire Metro Vancouver waste transfer and disposal system" and project how much of each kind of waste (newspaper, food scraps, plastic bags, etc.) we throw away.

Here are the total amounts of waste reported in the last 3 studies:
2000: 1,066,520 tonnes
2004: 1,060,748 tonnes
2007: 1,013,700 tonnes

What's surprising about these figures?

Do you see the staggering growth in our waste that Metro Vancouver keeps claiming in order to justify the construction of incinerators (or even new landfills)?

We are well within the limits of our existing landfills and incinerator. Even if we lost the Cache Creek landfill this year, we would still have nearly enough space at the two remaining facilities (Vancouver landfill is permitted to take 750,000 tonnes each year and the Burnaby incinerator 290,000 tonnes).

It's a success story. We managed, largely through an expansion of composting programs for yard trimmings, to hold down our disposal for the last decade to zero growth.

And what of the future? The latest waste study found 350,000 tonnes of compostable organics that are taking up space in our landfills (and producing methane and toxic leachate). It also found 144,000 tonnes of recyclable paper, which is banned from disposal in our region.

That is a half-million tonnes of waste right off the top that we don't need to send to the waste incinerator or landfill. On top of that, there is 136,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic packaging and other products that we could give back to the producer to recycle, instead of ending up in our disposal system at community cost.

Doesn't it make sense to get aggressively behind programs to solve these problems instead of investing billions and offending our neighbours by building new incinerators and expanding landfills?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Metro’s source on health impacts of incinerators doesn’t actually measure health impacts of incinerators

Metro Vancouver frequently cites the conclusions of the UK Health Protection Agency to reassure us that incinerators won't harm our health.

The HPA is often quoted as saying things like this: "The HPA considers that modern, well-run incinerators pose only a very small and probably undetectable risk to health. This is because they have a very small impact on pollution levels locally or at a distance. In assessing risk, we take into account not only the toxicity of the compounds concerned but, very importantly, the likely concentrations to which people may be exposed."

In a letter posted on a UK Health Research website, HPA Chief Executive Justin McCracken repeats this statement, and goes on to admit that "we have not studied the 'rates of illness or premature deaths at electoral ward level around any incinerator'."

Why don't they look at the health of people living around incinerators?

Because "the number of people around an incinerator is too small to detect whether or not the incinerator is having an impact on health."

If people aren't healthy around incinerators, the HPA contends, it could be any number of things that are causing their problems: "Such studies need to be able to distinguish any influence of the incinerator (which is expected to be extremely small) from the many other factors that influence rates of illness or premature deaths."

How would you feel if the agency established to protect your health based its conclusions on what it "expects" rather than what it actually finds -- or doesn't find because, in fact, it doesn't even bother to look.

What you don't look at is, indeed, "probably undetectable."

(Metro Vancouver and the Ministry of Environment made a similar call 20 years ago when they ignored a recommendation from an early study of emissions near the Burnaby incinerator. The study had said it was unable to establish a clear link between the new incinerator the elevated levels of toxics it found in soil and vegetation in the area. It recommended that the measurements continue, to build a better database. Those tests have never been done.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Carline advises Metro Board: put a ceiling on recycling to ensure fuel for incinerator

A report from Metro CAO Johnny Carline didn't make it to the Board agenda on Friday. But it is definitely worth a read (see Item D1 on this agenda) It shows, right there in black and white what Metro staff's priorities are. It also raises the question of whether staff are overstepping their role as implementers of political direction.

The report was Carline's response to Metro politicians who have called for a higher diversion rate in the new waste plan. This has been a frequent question asked by politicians (and the public) ever since Metro staff pitched its arbitrary 70% target two years ago. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is only one of the politicians who called for the Plan to set higher goals.

Carline's recommendation was NOT to establish a higher target. He said:

"It is recommended that the 70% diversion target... be retained. It is also recommended that additional in-region waste-to-energy capacity be established... to ensure adequate in-region capacity is available for all waste that is not diverted to recycling."

With that second sentence, Carline makes it clear that he is more concerned about building new disposal facilities than about building a system that reduces waste.

He is making the political judgement that balancing supply and demand of waste is a more urgent priority than reducing waste -- and that building too much waste disposal capacity is better than building too little.

Carline's case that our current disposal facilities won't be enough to manage future waste volumes is far from air-tight. The figures in the report are misleading and should be challenged by politicians (I suggested questions that should be asked in an email to the Directors last week.)

Furthermore, Carline presents absolutely no scientific basis for the claim that higher diversion rates are unachievable. Rather, he offers a news article saying that Toronto is going to miss its recycling goal. According to Statistics Canada, Ontario has lagged behind BC in waste reduction for years. In 2006, their per capita waste was 822 kg, while ours in BC was 675 kg. Furthermore, Ontario has just introduced sweeping changes to its recycling legislation to bring it more in line with ours in British Columbia. We are world leaders in Producer Responsibility policies ~ why should we compare ourselves with Ontario?

Carline tells politicians that getting beyond 70% diversion "will require significant changes to the global economy." The question for our politicians -- not Carline -- to answer is whether we are going to adopt a waste management plan that supports global change and extends our leadership -- or one that locks us into yesterday's levels of wastefulness.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Metro Board's embarrassing exploitation of the gentle Chief Pasco

Today's meeting of the Metro Board was a study in what's wrong with governance in our region.

The first thing the Board did was to retreat behind closed doors. For an hour and a half the rest of us -- several local citizens and a much larger group of people from First Nations communities as far away as Fort St. John -- milled awkwardly in the lobby waiting to be re-admitted to the Board Room.

At quarter to eleven, the doors were re-opened and Nlaka'pamux Nation Tribal Council Chief Bob Pasco was admitted to the microphone. Pasco has sat in that chair many times, and over many years, speaking out against Metro's earlier plan to build a 100-year dump in Ashcroft. On those occasions, the Board gave him a patient hearing and then directed staff to continue doing just that.

This time Chief Pasco was invited to appear before the Board.

They gave him all the time he wanted to speak from the heart about what the land means to him and his community and future generations, and to invite one patient articulate First Nations speaker after another to take a turn at the mike. (Only Don Maclean from Pitt Meadows spoiled the moment by asking the Chair at one point how much longer this would go on and then sitting back and fuming in his chair until it was over.)

At the end of the delegation, Pasco noted that "there's a difference after all these years." In earlier times, he said, the message he picked up in the Metro building was "you don't belong here." But now "things have changed."

What has changed? Merely that Pasco is now a convenient tool in Metro's petty turf war with the provincial government, a totally trivial non-issue that has eclipsed all matters of public interest in deliberations about the future of our region's waste.

It turns out that the Board laboured so mightily behind those closed doors this morning to issue forth a long-winded motion that Metro send a delegation to Victoria.

What really has the Board's knickers in a knot -- the "elephant in the room" as Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan called it -- is the infuriating fact that Victoria approved the Cache Creek landfill permit extension while rejecting an essentially identical facility in Ashcroft. It was Corrigan who noted that Victoria's high-handed interference in Metro affairs was lubricated by paid lobbyists working for entities with a "financial interest" in the matter.

It was gruesomely clear in the discussion that followed that some on that Board appear to be more worried about the public money lost when Ashcroft was turned down than about the disdain for First Nations they would rightly have been accused of if it had gone ahead. Pasco's lessons had clearly fallen on deaf ears.

Corrigan I feel sure spoke for many on that Board when he expressed the view that recycling has "reached the point of diminishing returns." We should just get on with it, Directors kept saying, and build a landfill, or an incinerator, "or whatever" -- because, after all, we're in a desperate situation.

In a desperate situation to find someone's airshed or someone's traditional territory -- whatever -- to get rid of a problem that, after all, we can't do anything about.

After the meeting I went up to Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore and asked him how things are going with their food scraps program. He said he's still taking lots of heat from citizens, but it's mainly about switch from weekly to bi-weekly garbage pickups.

Unlike Mayor Moore, who is not afraid to wade in and take political heat for helping his community get their waste on a diet, the rest of the politicians on that Board -- to a person -- seem ready to cave to the troglodyte element in every community who feel that wasting is an entitlement: "I pay my taxes," they hear, "now you clean it up or we'll remember you at election time."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Landmark lawsuit challenges New York City recycling law

We are poised at a turning point in the history of waste management, and the outcome of a lawsuit against New York City may confirm that we have really turned a corner -- or send us back to the bad old days.

Computer makers are challenging a municipal ordinance that requires them to collect old computers ("e-waste") from households and recycle it. This is a somewhat unusual formulation of a broader principle, called Extended Producer Responsibility (or EPR). BC happens to be the place where this new principle is most widely applied in law, so this suit could be interesting to us.

Here's what the plaintiffs in the New York suit said, according to a recent article in the magazine Recycling Today (emphasis added):

“The E-waste Program retroactively and fundamentally alters the terms of the original contract of sale for a CEE (consumer electronics equipment) between the manufacturer and the consumer (or distributor, retailer, etc., as the case may be). Prior to the enactment of the E-waste Program, a manufacturer sold the CEE for a certain price, relying on the fact that the manufacturer was permanently transferring full title and it would not be required to take title to the product again at the end of its useful life.”

The article says that the brief was jointly filed by several non-electronics manufacturing associations who said they 'are also greatly concerned that allowing the E-waste Program to take effect will encourage other jurisdictions to adopt laws that shift disposal costs historically borne by voting local taxpayers who discard consumer products onto non-voting, out-of-state or off-shore manufacturers who make them.'"

Clever lawyers!

By sticking up for aggrieved out-of-state manufacturers they are distracting the Court from the greater injustice. For the better part of a century global corporations have been dumping responsibility for disposing of their products on voting local taxpayers in local communities -- many of whom may not have purchased a computer at all.

Indeed a whole raft of legislation exists now that puts the onus on local governments to clean up after the Throw-Away Economy, spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars dollars on incinerators and landfills.

It will be really interesting if this lawsuit finally tests whether a company can absolve itself of responsibility just by transferring ownership of a product from itself to the consumer. EPR is based in the idea of a chain of custody that starts with the brand owner and ends with the consumer -- but does NOT include the taxpaying public in the communities where the products are sold, used, and discarded.