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

Monday, October 14, 2013

This is what recycling looks like in Vancouver

What is this all about?

One visitor to the blog recognized the plant in this video clip. S/he pointed out that this plant is not sorting materials collected in the City of Vancouver.
Right! If it had been a load of City materials, paper and containers would not have been mixed together on the conveyor belt. Vancouver is one of the few remaining cities in the Metro region that ask households to separate their recyclables into three streams: newsprint, mixed household paper, and containers.
The recycling plant pictured here sorts materials from the growing number of cities in our region (and across North America) that offer single stream recycling. Households put all their recyclable materials in one container, leaving it to someone else to sort them out.
If you think (as I do) that this looks like a pretty awful job, standing at a speeding conveyor for 8 hours a day, consider this: what if it was not just recyclable materials flowing by, but mixed garbage?
The garbage industry is preparing to build three mixed waste processing plants, where people at conveyor belts like this will split open garbage bags and sort through the contents looking for recyclable and compostable materials. The proposal met with resistance from existing recyclers.
The rationale for the garbage-sorting plants is that people living in apartments and condos are never going to be convinced to sort their recyclable materials out of their garbage.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Zero waste businesses in bin cleaning

Today my email Inbox brought an example of how an environmental problems can stimulate economic opportunities.

The environmental problem in this morning's email was smelly food waste bins. "You already know that the City of Vancouver has rolled out changes in the frequency of garbage pickup to every other week beginning May 1st," wrote my correspondent.

"This may result in more odour, bacteria, and pests in the summer months, and can be an excuse for residents not to participate in the Green Bin Program."

So what's the solution? A new bin cleaning service provided by VIP Bin Cleaning. A customer signs up for service online  and provides an address. VIP's mobile machine arrives once a month on the day of bin pickup. The bin is cleaned in 2-3 minutes. The basic subscription service works out to $8 a month.

Turns out VIP Bin Cleaning is "a global bin-cleaning franchise" that originated in the UK in 1997. The franchisor "cleans over 2 million bins across seven countries annually."

Somebody looking for an economic opportunity in bin cleaning could just get a bucket and a brush. But the benefits to getting into the business as a franchisee are spelled out on the parent company website. The VIP people have developed equipment that makes the job easier and conserves water, for instance.

Turns out there are a number of bin cleaning franchises out there, including GreenCleen (also in the UK). There's even one available on Kijiji in Guelph ON.

Surely this is the beginning of a green wave...

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Waste management industry in disarray

They were lined up in the Metro Vancouver Boardroom today, over a dozen speakers (one an avowed "lobbyist") waiting to tell Metro Vancouver politicians to butt out of waste management and let free enterprise solve the problem. They were members of the Waste Management Association of BC, delivering in person the message they published in the full-page ad that ran in the Vancouver Sun yesterday.

The issue on the table was a proposal by Metro to impose "flow control" on garbage. This would be a regulation, in Metro's own words, that "would require residential and commercial garbage to be delivered to Regional Facilities.

The Metro website backgrounder emphasizes that this is about the flow of garbage, not recyclable materials. It says: "Source-separated recyclable materials and materials like construction or demolition waste would be exempted."

The speakers today were all goin on about how flow control would destroy recycling.

But Metro says that regulating the flow of garbage will encourage recycling! The places haulers are taking our waste to are not as responsible as we are. They don't have disposal bans on recyclable materials the way we do. Their lower disposal charges encourage wasting.

Frances Bula approached me after the meeting and asked if I didn't think it was a good idea for Metro to cut off the flow of waste to other places.

But garbage isn't that simple.

The real intent behind Metro's proposal is to make sure that the new incinerator they're planning to build doesn't run out of fuel.

In a veiled way, the website acknowledges this: "Metro Vancouver is developing a strategy [i.e. a half-billion dollar incinerator] to manage the disposal of residential and ICI waste generated within the Region. Metro Vancouver’s proposed approach is requiring that residential and commercial waste generated in the region be disposed at Regional Facilities."

Metro should not be regulating the market in order to feed its own incinerator. Rather, as a few of the more public-minded speakers argued today, Metro should be using its regulatory authority and its resources to promote recycling. For instance, they should police their own disposal facilities and enforce their own existing regulations against throwing away recyclable materials. (Currently, Metro neither publicizes nor enforces their bans: it's like there were a law requiring us to stop at intersections but no signs and no police. One speaker noted that only 10% of the loads at regional facilities are checked for banned materials.)

Should we explore whether Metro has the authority to regulate recycling facilities? One of the speakers presented a promotional video of a "dirty MRF" (a facility that sorts raw garbage -- as opposed to a regular MRF that sorts materials that were set out for recycling). He entreated Metro politicians to give his company a chance to build a dirty MRF in Vancouver. A later speaker -- also a member of the waste association -- said history had shown dirty MRFs were a failure. Who speaks for the Waste Management Association of BC?

Maybe we don't need regulation of MRFs. The market may decide. China is certainly sending a strong signal.

FACT: The "waste management industry" includes our local governments. They have been in the garbage business for a hundred years. It's been an uneasy relationship between the public and private sectors of the waste industry. Local governments are the clients of the waste industry, and also competitors, especially in BC where disposal facilities are almost all publicly owned and many cities even have their own trucks and crews.

When our local governments try to beat the competition through the use of regulation, things get dirty and the industry gets mad. Seagulls squabbling over the garbage.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

And by the way...

We'll be there tomorrow when the Metro Waste Committee holds its monthly meeting (12 - 4 pm, second floor Boardroom 4330 Kingsway). We'll be holding signs that remind them that not everyone out there supports the idea of spending half a billion dollars on incinerators. The fact is, we're beginning to get organized. Zero Waste has spread beyond Vancouver... to BC... to Canada. We're part of a world-wide movement of organizations making the link between waste and social injustice.

There is another way. We won't get there by building incinerators. Or by letting the garbage industry set our public policy.

Will China drive FAKE RECYCLING off the rails? & Should waste haulers set public policy?

Two important stories broke in the Vancouver Sun today.

First, we learned that China is blocking the flow of poor quality plastics from Vancouver and other communities that can't be bothered to manage them appropriately. This could spell the end of Single Stream Recycling -- maybe the end of collecting anything but paper at curbside. This is the beginning of the new China that will not need us any more - they'll have plenty of plastic of their own to recycle.

In the same edition of the Vancouver Sun, a group calling itself the Waste Management Association of BC (WMABC) ran a full page ad urging citizens to complain to their elected officials for meddling in the way waste is handled in the Metro Vancouver region. The ad warned readers that these matters are way to technical and complex for mere politicians to understand and they should mind their own business.

Now, these guys are the self-same companies that can't keep our plastics clean enough to sell to China. True, the politicians were gullible enough to hire them, but I'll defend to the death the right of my political representatives to make the rules for the garbage industry.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

We're not buying it.

Today the Canadian Energy From Waste Coalition came to town to schmooze our municipal engineers. Selling pollution.
Pic: Zero waste activists protest Metro Vancouver incineration plan, Richmond Review

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ignoring them doesn't help

It's been 2 1/2 years since Metro Vancouver politicians let the fans down by approving a massive public expenditure on waste incinerator(s).

This was after I and several other citizens dutifully sat through hours of monthly meetings of the regional waste committee, laying out all our arguments why the regional district staff's proposal to build incinerators was a really bad idea.

The politicians listened politely. And ignored us. I stopped going to their meetings. What was the point?

But the agenda for tomorrow's meeting just crossed my desk, all 113 pages of it. Reassuring staff updates on the inexorable process, millions of dollars for each small step, of carrying out the direction they were duly given by what one former Metro staff person once referred to as "the temporary help." (Many of the pols who were around when the incinerator plan was approved were not returned to office in the last election.) Or was it "part time help" ( the politicians on Metro's board and committees were not actually elected to run the region -- their main focus, and rightly so, is managing the staffs in their own municipalities. How many have time to read 113-page regional reports every month?)

Along with the incinerator, a major focus of tomorrow's meeting is howls of righteous indignation from municipal politicians, documented in letters on official letterhead, over the proposal by Multi-Materials BC not to collect glass and plastic bags in the curbside collection system they intend to operate as our new province-wide EPR program for packaging and printed paper.

The Mayors of several regional cities are insisting that glass and plastic bags stay in the curbside collection program. Most likely because nobody on their staff was honest enough to admit that collecting glass and plastic bags in a curbside collection program is a disaster. Shards of glass destroys the paper for recycling -- and the bags get jammed in the machines that are used to sort curbside materials.

Politicians need to get out more, see for themselves how things really work. But then, they wouldn't be able to make it through those 113-page reports...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Blue Box Conspiracy - read it now

"THE BLUE BOX ON YOUR FRONT PORCH WASN'T DREAMED UP by government officials. Or inspired by grassroots environmentalists. The soft drink industry and its packaging suppliers brought in the Blue Box to serve a common corporate agenda..."

These are the opening words of an heretical article by a Canadian who knows his stuff (Guy Crittenden, editor of Solid Waste and Recycling magazine). It was published in Next City magazine in 1997. The title was The Blue Box Conspiracy. You can read it reprinted by Probe International Research Foundation.

That same year another insightful Ontario journalist, David Menzies, told the same story. He titled it Waste Blues. It was published in the Financial Post. You can read it online here.

The two stories tell how corporations vested in the proliferation of throw-away packaging successfully dismantled the remnants of a refillable bottle system. And how environmentalists didn't see it coming.

The bromide that the corporate interests were selling -- with environmentalists on board -- is that **convenience** is the motivator in recycling. It's a truism that if you don't make it easy, people won't recycle. And what could be easier than putting everything in a box and setting it on the curb?

But three decades of experience, all documented in trade magazines like Crittenden's, is that it is not working. Curbside recycling is harvesting bales of filthy contaminated garbage that is going to China.

In the 1990s, the corporate lobbyists came out here from Ontario and tried to dismantle our deposit system on beverage containers. In 1997 our ministry sent them packing -- and expanded the deposit system to include all beverages except milk. Alberta has since added milk to their system. We could have followed -- and carried on further, putting deposits on yogurt containers and detergent bottles and many other containers, creating good jobs and good recycling outcomes right here in Canada.

But in 2010, the corporate lobbyists came back and found a new team at the ministry that had short memories. MMBC was invited to submit a plan.

What MMBC is offering -- surprise, surprise! -- is traditional, convenient, multi-material curbside recycling. It will make everybody including environmentalists feel good, until they learn what they're missing.

If you don't learn from history, you're doomed to repeat it.

Who is MMBC?

MMBC is a combine of trade associations and companies who sell packaged products and are therefore obligated under the BC Recycling Regulation to take back and recycle their packaging (also obligated under the same clause of the same regulation are producers of "printed paper").

Go to MMBC's website to read how they are now consulting with the public and stakeholders on a plan they've developed.

Click the second bulleted link under Consultation in the left-hand column to find dozens of tough questions and concers that were voiced by just about everybody at the consultation session MMBC held last November.

Nobody likes this plan. It disrupts the existing system without creating the conditions for innovation and waste reduction. I was surprised (and reassured) to hear concerns coming from the producers who are going to have to bankroll this system (of course, passing the costs on through to consumers). Many producers at the November session sounded very skeptical about MMBC's plan.

The question now is: can MMBC get enough of them to sign on to the plan for the province to OK it?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Think outside the box

Dear NDP,

When your government comes into office, you are going to inherit a dreadful mess.

The new (MMBC) recycling program for packaging is a bad deal for the province and it's going to happen on your watch.

You are going to eat the consequences. There will be public dismay when word eventually gets out what a failed program it is, as it has on Ontario, where the performance has been "abysmal" or was it "dismal" in the words of a former political victim. All three parties have soiled their reputations by following the path being charted for us by  MMBC (see this CIELAP assessment).

What MMBC is trying to set up will be a bad deal for the economy. A bad deal for  small recycling businesses and their employees in our communities, who will have to cater to the corporate monopolist (MMBC) or leave the table. Existing recycling companies in our communities will lose their independence and the scope of their freedom to innovate.

It will be a worse deal for the potential new recycling companies in the communities in our province -- potential industry leaders -- that will never be formed, because this system will not allow new entrants.

It will be a bad deal for our kids, who will have to wait longer for change, for some good new idea to come along and heal the planet.

Sadly, our current ministry of environment lacks the institutional memory to recognize MMBC and throw them out, as the ministry of the day did a generation ago when OMMRI (godfather to MMBC) came calling. Our ministry let us down. They let the infection in because they didn't have the confidence or the imagination to see that we can do it our own way and do it better -- just as we did a generation ago when OMMRI was told to take a hike.

Who will save us? Who can we collaborate with?

The beer industry? Can we activate that industry (brand owners, brewery workers, LDB, beer drinkers) to show a different way? CAMPAIGN: get the LDB to mark their shelves to indicate which beers come in refillable bottles. This will expose the buried issue of the major brewers' control of the "bottle pool" as a weapon against the craft brewing industry. It will potentially open the way for a truly local bottle pool, or even regional bottle pools. The Proximity Principle will finally be enshrined as a guiding force in marketing.

The paper industry? Can we activate that industry (brand owners, mill workers, community newspapers) to show a different way? CAMPAIGN: get a local mill or converter or retailer to market a line of made-in-BC compostable paper foodware and food scraps wareThis will provide the new generation of young locavores the sensible consumer products they need to participate in a Zero Waste food system. It will help to level the playing field between our dying paper industry (with its solutions built with current carbon) and the petrochemical industry (with its oxymoronic "biodegradable plastics").

Can these industries organize themselves in our province and pursue the truly transformational changes that will become industry standard all over the world?

Or do they need facilitation from a new government, one backed by people who are prepared to pioneer made-in-BC solutions?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Coal in stocking from Metro pols

To the Editor, Vancouver Sun:
Two Metro politicians put coal in our stockings with their Christmas greeting this year (Reduce, recycle, waste-to-energy the answers for managing Metro garbage, December 24, 2012).

The week before, Jordan Batemen of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation had called out Metro politicians for “forging ahead with plans to build a $450-million waste incinerator that will reinforce our addiction to garbage, freeze out private contractors and put the Fraser Valley air shed at risk.” (Taxpayers feel pain of politicians and their perception that they are going green, Dec. 17).

To make their case that new incinerators won’t pollute and will be cheaper than landfills, Brodie and Moore cited “independent” economic and environmental analyses that were carried out three years ago by consulting firms working under contract to Metro Vancouver (see AECOM report, for instance). These studies told Metro what it wanted to hear.

Brodie and Moore may not know how much the current regional incinerator costs us. I tracked these expenditures up to 2004, relying on data provided by Metro staff at my request.

As long ago as 2004, Metro had already spent nearly $41 million dollars on upgrades to a facility whose original cost was $88 million.

Within the first 5 years of operation, the Burnaby incinerator cost us $500 thousand for a carbon injection system to treat mercury and $200 thousand for a filter to reduce particulate emissions. Three years later, we faced a $800 thousand cost for a system to treat nitrous oxide another $700 thousand for a flyash stabilization system.

Speaking of flyash, the company Metro currently contracts with to operate the Burnaby incinerator is under investigation by the provincial government for losing track of 18,000 tonnes of toxic cadmium-laced flyash (Cadmium contamination in Cache Creek dump appears worse than previously thought, Vancouver Sun, November 2, 2012)

And then, the engineering firm Metro retained (HDR) to manage the planning for the new incinerator recently had to quit because it had its own agenda (Waste-to-energy consultant quits Metro Vancouver project after ‘perception of bias’ in email, Vancouver Sun, December 7, 2012). But over half of the $1.9 million consulting money had already been spent.

The northern European countries that Moore and Brodie like to cite for their “internationally accepted waste management practices” are now experiencing a new crisis. They built too much incineration capacity and are competing to import waste from other countries (see, for example, this report from Public Radio International). Already Metro’s 2008 projections of waste volumes have had to be revised downwards several times, due to the economic slowdown and new programs to divert large volumes of organic waste. Incinerators have to operate at full capacity 24/7 or the pollution control systems don’t work. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put the incinerator on hold until we decide if we need it?