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

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?