Thursday, 18 July 2013

A different perspective on recycling

Ordinarily I don’t blog about issues where I am retained to advise or represent a client, because I would rather write from a perspective that is completely independent.  But I am going to make an exception here.  Forewarned is forearmed.

I recently appeared before the Zero Waste Committee of Metro Vancouver on behalf of a client who is building a high tech “material recovery facility”, that is, a facility in which garbage, partly sorted and partly unsorted, can be separated into all of its component elements: compostable organics, recyclables, and residual waste.  My client believes – and is willing to invest $30 million in pursuit of that belief – that the best way for Metro Vancouver is to achieve its waste reduction targets is not by continuously expanding source separation requirements – that is, the rules which require you (if you live in a single family residence) to separate your own garbage at curbside, but rather, by undertaking the separation and the extraction of compost and recyclables from the waste stream at a facility that, thanks to modern technology, can  do that work more effectively and less expensively.

The argument I made before the Committee is that the Integrated Solid Waste Resource Management Plan – the legislated planning document which governs solid waste management plan in Metro Vancouver – does not authorize the expansion of public sector controlled source separation.  You may or may not agree with that argument.  And you may or may not have a view about whether the best way to maximize recycling is by requiring everyone who generates waste – every householder, apartment building, restaurant, commercial establishment, construction site, and so on  – to separate their waste into its component elements, just as single family residences now do.  But whatever your view, you will surely be interested to see  that in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, one of the most influential US magazines, at the beginning of its “Ideas of the Year 2013” section, the following “Modest Proposal” appears:

Stop Recycling – Americans have been dutifully separating recyclables from household trash for decades now, yet our landfill-diversion rate remains pitifully low.  Sorting isn’t just ineffective – it requires multiple bins to be picked up by multiple trucks, leading to increased greenhouse-gas emissions.  One solution? Get rid of recycling bins.  By centrally processing and sorting waste, the city of Houston plans to divert up to 75 percent of all discarded materials (well above its current 14 percent) and cut its number of garbage-truck trips by half.

When an idea like this gets mainstream credibility in The Atlantic, is it at least legitimate to ask whether Metro Vancouver’s relentless push to expand source separation is really the best way to achieve our waste reduction goals?

Thursday, 11 July 2013

That darned Translink referendum.

Over the last few weeks there has been considerable discussion in the media about the BC Liberals’ plan to hold a referendum on potential revenue sources for TransLink at the same time as the municipal elections in November 2014.

There’s opposition to this plan.  Metro Vancouver mayors are opposed.  The NDP are opposed.  Commentators are opposed.  As Yul Brynner might say, “Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera!”

It’s funny, but every time I hear these critics I think: I wonder how many of them also opposed the HST?  And in particular, I wonder how many of them opposed the HST by saying, as many HST opponents did, that  “the BC Liberals just rammed it down our throats without telling us they were going to do that.”  

Remember that?  The problem with the HST was not so much whether it was good or bad tax policy, it was that the BC Liberals “sprung it on us” as a sort of post-election surprise.  Worse, still, the BC Liberals had actually sent off a couple of mid-campaign letters to special interest groups saying they had no intention of introducing the HST, only to change their minds after the election.

So, well, like, maybe it would have been different if the BC Liberals had just included an HST promise in their 2009 campaign platform?

Well, let’s have a look at page 18 of the BC Liberals 2013 election platform:

The B.C. government and Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council have been working together to find solutions for TransLink’s funding challenges.

However, in order for these solutions to have legitimacy and taxpayer agreement, they need to be tested by the electorate who, ultimately, will be paying for them.

Today’s BC Liberals will:

Work with the Metro Vancouver Mayor’s Council and TransLink to identify possible sources of funding for transit improvements. Any new revenue sources would then be subject to a referendum to be held at the same time as the municipal elections in November 2014.

There it is, in plain English, a promise to hold a referendum on potential revenue sources for Translink.  In an election platform.  For the election we just had.  In which the BC Liberals were elected.

Now, I’m actually not sure why any individual opponent of this referendum thinks they know better than the voters on this issue.  I don’t particularly care what the NDP think; presumably they thought this was a bad idea when it first surfaced, and today, even though the electors rejected them and their ideas, they still think that having this referendum is a bad idea.  No doubt they feel that way about all the ideas they had which the voters clearly rejected in May.  So far, I haven’t seen the NDP change their position on anything post-election.  So much for "learning" from their defeat.

But when I hear all the other criticism about this referendum proposal, it’s hard not to smile.  There are those darn BC Liberals, actually intending to keep an election promise and the world’s just full of critics.  Probably mostly the same folks who complained four years ago about the absence of a political platform commitment to introduce the HST are now the folks complaining that the BC Liberals show every intention of keeping this promise.  Sometimes we wish you had made a promise; sometimes we wish you hadn’t.  You gotta love politics.