All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for September 2014

The Age of Miracles

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Yesterday I gave a lecture on climate change to a group of students, trying my best to put a positive spin to what is a somewhat depressing topic.

After the class, I put my Ipod on shuffle, and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Age of Miracles popped up first. Just the inspiration I needed. This has to be one of the songs most filled with hope for the future despite looking at the social and environmental mess we’re in.

Have a listen, if you don’t know it, and take the time to absorb some of the lyrics:

Greenland is melting, the west is on fire
But don’t ever stop praying for rain
It’s a curious place between hope and desire
Different gods, but the prayer is the same
And thousand-year storms seem to form on a breeze
Drowning all living things in their paths
And when a small southern town finds a rope in a tree
We’re all once again trapped in the past

We can fly through space with the greatest of ease
We can land in the dust of the moon
We can transform our lives with the tap of the keys
Still we can’t shake this feeling of doom
But I woke to find monks pouring into the streets
Marching thousands strong into the rain
Now if courage comes dressed in red robes and bare feet
I will never be fearful again

You think you’re just standing still
One day you’ll get up that hill
In the age of miracles
There’s one on the way

I guess I’m of the Star Trek generation: an environmentalist who believes that there’s hope at the end of the tunnel, and that, yes, technology (fly through space, a tap of the keys) will play a role in getting us out of the mess. I believe we’ll come out of this crisis wiser, even if damaged. If we can avoid the traps of our past attitudes (a rope swinging from a tree) but get inspired by the wisdom of the past (the saffran robes of the monks, an allusion to the peaceful protests in Myanmar a few years back), we’ll pull through. Yes, it may look like a miracle is needed to get all of us to walk the same march. But don’t discount our species ingenuity and resilience; our kids will pull through.


Written by enviropaul

September 25, 2014 at 8:49 am

Sinking ships

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An oil tanker entering second narrows

An oil tanker entering Second Narrows

There is much talk about the improved safety procedures of modern shipping and ship construction. According to these claims, the fear of an oil spill in Burrard Inlet or elsewhere on the BC Coast are exaggerated.

What is seldom mentioned is the fact that the ownership structure of the shipping industry is completely cloaked behind flags of convenience. This means that the integrity of the ships or of ship procedures is impossible to verify, even by law enforcement people. There is a credibility gap between the claims and the control structures, which gives no confidence in the ability of Canada to regulate the tankers, let alone claim payment in the event of a spill.  Another reason for my opposition to the proposed dilbit pipelines, whether Kinder Morgan or Northern Gateway.

I realized this while reading Rose George’s latest book, an account of her days on a container ship entitled Ninety Percent of Everything. (George is also the author the famous, and much beloved by me, 2008 The Big Necessity, a book about human waste).

Writes George (from page 81 onwards):

Most ship-owners operate decent ships that are safe and pay their crews a decent wage. But if you are unscrupulous, there is no better place to hide than behind a flag [of convenience]…

This ease was best exposed by the oil tanker Erika, which broke up off the coast of Brittany in 1999, polluting 250 miles of French coastline. The tanker had been chartered by the French oil giant Total, but its owner was unknown…by the end, French investigators found twelve shell companies standing behind the ship and its “beneficial owner”. Many of the comnpanies were a brass plate in a Maltese or Monrovia street…

Total, [the eventually identified owner] Savarese, and RINA, the Italian classification society that had certified the ship as seaworthy, were convicted of moral end environmental damage by a French court in 2008. An appeal two years later upheld the decision in a devastating 487-page ruling that is one of the best autopsies of not only a ship but also of the shady practices of some ship-owners including Savarese, who was found to have knowingly skimped on the quality of the steel used to repair Erika (RINA classed it safe). The striking thing for the investigators was not just the complexity of the ownership structure but how easy it was to put in place…Total has already paid out nearly 200 million Euros to injured parties…[but] the flag state of Malta, which had overall responsibility for Erika’s seaworthiness, pleaded diplomatic immunity.

[Since then], checks and balances have been strengthened and improved. My hosts [at Lloyd’s Ship Register] were courteous. They offered to help my research in any way possible and kept their promise. They were persuasive.

Yet there are numbers to puncture that persuasion. In 2001, 63 percent of all ship losses at sea were registered to only thirteen flags of convenience…Matters had slightly improved in 2009: only 58 percent of ships lost at sea belonged to thirteen flags of convenience. But there are suspect registries that are not classed as flags of convenience by ITF, such as Sierra Leone. Add these, and 70% of ships lost are flagged out.

George, Rose 2013. Ninety Percent of Everything: inside shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate. Picador: New York.

Eew, our garbage is leaking out

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That's not garbage...just used packaging.

That’s not garbage…just used packaging.

Recently I found out that some companies are shipping garbage out of the area, in order to avoid the high tipping fees that Metro charges.  This endangers the recycling initiatives of the area.  Further, these companies are lobbying the environment minister to enable them to do so at will.  No, no,no.  Not only is it the right thing to deal with our waste where we produce it; but, if they have their way, our recycling efforts will collapse.

So I wrote to the minister; here’s my letter, below.  If you agree with me, hey, here’s a situation where plagiarism is encouraged!

Dear Minister Polak

I am writing to add my voice to those who support Metro Vancouver bylaw 280.

I recently learned that some interests are trying to convince you not to approve bylaw 280; should their efforts be successful, this would be an unfortunate mistake. I am saying this as a voter and taxpayer, but also as the instructor of a course in solid waste management. It is while researching material for this course that this situation has come to my attention.

As a taxpayer, I see the issue mostly as one of fairness. Under the current situation, large waste haulers are taking more and more waste away from the Metro system, to Abbotsford, a trend that has started at least two years ago and is getting worse. This is a problem because it creates a lack of revenue to properly operate the waste management system of the region. As a result, small operators and general taxpayers are left with heftier costs than need be. In my understanding, it is this unfairness that bylaw 280 is designed to prevent and it is clear that it should be fully supported.

Should the bylaw not be approved, it is the full integrity of the recycling system, from source separation, producer responsibility, organics collection, and other initiatives, that would be compromised.

It has been said that large industrial haulers from the private sector would be able to operate more efficiently than the public sector. I see nothing to substantiate this assertion. On the contrary, I can only conclude that the outcomes would be either an increased cost to the taxpayer, or a greatly diminished system with a much worse environmental footprint.

It has also been said that bylaw 280 is designed only as a means to impose incineration as a waste disposal system. Whatever the merits of incineration, again I see nothing to that effect in bylaw 280; on the contrary, the bylaw appears to be designed to have the flexibility to adopt the most efficient and environmentally sound technology, whatever that may be, now or in the future.

As an instructor investigating the issue, I have to conclude that the opposition to bylaw 280 is driven by some members of the private industry that aim their preserve profitablity by bypassing the region. In particular, I am concerned that this waste is simply landfilled (with its resulting climate impact); and should the waste be disposed of south of the border, any liability that could occur in the future would remain with the originator – that is, the Province.

There has been much discussion of Mixed Refuse Facilities (MRFs) by opponents to the bylaw, but I don’t see the relevance of this argument. I am not suggesting that proposals such as MRFs have no merit; they may, but since monitored MRFS remain possible under bylaw 280, I conclude that their mention is irrelevant and may be designed, unfortunately, to mislead the public.

In fact, I would stress that a key issue of concern is public perception. Currently, our source separation system works reasonably well because of buy-in on the part of residents. Should a rumour arise that source separation is futile, if waste is hauled away out of region anyways, it will be more difficult to maintain, let alone improve on, our recycling rates. Further, in the context of the Mount Polley mine accident, there is now, most unfortunately, a fairly low trust in the government by the public. Should bylaw 280 not be approved, there is a risk that this would be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the government rewarding private industry at the expense of good governance. Whether or not this reflects the reality of government decisions is immaterial; public perception is key, and failure to approve bylaw 280 risks fostering a negative impression that the government does not have the public interest foremost in mind. And since public perception is key to any environmental initiative, should this negative perception be created, this would have negative consequences for other environmental regulations, proposed or current, beyond the waste management issue.

Very respectfully, as a member of the public and as someone whose occupation has enabled me to carry out a dispassionate analysis of the situation, I enjoin you to do what is best for the province and the environment, and approve bylaw 280.

Written by enviropaul

September 6, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Environmental Pet Peeves

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In the first class of my Environmental Issues course, as an ice-breaker, I ask students their main environmental pet peeve. The results agree with what most people of BC think, according to an Insights survey: littering tops the charts.

Over eighty percent of us get annoyed when people litter, don’t pick up dog poo, or throw away cigarette butts.

Dog poo is ennoying, sure; as a tourist, one quickly learns to look down before looking up at tall church spires or minarets. But my class didn’t really dwell on this, as dog poo is biodegradable (though, if there’s a lot of it, runoff carries it to our beaches and streams, where it causes high coliform counts and other pollution).

What irks my students, though, is cigarette butts, chewing gum, and plastic littering.

The case for gum is intriguing. The idea is that birds and other small animals eat it and die from it. Snopes and Hoax-Slayer dismiss this as unlikely, as does the British wildlife protection group RSPB, though the latter points out that one ingredient in sugar-free gum, xylitol, is very dangerous. Regardless, it’s a disgusting practice.

In contrast, the case against cigarette butts is clear: the filters collect the tar and other toxins from cigarette smoke, and have been implicated in wildlife death. Plastic litter, even more so; a quick search reveals that plastic litter is the main contributor to the various oceans “garbage patches”, and the plastic itself concentrates toxins such as pesticides dissolved in the ocean and then release them to animals such as birds or fish that ingest them. Floating plastics are mistaken by turtles for their jellyfish food; and, of course, there are numerous cases of death by entanglement.

Just don’t litter, people! How do ever expect to get a date that way?  Not with any of these students, at any rate!

But nobody mentioned my own environmental pet peeve: using elevators, push-button door openers, or similar devices needlessly.

It bugs me because it uses a lot of electricity, for one thing. I don’t know exactly how much, but one automatic door opener supplier lists the following specs: 3 amps with 115 volts, and each cycle (opening and closing) lasts about 15 seconds. A quick calculation: that’s about 5000 Joules for every door opening. Okay, not the end of the world; but assume twenty automatic doors (because that includes the indoor ones too) for my building, each opened a thousand times a day, that’s over 10,000 kilowatt-hours every year.  And that doesn’t include the air exchange, as these doors are programmed to stay open for longer than manual (there’s even a YouTube about that!)

Maybe it’s not that much for a mid-size building complex, you’ll say. Sure. But it still counts, and it irrationally bugs me to see perfectly healthy people take a couple of extra steps to push a button and wait for the door to creep open, when they could simply have opened the door themselves without breaking stride. Sheesh!

(Though when I reproached a friend for pushing the button, she said “I wrenched my shoulder awhile back, and I just can’t pull the door open. Have you tried this stupid door yourself? I use my hip to push the door open, but I just can’t pull it open the other way.” Properly chastened, I agree that some of these door openers are murder to open manually, and, yes, sorry, I should not be so judgmental…)

But it still bugs me; and elevators are worse. One study reports that elevators account for half of the electricity used in residential buildings (less in commercial – no mention of where schools lie in that tally). Half! Even if it’s less on a campus like ours, it’s still way way out of line. Like the push-button doors, elevators are meant for people carrying heavy loads, or mobility impaired people. But the vast majority of elevator users are healthy staff and students who should know better.
Part of the problem, I suppose, is building design. Elevators are always easy to find; stairs, when at all accessible, are often hidden. But on our Richmond campus, there are a large set of stairs as a kind of monumental feature in the main foyer; you can’t miss them, but I still see students line up at the elevator doors rather than taking the very obvious, and fairly empty, stairs. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be judgmental…

Just last fall, I was watching a man use an electric leaf blower. He was trying to dislodge the leafs that hadn’t yet fallen from his tree. He was leaning out his second-floor window, grinning at his own cleverness. I could only shake my head at how much we take electricity for granted and are wasteful of it.

Anyways, dear students, consider yoursalves warned: if I see you push a door button on your way to my class, you better have an explanation…

Written by enviropaul

September 6, 2014 at 1:16 pm