at the intersection of 5th and Vermouth

Thank you Tom.

Anyway, what I really want to tug on your coat about is the intersection between sustainability and engineering, and how it is too often frustrating, and always challenging. A good example is alternative transportation planning (let us, for now, skip over the irony that “walking” is now considered one “alternative” to the normal mode of riding around in a metal box burning dead dinosaurs). When shoehorning non-car infrastructure into traditional roads-and-sidewalks planning, it often starts so late in the process that any contribution we can make is either inconvenient, or impossible with the depth of planning already done. As a result, we are seen as a roadblock to infrastructure improvements instead of a positive contributor.

A good example of this is the long-running issue that we in the New Westminster cycling world know simply as “5th and 5th”That phrase is now one that causes anyone involved to roll their eyes emit an audible groan. This is a nice residential neighborhood, with a couple of quiet, traffic-calmed streets, that happens to border a commercial building where (amongst other commercial upgrades) Save On foods opened a new retail outlet. Coincident with this opening, the world’s ugliest fence was installed. As if an ugly fence to stop people walking through their neighbourhood was ever a good idea, but I digress again.

After several complaints about the re-configuration of the intersection, Transportation staff finally kind of admitted it was rather an ad-hoc contraption stop pedestrians from crossing the street, with little planning (or, ostensibly, to protect the drip line of a tree from large trucks servicing Save-on-foods). However, now that it is installed, the design clearly presents several problems, aside from the esthetic issue. Did I mention the fence is ugly?
Cyclists heading south-east on 5th Street can turn right with traffic (after passing a narrowing of the road, and with their vision and the vision of drivers limited by vehicles parked right up to the corner, but alas, that is our lot). For a cyclist to turn left, one is expected to make a 90 degree left turn from the right side of an unmarked right-turn lane, go up on the sidewalk, cross the median (presumably on the sidewalk), then cross the northwest-bound lane (presumably on the crosswalk), then cross both lanes of 5th Ave (on the crosswalk?) to resume your proper place on the road. To go straight, you must do the same 90-degree left on to the sidewalk, then do another 90-degree turn on the crosswalk, then hop off the sidewalk on the driver’s blind side in the middle of the intersection (predictable quote from driver: “He came out of nowhere!”) while merging with drivers turning off of 5th Ave coming from the other direction, crossing the lane and heading on your merry way. If you look at approaching the intersection form pretty much any other direction, the cyclist choices are equally poor, and completely ambiguous.
No wonder cyclists are accused of flaunting the rules of the road, the rules of the road often cannot apply if the road is not designed to accommodate cyclists.

Now that the problems have been brought to Transportation staff (via PBAC and the VACC), they say they will review the plans. No doubt this will cost staff time and money, so they will have to wait until resources are available. But that is not the point. The design, as it is, requiring expensive re-design should never have been installed! Any member of the PBAC could have gone to the site during the design phase and predicted this problem. Any professional transportation engineer, if asked to review the situation for bicycle and pedestrian access, would never have approved this design. It was a much-up from the start, because they simply didn’t think about what they were doing. It was a Ad-hoc approach to a problem, poorly executed, and it will costs us (the taxpayers) more money because of that approach.

Now I see the City is advertising to hire a new transportation engineer , presumably to replace a senior person in transportation who moved onto another Municipality recently. The fact the posting lacks any reference to alternative-mode planning or sustainable transportation, well, I can let that pass assuming those types of skills would come up in the screening / interview process. But is not a good sign when your City, which brags about it’s 47% “sustainable travel mode share” downtown, and it’s new “transportation demand management system” requires its new transportation engineer to drive a private vehicle to work!.

More of the same.

I’m a Eco Geek

At work, I’m an environmental coordinator; as a volunteer, I help run a grassroots environmental non-profit. On vacation: I tour recycling plants in far-off locales.

OK, it might have been a one-off. An old friend I was visiting in Illinois happened to be teaching and Environmental Science course, and invited me to tag along on a field trip she had organized for her class. The destination was the Scott Area Recycling Centre and associated Electronic Demanufacturing Facility:

Scott County and the City of Davenport, Iowa, are trying to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill (for all the environmental and economic reasons one would expect), and their curbside blue box materials come here. In Davenport, they do “commingled” recycling, and this facility is where the waste is separated and compressed for shipping to whoever will buy the recycled materials. They receive mixed paper, newsprint, plastics #1 and #2, and metal and glass containers. There are a series of magnets, air-blown density sorters and other equipment, but the majority of the actual sort is done by hand.

The facility runs as a non-profit, but is reliant on near-by markets for the recycled materials. In this case, that means at least three solid markets within a 300-mile radius, or the economics just don’t work out. They closely track the commodity value of their incoming products, just to break even. $150/ton for aluminium cans, $75/ton for first-use plastic #1, $12/ton for mixed paper. Since there is no break-even market nearby for plastics other than the first two, they are not accepted. Glass is a real money loser at $2/ton, but they receive it for two reasons: it is heavy, and therefore boosts diversion numbers, and as a marketing tool for recycling, it would be silly to not collect the one material (beer and other bottles) that people associate most with recycling. Perception matters with Community Based Social Marketing.

The results? A County-wide diversion rate approaching 25%. This is good compared to no diversion at all, and adds to the lifespan of the local landfill, but pales in comparison to areas with aggressive diversion targets, such as Metro Vancouver (Currently 55%, aiming for 70%). Scott County is not aiming for a specific number when it comes to diversion, only “continuous improvement”. Still, for semi-rural Iowa, any diversion is a success.

One interesting difference between here and there is tipping fees, what garbage collecting companies or municipalities pay to dump materials at the recycling yard and the landfill. At the Scott County landfill, mixed household waste is $24/Tonne. At the recycling centre, it is $23/Tonne. I’m sure the small difference is significant to large-scale waste collectors, but compare the numbers in MetroVancouver : $82/Tonne for mixed garbage, $59/Tonne for “Green Waste” that can be made into compost. Before you think this is another example of the Government Screwing you becasue you are Canadian, the tipping fee does not reflect the $130/Tonne it costs to manage Vancouver’s waste. The fact our recycling programs generate a modest profit creates the incentive that has led to our >50% diversion rate. and the reason we are aiming to improve it:

Which leads me to a conversation I had last month with one of our esteemed members of Council. During a discussion on waste diversion goals and incentives, I suggested that the cost differential between landfill and recycling (resulting in part from our choice to export our garbage more than 300 kilometres), is the main reasons we have achieved such remarkable diversion rates. He called me “cynical”.

I don’t think that suggesting regional governments make decisions based on economics, and the sound fiscal management of the Taxpayer’s assets is “cynical”. I would think it is “responsible”. We don’t divert because it is the right thing to do, we do it because we simply cannot afford not to.

More later on how Scott County manages e-waste, and the death of the CRT display.

A day in the life of plastic bags.

I guess if you are in an airport, mother nature got screwed anyway, but everything about the airport experience tells me to never fly again.

You can’t put so much more than a car key in your carry-on, for fear you will use it to commandeer an aircraft (let us not mention the axe in the cockpit), so we are forced to check baggage or just buy all new stuff at your destination. All US carriers now charge an extra $25 pre bag for luggage when flying in from Canada. Apparently Air Canada does as well. No warning ahead of time, only when the electronic kiosk that replaced a person in the airport asks for your credit card. Of course, at that point, what can you do, complain?

Then there is the theatre of airport security. Every three steps someone checks your boarding pass, you must fill out this form here, carry it through three checkpoints, picking up another form there, remove your shoes, belts, dignity or anything else with mass, drop off the first form, give your life history and vacation plan, drop another form there. Does anyone actually think there rituals make us safer?

Figuring it would be nice to bring some BC produce to our hosts in Illinois, we decided to pick up a couple of bottles of BC wine at the Duty Free. The middle aged lady at the Duty Free shop proceeded to pull out two separate plastic bags and put a bottle in each. We asked for only one bag. She paused, processed, and then grabbed a third plastic bag, wrapped a bottle in it, stuffed it into one bag then stuffed it all into the second bag with the other bottle. Was she trying to spite us? Was this some sort of reaction to our provocation?

No, it was a misunderstanding. We had to explain to her the idea was that we only wanted one bag, you know, the environment and all… completely baffled her. It was like we were asking her to do vector calculus. She froze. Confused. Needed a reboot. No-one in 40 years of work or personal life had ever introduced to her the idea that one may want to reduce the amount of free plastic they get. Zero Waste has a long way to go.

The only saving grace of airports is they have airport bars. This one was out of beer.

Vacation on.

Placemaker Blog Post

I really want to post once a day as a minimum, but things are crazy right now.

Mostly, the “free time” I would have today was spent doing edits and formatting a report I am helping some friends put together. Here is a paragraph, to explain it all.

The Glenbrook North Zero Waste Challenge (GNZWC) took place in the spring of 2010. It was modeled after a similar challenge which took place in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver in the summer of 2009. Both challenges were grass-roots efforts, led by local champions who wanted to see a greater emphasis on waste reduction, recycling, and composting. By sharing resources, ideas, and energy, these small groups were able to take action and reduce the environmental footprint of their community. The end result was not just an increase in recycling, but a remarkable reduction of the amount of garbage going to the curb, along with the drawing together of neighbours for a common cause, and the strengthening of the ties that build our community.

The three women running this thing did a great job running a grassroots Challenge, all we need to do is burn a little midnight oil to get the report completed!

Check out their website and send them some love.

Baker Lafarge

Yesterday was one of those clear, beautiful days that makes you wonder why anyone would live anywhere other than British Columbia, hyperbolic, boastful advertising slogans notwithstanding.

I was riding home from work along Westminster Highway, and Mount Baker was clear and bright on the horizon, providing a dramatic backdrop to the Lafarge cement plant in east Richmond. The volcanologist in me cannot see a volcano without imagining what it is going to look like when the damn thing goes off. In the case of Baker, most of MetroVancouver will have a front row seat to watch the pyroclastic extravaganza. Due to some fortunate geography, we will also avoid most (but not all) the damage caused by the inevitable lahars, ash clouds, and nuée ardente.

The plume coming off an erupting Cascade Volcano will be dramatic, and will dwarf that little Lafarge Cement Plant. Or will it? This was the question that kept rattling around in my head during the rest of my ride. How many years would that plant have to operate to generate the CO2 of a single eruption of Mount Baker.
The good people at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Lesser Vancouver actually measured the CO2 output of Mount Saint Helens during the 2004-2005 eruptive event, and it was around 650 tonnes per day. According to the paper, the outgassing during the big eruption in 1980 was probably measured in the thousands of tonnes per day, The take-home numbers are about 200,000 tonnes of CO2 released during the big eruption in 1980, a little less than 200,000 tonnes released over the entire 2004-2005 measuring period (a period of significant eruptive and dome-building activity), and somewhat less during quiescent times. This for a volcano of similar type, size and age as Mount Baker.

As for Lafarge, according to Environment Canada , that plant puts out between 800,000 and 900,000 tonnes of CO2 every year. The last year stats are available, 2008, it was 871,000 tonnes.

I don’t mean this as an attack on Lafarge; I recognize that we need concrete in our lives, and Lafarge is an employer in our community… I just make the comparison to shed light on how our human scale is distorted; “Common Sense” is rarely either. Like all risks, we concentrate on the big, dramatic and rare events, but disregard the cumulative impact of every day life in the modern world.

More on the science of volcanoes and AGW here.

Catastrophe in Hungary.

This is sad, disgusting, scary. Apparently a million cubic metres of toxic sludge laws released from a containment pond. This stuff is caustic enough to cause chemical burns, and full of enough toxic metals to make things very unhappy for the receiving environment, and people, including the residents of several downstream towns.
A million cubic metres: picture an area the size of Queens Park, 10 feet deep, then spread out over an area almost three times the area of New Westminster. What a mess.

The story looks like a long, complicated one, with a company producing a bunch of the sludge and keeping it contained in a pond indefinitely with no real plan for how to dispose of it long-term. Local Environmental whackos have been asking the Government to address the situation since 2003, to no avail. That could never happen in Canada. Right?

More photos here

I have a new enemy

The introduction of organic waste collection in New Westminster is hardly a new trend in the Lower Mainland, most Municipalities do it now. However it did cause enough concern for one of my neighbours that she sat down and ranted for 900 words about it.

Now don’t get me wrong, a long rambling rant is one of my favorite things in the world . I’ve done a few myself. But this time the Vancouver sun decided an uninformed, grouchy, disorganized tirade about how hard it is to manage one’s own waste stream was worthy of the front page. Alas, it is below the fold, but maybe the columnist can write 900 words on how kids don’t listen anymore or how women seem to spend all their time running around in pants, and she can get above the fold some day.

My “measured” response sent to the Vancouver Sun:

Poor Shelley Fralic, confused and confounded by her own waste stream. Already intellectually or morally challenged by the demands of placing recyclables in a separate box from her stinky unmentionables (a task fully within the technical abilities of most kindergarten students), she is now aghast to find that some of the fresh food she apparently purchases daily can also be separated from her big green plastic bag. People taking responsibility for their own trash!? The horror!

Ms. Fralic pines for the good old days, when one would pile endless bags of trash in the back alley and anonymous people would swoop in at night and remove it from her responsibility. Presumably, she also pines for the days when trash was burned in open piles around the Lower Mainland or collected in large scows and dumped into the Strait of Georgia. Well, unfortunately for Ms. Fralic, we now have environmental laws, and that means if we want to control how much of our taxes we spend on making her stinky garbage disappear, she may have to at least open her eyes to the garbage she produces.

By the way, a good way to keep your Clean Green bin tidy is to wrap anything that might rot or stink in a little bit of (perfectly biodegradable) newspaper. I would suggest this as the only appropriate use for the ignorant, petulant ode to laziness and self-importance that was Ms. Fralic’s Monday column.

The fig season

Everything in the garden was a few weeks behind this year, but one thing that was right on time was the fig tree.

We once had an arbourist come in to look at our trees, and he gave me at least one keeper piece of advice. I asked him when Figs are usually ready, and he said “opening weekend of the P.N.E”. For the second year in a row, this prediction has been perfect.

One problem with figs is that there is a very, very small ripe fig window, especially as the P.N.E. rains accelerate the rotting process on the tree. I swear that last year I left for work in the morning and the figs were not ripe, got home from work and they were ripe, went inside, found a bowl, got out the ladder, and went back outside, and they had all rotted off the tree. We needed to catch the magic window this year.

In the spirit of the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project, we sent out an open call on Facebook and through the NWEP, and had a revolving door of people through the back yard on the weekend that the figs were available.

Besides giving the Figs away (and trading some with some friends suffering from a 40lb raspberry crop this year), we also experimented in preservation:

We dried them,

We made jam,
We mixed them with raspberries and blueberries and made more jam,
we ate them right off the tree.

Of course, we were not the only ones in the neighbourhood who enjoyed the fig harvest this year:

Letter to the Editor – Royal City Record

RE: Big bin or little bin for you? (Record, Saturday, Oct. 2nd, 2010)

Now that the new reality of automated bins and Cleaner Greener carts have arrived in New Westminster, let’s hope one of the results of this program is a reduction of the amount of trash Metro Vancouver has to either burn (upwind of New Westminster), or haul to Cache Creek (upriver of New Westminster).

As reported in the Record, the New Westminster Environmental Partners did advocate to Council for the smaller, 120 litre option for the garbage bins. The reasoning at the time was simple: prior to automated collection, the maximum weekly allowance was 2 cans at 75L each, for a total of 150L. However, very few actually used this much volume. The statistics collected by the City in 2009 showed that the average household put out 72L of mixed trash a week, and that less than 5% put out more than 95L a week. This is before the introduction of the Cleaner Greener bins. According to Metro Vancouver studies, between 30% and 50% of household trash can go into the Cleaner Greener bins. Combine this with the numbers collected above, and it is pretty clear that 120L is more than enough capacity for most everyone in New Westminster.

The benefits of smaller bins? They are easier to move about, take up less yard or garage space, and they encourage the diversion of compostables to the Cleaner Greener bins and recyclables to the blue box. The fact you will pay an extra $100 a year for the larger bin simply reflects the increased cost the City has to pay every year to haul your garbage away. Less trash, less cost: everyone wins.

The NWEP does applaud the choice of smaller bins, but will still be looking to City Hall to provide yet smaller bins for those who request them (such as the 75L bins available in the City of Vancouver). By the City’s own numbers, that would provide sufficient volume for most households. An optional smaller sized Cleaner Greener bin would also be appreciated by the ever-increasing number of residents who have backyard composters. Of course, the NWEP would support passing on the related savings in disposal costs to those who choose the more conservative options.

Finally, if you are one of the ever-decreasing few who just can’t seem to fit a week’s worth of trash into a 120L bin, perhaps you should check out the Glenbrook North Zero Waste Challenge website to see how easy it was for some of your neighbours, even those with large families, to reduce their garbage.

Patrick Johnstone
New Westminster Environmental Partners.

Automated Bins Arrive in New Westminster

I received my new Automated Waste collection bins today. All sympathies to those who are trying to roll out this program (a little bird has it that one of them recently rolled out a new addition to his family – talk about compounding stresses!), but I am immediately unimpressed.

First, the NWEP put a lot of effort into trying to convince City Council and staff that this was the opportunity to reduce the amount of garbage people put out, and that 120L bins were more than adequate for all houses in New Westminster. After conversations with staff, and an appeal to City Council, the City found a compromise position where 120L was the default size, and larger bins would be available, for an increased annual cost.

Today, two 240L bins arrived on my stoop. One of the people who actually went to City Council and demanded a smaller bin, one who helped the City to outreach to sell the idea that 120L was all the capacity we need: I was given a 240L bin.

I called Engineering Operations, and they essentially told me that there must have been a error, and they would change it out in November.

To get an idea of how big a mistake, I did a little spin around the neighbourhood, and best I could tell, everyone on Third Ave got a 240L garbage bin. I stopped to chat to a few neighbours who were standing in front of their houses scratching their heads at their new bins, and none of them has secondary suites. None of them knew that you could request a smaller bin and (this is the important part) none of them knew that you would pay less for a smaller bin.

Second, the bins arrived on the front sidewalk. Little instruction was provided for where to put the bin on garbage day. Do I put it out where the City dropped it? Do I put it out back in the alley where I usually put my garbage (and where I have a designated spot for the trash, and a logical place to store the bins) or do I roll it out onto the street in front of the curb? There is already a limit to street parking on my street: what if all the parking spots in front of my house are full (as they are almost every evening)?

It is going to be a very, very bad month for the folks in Engineering Operations at New Westminster. More to come.