Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Proportional Representation: One British Columbian's heartfelt, well-considered and very linked-up case for voting YES to PR

I am rooting like mad for British Columbians to vote in favour of switching our voting system to  proportional representation when the referendum gets underway Oct. 22.

But I'm nothing if not a realist, and thus quite worried that people's resistance to change - especially when it requires taking time to understand something that appears dull and technical on the surface - will doom yet another rare opportunity to reform the tired and deeply flawed way that we choose our governments.

Still, a person has to try. I want to  share with you here why I will be voting YES, in bolded capital letters and large font. If you're on the fence, I hope you'll have a read and see what resonates. If you support PR already, I hope this piece makes it easier for you to find the information you need to inform others.

All of the information you need to understand PR is available on sites like Fair Vote Canada, Elections BC and Vote PR BC, which is where I've gone for much of what I'm including here. The vote is by mail; you'll get a ballot in the mail soon (send it back completed to Elections BC by Nov. 30) with four check boxes: First, one to ascertain your vote for PR or to stick with what we have now, and then an optional choice to recommend one of three kinds of PR: Dual Member, Mixed Member, or Rural Urban. You can vote in favour of PR without choosing one of those options.

Those options are summarized nicely at those links and in the infograph I posted here. I'll be voting for Rural-Urban PR, which to me looks like the best fit for BC and its mix of dense population in a handful of areas and large rural regions. (Click here to register online as a voter or check your status.) Here's my case for supporting proportional representation, for BC and the entire country:

Whatever form of PR you choose, they all deliver a government whose makeup actually reflects how people voted. If 30 per cent vote for a particular party, that party ends up with 30 per cent of the seats. We would no longer see governments winning 40 per cent or less of seats, yet ending up with 100 per cent of the power - a common issue with the current First Past the Post system. FPTP is a "winner take all" system that gives total power to the party that wins the highest percentage of votes, even if that percentage is well below majority.

PR frequently requires that parties collaborate, concede and negotiate to achieve political goals. Elections that use a PR voting system create a legislature that people genuinely voted for. If a party doesn't win a majority on its own, it will need to build alliances across ideology. Collaboration and concession are essential in everything we do outside of politics, so why the heck would we want anything different for our political process? Try to imagine your family or workplace functioning under a "winner take all" model, and you can see the problem here. 

PR lets voters choose political representatives who share their values. Unlike our winner-take-all system, which virtually always limits us to endless swings between two dominant ideologies, PR permits voters whose beliefs do not cleave to a particular political dogma to elect people who they think will represent them well. Those people have an opportunity to build coalitions with other like-minded souls to achieve goals outside the interests of the dominant political parties.

Around the world, PR is the most common electoral system. Of the 195 countries on this map, only 64 use the "winner take all" system that we currently have. Many stable, well-managed countries have PR systems.

BC's referendum is putting forward three "made in BC" options. All will maintain strong local and regional representation, and ensure our MLAs are elected by voters, not parties. 

Between 40 and 50 per cent of eligible BC voters don't bother to vote. Doesn't that strike you as a pretty big concern? Might that not be related to people knowing that their vote doesn't actually count for anything because the causes and candidates they care about are not issues for the dominant parties? Wouldn't it be nice to vote your conscious, without fear that your vote is either meaningless or could let a party you despise win through a split vote? 

British Columbians have already done the work and recommended PR. In 2004, an independent, non-partisan group of 161 randomly selected British Columbians, the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform, spent 10 months considering electoral reform. They conducted 50 public hearings and reviewed 1,603 submissions from fellow British Columbians. They emerged with a consensus to support a form of PR that will be on this fall's ballot, Single Transferable Vote. When a large group of random people with no axe to grind puts in a ton of effort to get completely informed on a subject and then puts forward their recommendation, I listen. 

If we vote for PR here in BC and end up hating it, we can change back to FPTP after two elections. Important to note here that no country in the world has ever reverted to winner-take-all after introducing PR. But if we want to, that option is built right into the referendum.

BC has seen two referendums already on PR, one in 2005 following on the work of the Citizens Assembly and another in 2009. 

The first vote was actually a win, with 57.7 per cent of British Columbians voting for PR. But then-premier Gordon Campbell - who was against PR but had promised a referendum if elected - had built in a poison pill requiring a "super majority": approval by 60 per cent of voters overall as well as majorities of 60 per cent in each of 79 electoral districts. All but two districts did hit that mark, but the overall vote fell short at 57.7 per cent. 

Support for PR fell in the 2009 vote, to 40 per cent. But there are a couple of important points that bear noting: First, that the Liberals redrew riding boundaries that would take effect in the event of a "yes" vote  in ways that left many voters concerned and uncertain; and second, that the voter turnout overall for the provincial election that included the referendum question was a mere 50 per cent. 

What a ballot might look like under Rural-Urban PR
What are the arguments against PR?

 Primarily, opponents fear that it creates uncertainty in governance, as majorities are a less predictable outcome. Ending up with a majority may require parties to find  common ground in order to form a coalition government. (The 2017 provincial election provides an example of that even in the FPTP system, as the three seats that the Green Party won gave them enormous power to determine whether the NDP or the Liberals would rule.)

Italy is often cited as a cautionary tale of what happens under a PR system, as the country has gone through periods in the past where voters ended up going to the polls every two years because of troubles with rickety coalitions. 

But even Italy mostly ends up with governments that last as long as any of ours do. New Zealand, another PR country, sets its election term at three years in its constitution, and has adhered to that for at least the past 68 years. As well, PR has allowed New Zealand to ensure minority Maori representation.

Opponents also raise the spectre of parties with extreme views taking over. This viewpoint largely feels like fear-mongering to me, not only because this already happens in our existing election system when extreme factions take over a dominant party (federally, Reform to Alliance to Conservative offers a recent example), but because it's a declaration that if people don't think like "us" - that being, people who support one of two dominant ideologies - they don't deserve political representation. 

To me, concern about extremism makes me even more supportive of PR, where at least everything is out in the open. Think about it: If a majority percentage of voters in your country/province would choose extreme parties, which then might join forces to form government, then you've got so much more to worry about than just which voting system you're using. At least PR lets you see dangerous shifts in thinking straight up, rather than having them sneak up on you through a once-moderate party that ends up subverted by ugly thinking.

Extremists can infiltrate any party, and corrupt any political system. We are living in the age of Donald Trump and Doug Ford, living proof. 

But people, a winner-take-all system is never going to be the cure for that. There was a time when I couldn't have imagined a political time like we're living in, but here we are, living it, suffering through it, getting up every day only to be astounded one more time at what the headlines bring, and how quickly a country can drift into Lord of the Flies territory. 

We are seeing the rule of men whose sole skill is to get elected. They not only don't know how to govern, they've got no intention of even trying. Their "moral compasses" are no more than animal instincts to win. 

They're the political arm of the wealthy, who control our governments and elections now more than ever. Yet the ugly stuff that comes out of their mouths is carefully designed to appeal to people who feel powerless and angry - people vulnerable to being persuaded to use their votes like Molotov cocktails to destroy the amorphous "establishment" that they blame for their failed lives. As we now know, the results are horrifying. 

And it was First Past the Post that got us here. Say no more. Vote yes to PR.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Opioid crisis: Those who manufactured it should pay their share

I like a good analogy for figuring out complex problems with moral overtones. I got to thinking about which one might work for understanding the opioid crisis after I saw the comments from my Facebook post today linking to the BC government’s announcement of a class action law suit against the opioid manufacturing industry.

How’s this: Reimagining the issue as if it were the use of pesticides.

Like the opioid manufacturing industry, the pesticide industry is both a help and a harm. It makes no sense to just demand the elimination of pesticides, or to expect that people who really want pesticides aren't going to find their way to them whatever you do. Besides, if there’s money to be made selling pesticides to desperate farmers, there are going to be companies selling it.

But at the same time, you can’t just leave the industry without responsibility for the harms it causes. Corporations don’t innately have morals (you HAVE seen “The Corporation,” right?). Unregulated, unfettered industry will always go for the biggest profit. It’s what they’re born to do.

OK, let’s picture Farming Community Z (FCZ), which for all kinds of reasons is struggling to keep things going. They’ve had drought, floods, bad soil and not enough food on the table for a long time, and all of a sudden a plague of aphids has hit. Pesticides aren’t the long-term answer, but they sure look good in the short term.

Sad days in FCZ, but the sorrows and struggles going on there in fact affect many other neighbouring farming communities. The impact of pesticides is felt far beyond the farms where it’s being used. Making things considerably worse, the people in FCZ are dying like crazy, because they are the ones living right in the midst of all that pesticide, and the grief from those who loved them, helped them, or tried fruitlessly to get them to quit using pesticides is reaching unbearable proportion.

Who’s to blame? It’s complicated. Personally, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time looking for who to blame, because there are an awful lot of factors years in the making that have laid the groundwork for what’s going on in FCZ. Maybe laying blame could be an exercise for another day, when people aren’t dying.

So…if you were a bright and progressive society like Canada, what would you do?

First, you’d acknowledge that whatever you’re doing now really isn’t working. The evidence is pretty much insurmountable at this point. So maybe you would take one of those political walks in the snow to reflect on all those reports, royal commissions, analyses, studies, and research done on pesticide use over the years, and wonder how it is you’ve still never acted on their remarkably consistent recommendations.

You’d get to work pulling apart all the pieces of the puzzle and you’d identify that:
  •  The people of FCZ need help that starts all the way back to fixing that damaged soil, and accepting that some are never going to be able to manage without pesticides; 
  • Every level of government and all kinds of people are being harmed, drained of money, and otherwise suffering because of the situation in FCZ, regardless of whether they live there; 
  • Pesticides have been around for a really long time, but something has clearly changed in their availability and lethal quality for this level of harm to be occurring; 
  • The only notable exception amid misery in all directions is the pesticide industry, which is profiting from the crisis; 
  • It’s way past time to follow the money. 
Analogies aside, here’s the one absolute truth of the opioid crisis: The pharmaceutical industry is profiting mightily from it. Everyone else is being harmed, but that industry is making money.

There is a direct line from opiate-induced misery to the pharmaceutical companies that make those drugs, and the clever bastards are pocketing even more now that we’ve been convinced that the solution to the damage caused by their increased opiate sales is to arm the population with anti-overdose drugs, which they also sell.

I think the government’s class action suit against the industry is brilliant. If we all must suffer, then certainly the corporations making these drugs ought to suffer along with us. They make their money from sorrow. The least they can do is pay their share.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Don't you be calling me adorable: A reflection on ageism

These are times of calling people on their shit. So I’m going to call out ageism, and more specifically that insidious kind I think of as “compliment-based ageism,” which I’m now experiencing in my own life.

Some recent examples: I scrambled up the rock at my favourite Upper Thetis swimming hole a few days ago and a woman watching me from the top told me what a good climber I was. When travelling, my partner Paul and I notice that younger travellers have taken to praising us as “inspiring.” Last night as I was cycling up a hill coming home from work, a woman walking past called out, “Good for you!”

Good for me? I’ve ridden that hill I don’t know how many times, with nobody applauding my tenacity. I’ve scrambled up those rocks for almost 30 years, and nobody’s ever called me a good climber before. I’m still travelling the way I’ve always travelled, which did not attract attention as inspirational until recently.

What’s changed? I passed some invisible line where people started to see me as old. It started in the runup to turning 60, so the last couple of years. Maybe the neck wrinkles got to be too much, the thicker torso – I don’t know, but it was like somebody hung a “Plucky old lady!” sign on my back, and all of a sudden everything got weird.

We think of ageism as affecting employment and how we’re viewed as workers, and you’ll get no argument from me about that. But having people say kind things about you that are nonetheless distinctly ageist is really no better. Those kind words lay the foundation for a damaging belief: That people become less able, less engaged, less interested in the world as they age, and thus we should celebrate the rare older person who is the exception proving the rule.

You might be thinking, “Come on, Jody, now you’re going to crab at people for saying nice things, too?” Yeah, I guess I am. I’d make the case that they’re not actually saying nice things. What their comments make me feel like is that they’re observing me as spectacle - an aging woman acting against type, like a dancing bear. It’s not a good feeling.

I posted a photo on Facebook of Paul and me at an event on behalf of sex workers’ rights a few months back, and somebody called us “adorable.” I took it like a blow.

Adorable is a cute word for babies and toddlers, but for someone who’s still very much engaged in trying to change the world, it’s a kick in the pants. Does anybody change the world by being adorable? I don’t think so. Adorable is toothless and dear - a sweet old geezer who nobody needs to listen to anymore, an endearing example of a harmless oldster looking “cool” by standing up for edgy causes.

(Nobody has yet used “feisty” to my face so far, another old-person-specific word, but I’m bracing for that to happen as the years accumulate. That first feisty is going to be grim.)

There is an easy solution here: Cut it out. People in this modern day know how to catch themselves on thoughts relevant to all those “isms” that are (rightly) no longer tolerated. Ageism has been on the list for quite some time, but we clearly need more work on the sneaky kind that wears a friendly face.

Please, allow me to help.

For one, don’t ever tell anyone they look good for their age. In fact, strike “for your age” right out of your vocabulary. If they look good, just say that, and say it to other people of any age if they look good as well.

Any compliment that ends with “for your age” is both a back-handed insult to the person receiving it (“Wow, I’d expected you to look like a wreck at your advanced years!”) and a direct insult to anyone in the maligned age group used for comparison. Also, stop if you hear yourself telling a story and saying something like, “So then some grandma type comes along and says…”

Compliment people for what they do, of course, as you might at any age. But if the only thing striking is that they’re old doing a “young” thing, either ignore them entirely like you would anyone else or just give a friendly nod and say something neutral, like, “That’s quite the hill, isn’t it?”

Don’t presume to know what old people are like. Isn’t that the principle underlying every “ism”? We have visible differences, but they don’t explain the person within. We work to train ourselves not to “see” a person’s exterior in matters of race, religion and gender; we need to think the same way when looking at older people. I am still the same person I always was – it’s YOU who think me different, and for no reason other than my appearance.

If you are older yourself, don’t allow words of self-denigration to come out of your mouth. Every time you attribute anything to growing old – aching joints, inability to do a somersault, puzzlement at all this new-fangled technology that the kids are using these days – you confirm the cultural belief that older people are doomed to become useless (albeit adorable) shells of the vigorous, competent people they once were.

Joints can ache at any age. I was never good at somersaults. We must not let the stigmatizing view of older people – powerless, ineffectual, weak, a burden - colour how we view ourselves.

So if you compliment me on my form one day as I cycle past and you think you hear a muttered “Fuck off!” in response, at least now you know where it’s coming from. Just chalk it up to me being feisty.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A garbage read. No, really

Just be glad you don't live in Kolonnawa, Sri Lanka, where 800 tonnes
of garbage is added to this dump every day. 
I'm reposting a 2002 story of mine on recycling here, and never mind that I quietly roll my eyes at my many photographer friends who trot out their old photos as "new" and repost them on Instagram. But here's the thing: it's such an interesting subject, what we do with our garbage, and perhaps even more relevant in 2018 than it was 16 years ago when I wrote this for the Times Colonist.

The subject of garbage was on my mind this week after I posted this story from the Guardian on Britain's rather appalling habits around its own waste; the country is still exporting plastic waste to countries that appear to be dumping it willy-nilly, and it hasn't yet even got a deposit program for its beverage containers.

The story prompted a lot of waste-related thoughts from my Facebook community, and curiosity about what was the latest on what we were doing with waste right here in our hometown.

Which got me thinking about my long-ago story. Here it is, with some updates in a few spots where I could find new information.

Thinking out of the box: Are we green enough?

Jody Paterson
July 28, 2002

The case for a garbage revolution in the capital region had been building for more than a decade by the time the local politicians gave the order to drain the lake.

It would have been an easy decision in an earlier time. This is, after all, the region that once towed its garbage out to sea, and Heal Lake on that July day 11 years ago was little more than a contaminated swamp ruined by decades of sitting next to the Hartland Avenue landfill.

But attitudes had changed over the years. The litterbug generation had grown up with a new sense of environmental responsibility. There was a lot of guilt around garbage by 1991, and Capital Regional District board members felt the shameful significance of destroying a natural wonder, even a dilapidated one, to make room for more trash.

No more, they vowed. From that point on, the region would reduce, reuse and recycle as never before, and the flow of garbage to Hartland would be halved by 1995. Facing unrest elsewhere over other dumps and landfills, provincial politicians made similar commitments around the same time in B.C. and across the country.

It didn't happen by 1995. It still hasn't, except in a handful of areas that are composting the huge flow of food waste and other organics that account for the heaviest component of any municipality's garbage stream. More than 10 years into the dream, less than a third of all the garbage in B.C. gets diverted from landfills or incinerators. The capital region has been stuck at 41 per cent since 1999.

**Update: I couldn't find current diversion rates anywhere after flipping through a number of CRD reports on its website, but I see that the City of Vancouver has a diversion rate of 63 per cent now, so let's presume we're similar or someone would probably be yelling at us by now. The trend these days is to measure per-capita waste production, which was 412 kilos per person/year in 2002 in the Capital Region when I wrote this piece and is now 348. Looked at another way, our population has increased by 25 per cent since 1990 but the waste we generate has decreased by 27 per cent. 

But while the dramatic forecasts of waste reduction may not have been borne out as quickly as expected, there are heartening signs that we're well on the way. We're generating less garbage and getting increasingly innovative about making use of what we've got. We're finally seeing our governments hold industries accountable for the waste their products create, which in turn builds markets for recycled commodities to help pay for the high cost of collecting them.

And while finding other uses for waste is still not as cheap in the short-term as throwing something away, the day when that may be so no longer seems quite so distant.

"Every year, Canada and the U.S. continue to capture more recyclables," says Jerry Powell, editor of the Oregon trade publication Resource Recycling. "We roared through the '90s catching the low-hanging fruit, and it's not going to be that easy anymore. But we're going to keep on growing."

The brewing industry was an early entry into recycling, having found during its infancy 150 years ago that it made economic sense to collect beer bottles for refilling. B.C. brewers followed suit in 1924 and continue to do so, encouraging participation by charging deposits and asking the province's 43 participating brewers to use a uniform style of bottle. The average bottle of B.C.-brewed beer is filled 15 times before it's retired.

Steel recycling caught on across the country during the Second World War, when the federal government was desperate for steel to make weapons. Motor oil, lead-acid batteries, paint and tires were banned from B.C. landfills several years ago, necessitating recycling industries around those products as well.

"Blue-box" goods -- plastics, tin cans, newspaper and office paper -- have been melted and pulped into new products for many years. But it wasn't until communities started collecting them in large amounts as part of recycling programs in the last decade that they came into their own as commodities on the world market.

The capital region launched its blue-box program in the late 1980s and now sells almost 16,000 tonnes of recyclables a year into the global market. More than three-quarters of British Columbians have access to a curbside recycling pickup, a major reason why the province generated 400,000 fewer tonnes of garbage in 2000 compared to a decade earlier, even while the population grew by 24 per cent.

In the early days of community recycling, the vision was of glass bottles turned back into glass bottles, of old newspapers pulped to become new ones. Waste would be eliminated and the environment spared; 20 recycled aluminum cans, as recycling advocates have noted, can be made new again using the same amount of electricity and water needed to make a single can from scratch.

But aluminum proved to be the exception, the only blue-box recyclable that pays for itself when collection costs are factored in. The reality for other blue-box commodities was more complex.

Reused newsprint doesn't have the same strength as "virgin" newsprint, making it an unpopular choice in large quantities for the high-speed presses of the newspaper industry. There also weren't enough de-inking plants in North America to handle the glut from the rapid expansion of community recycling in the 1990s, and markets are only now recovering.

Glass broke so often in the process of being collected that it was impossible to keep one colour of bottle separated from another, making it useless for future batches of bottles. Only domestic beer bottles, hand-sorted by colour by the brewing industry, return to use as bottles.

Plastic pop bottles were durable enough, but so cheap to make in the first place that the industry cared little about getting the old bottles back. Health laws in various locales often prohibit "post- consumer" plastics from being turned back into bottles anyway, unless it's certain that the consumer's mouth won't come into contact with the recycled material.

So while markets have developed as blue-box programs proliferated, the recycled use is almost always in something of lesser value. Newspapers become ingredients in cardboard. Glass is ground up for use in road aggregate and fibreglass. Plastic pop bottles are flaked and shipped primarily to China, to be turned into T-shirts, fleece jackets, sleeping-bag fill and carpet.

It was a harsh learning experience for many communities. Having envisaged a nice little nest egg from selling recyclables, they instead found themselves dealing with wildly fluctuating markets disconnected from the cost of collecting the goods.

In the capital region, costs have improved in the past two years since collection methods changed. Glass, metal and plastics are now sorted at recycling plants rather than curbside, making it easier for contractors to pick up more material on a single run and keep collection costs lower.

Even so, it still costs almost twice as much per tonne to run the region's blue-box program as it does to throw garbage in the landfill, $84.49 compared to $45.66. Of the almost $10 million spent last year on waste management (funded by the $75-a-tonne charge to dump at Hartland), $4 million of it went toward diverting recyclables. If profit were the measure of success, we'd be failing. **Update from CRD’s 2016 annual report, the most recent available: The region now spends $19.6 million on waste management, of which $6.1 million goes to fund recycling collection and another $3 million goes to other diversion efforts. It now costs $110 a tonne to dump waste at Hartland.

The goal, however, is garbage reduction, and on that count the program is working. The region has dumped less garbage into Hartland every year since the blue-box program began; last year's total, 135,000 tonnes, is the smallest amount generated since 1987, and less than half of the 300,000 tonnes that was expected to materialize by the early 1990s. **The amount of garbage going into the landfill got as low as 112,000 tonnes in 2015, but jumped to 133,000 the following year, mostly due to an increase in construction waste. There are no figures more recent than 2016 on the CRD website.

The landfill that was once forecast to be full by 2000 has at least 50 years left, and even more if a long-awaited composting facility finally gets built. That's good news in an era when building a new dump would cost tens of millions of dollars and almost certainly prompt a non-stop series of confrontations with unwilling neighbours, First Nations and environmentalists.

But if diversion rates are to hit the ambitious levels set in the years when Heal Lake could still call itself that, there's much work to be done.

“We haven't begun to scratch the surface of what we can do," said Prospect Lake resident Gary Moonie in the runup to the draining of Heal Lake, arguing for more aggressive recycling policies.

In fact, people in the capital region and across North America have proven resistant to recycling unless it's either very easy for them or worth their while, which is why areas with curbside pickup and bottle deposit programs have the highest recycling rates.

(In B.C., which has deposits on most beverage containers, three- quarters of all plastic pop bottles are returned for refunds. In the U.S., where only 10 states have deposit programs, barely a fifth of the 1.6 million tonnes of plastic bottles sold every year are returned.) **2016 figures: The US recycling rate for plastic bottles has inched up to 29 per cent.

So communities wanting to reduce their garbage stream face the challenge of keeping it easy -- curbside blue-box collection, numerous bottle depots -- without going broke paying for it.

Finding markets for recycled goods that will offset at least some of the high price of collection is critical. Glass has turned out to be the worst of the blue-box commodities, bulky to transport and worthless on the market.

"It's fused sand," says Resource Recycling's Powell. "There's no worth in that."

One industry insider says that if he was choosing, he'd grind up waste glass and dump it into the ocean, where he contends it would be virtually undetectable. Blue-box scroungers, who can be fined for stealing goods at curbside that rightly belong to the regional district, do the CRD a favour when they take glass, one staffer quietly admits.

Newsprint has held its own, although its price on the market has been as low as $5 a tonne at times in the past decade. Recycled aluminum can sell for as much as $2,000 a tonne; the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat buys almost two-thirds of the 2.1 billion cans discarded in Canada every year. Cardboard is selling for $220 a tonne right now, a high.

Plastic, however, has been a disappointment. There's a hungry market out there willing to pay as much as $400 a tonne for pop-bottle plastic and HDPE, the heavier plastic used for shampoo and detergent bottles. And there's a load of plastic out there: Between 1995 and 2000, the amount of plastic beverage containers manufactured in the U.S. alone almost doubled to more than 600 billion.

**2018: Surprisingly little change in many of the prices for recycled goods. Here’s an estimate out of Alberta from June 2018. Aluminum cans now fetch considerably less than in 2002, with rates in the US just over $1,300 a tonne. Newspaper sometimes doesn't even reach $1 a tonne.

But many of those bottles were single-serving -- bottled water, in many cases. They were bought and consumed by people on the go, who threw them away instead of bringing them back home for recycling. As well, consumers are forgetting to recycle "household industrial" plastics, used as containers for things like hair products and cleaners.

The result: recycle rates of plastic beverage bottles in the U.S. fell to a low of 22.3 per cent in 2000, down from 40 per cent five years earlier. In B.C., the Recycling Council estimates that 87 per cent of the 7,000 tonnes of household industrial bottles we use every year end up landfilled.

The stats are less grim for B.C. pop bottles, as the province collects a deposit of five or 10 cents per bottle from consumers that's paid back upon return. The recycle rates last year of that type of plastic beverage bottle -- PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate -- were around 72 per cent.

But there's still more demand for used PET and HDPE than there is a ready supply, even while communities across the country lament the flow of plastics into their landfills.

"When the big overseas markets like China are buying, there's a tremendous volume accepted," says plastics broker Dave Smith, of Sarnia's Canadian Plastic Recycling Inc. "It competes with cotton, so when the cotton crop's bad, the demand for PET is big. I'd say the demand always exceeds the supply."

What's the solution? Recycling markets often need a push from government to establish themselves: the banning of a certain item from landfills; recycled-material quotas for producers; government- led purchases of new products made from recycled goods. Little of that has happened yet with plastic.

"Once government mandates that something is banned from a landfill, we have something to base our business on," says Doug Stevens of Metro Materials, the Victoria firm under contract with the CRD to process all blue-box items and ship them out for remanufacture.

His co-worker Matt Dupuis notes that "it's still cheaper to cut down trees" than to manufacture plastic two-by-fours.

"We may actually need artificial markets for a while, where a municipality commits to buying x-amount of plastic lumber for a building project, or to using plastic road dividers," says Dupuis. "If governments at various levels coordinated things like that, you'd start to see those costs go down."

Improving plastic recycling rates could reduce the cost of blue-box programs, but the biggest hope for shrinking the garbage stream lies in composting. Organics -- everything from restaurant waste to soiled disposable diapers -- account for about 38 per cent of the weight of all garbage in the capital region and other jurisdictions, the single-biggest source of waste. **Food waste has been prohibited in household garbage in the CRD since 2015 and has to be separated into a "green bin" for pickup. However, organics still account for 21 per cent of the waste stream as of the last study in 2016.

But only a few thousand tonnes of yard waste are diverted into composting at Hartland in any given year, and only two B.C. towns, Mission and Cobble Hill, have easy access to a compost facility for food waste. Interestingly enough, this is still true.  Since banning kitchen scraps in 2015, the CRD ships "green bin" waste to these two facilities.

The province and the region have talked about the need for composting for more than a decade, but the long-promised regulatory framework is only now being drafted. The considerable resistance of neighbourhoods fearful of smell and noise will no doubt hamper the search for a plant site for several more years.

Yet in areas where composting is already underway, the results are dramatic. The Cowichan Valley has seen its waste rates fall to among the lowest in the province since a privately run composting facility opened in the area two years ago, a situation admittedly helped along by the $125-a-tonne cost of shipping remaining garbage to Cache Creek after the town dump reached capacity around the same time.

Edmonton anticipates cutting its waste stream by 70 per cent at a new plant that makes topsoil out of organic garbage and sewage sludge. Nova Scotia banned organics from its landfills in 1998 and has cut its waste stream in half.

This month in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, residents began separating their garbage into "wet" and "dry" at the curb in a pilot project that the city believes could end the need for a dump by 2010 if eventually expanded throughout Toronto.

"Because we haven't got our organics out, we're stuck at 41 per cent diversion," says CRD staffer Brenda Phillips, manager of environmental education. "And there are still a lot of regulations and land-use questions that will have to be addressed before a facility can open."

Ongoing involvement from all waste-generating industries is also essential in cutting the flow of garbage. Product stewardship -- the "cradle to grave" responsibility of an industry for its product -- has barely been tapped in B.C. The bottling industry leads the pack, having taken over the collection and recycling of beverage containers in B.C. through the Western Brewers' Association and four-year-old Encorp Pacific, a not- for-profit set up at specifically for the task.

Encorp even ended up with a $5 million surplus last year, albeit largely because of the $16 million worth of unredeemed deposit on containers that people threw away and another $12 million from non- refundable "recycling fees" consumers have paid on every beverage container since 1998. Encorp says the fees are necessary to cover the high recycling costs -- and poor markets -- for certain containers, and notes that all profits are put back into recycling efforts. Encorp's surplus was $7 million in 2017, $19.6 million of which came from unredeemed deposits. Read the annual report here

Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Gatorade have all recently given in to government and environmental pressure to begin using between 10 and 25 per cent recycled plastic in their new bottles. These beverage giants are now promising to use 100 per cent recycled materials by 2025 or so. 

But other stewardship programs could be started for any number of products, says a study done four months ago for the Liberal government. Belgium requires stewardship of beverage containers, disposable razors and cameras, pesticides, paper and cardboard, while Taiwan goes after the manufacturers of electronic appliances, computers and vehicles.

B.C. currently targets tires, oil, pharmaceuticals and lead-acid batteries as well as beverage containers, but the programs could all use a little work, the study notes. Electronics can now be dropped off for free at Return-It depots in BC. An environmental handling fee of anywhere from five cents to $10 has been added onto purchase prices of some of these items to cover the cost of recycling them. 

"Product stewardship in B.C. today does not appear to be the result of a disciplined strategy. Rather, it appears to be the result of a combination of history, politics, revenue opportunity, and ad hoc industry and ministry initiatives," says the report.

Such a hodge-podge can be unsatisfactory for both industry and consumers, the report's author notes, citing the example of the government collecting $4 million every year in "eco-fees" for disposing of lead-acid batteries when the actual cost is only $1 million.

Whatever the strategies, any endeavour to reduce waste will live or die on people's willingness to participate.

Garbage diversion rates are highest when people need only shuffle their blue box to the curb, but so are collection costs. A little extra effort from the populace to recycle goods that aren't accepted in the blue box would go a long way toward saving both money and waste.

As well, the litterbug generation that learned as children in the 1970s to put garbage in the trash now needs to teach a new generation to put it in the recycling box instead. The beverage containers with the worst return rates in B.C. are the 126 million drink boxes and "gable-tops" consumed every year, almost exclusively by school children. Almost 60 per cent continue to be thrown away. We're still throwing away 40 per cent of drink boxes in 2018.

Encorp communications manager Malcolm Harvey says education is essential. But so are blue boxes and drop-offs in as many locations as can be provided.

"The only thing that really makes recycling work is that people want to do it," says Harvey. "We just have to make it easy for them."


Did you know:

- Every tonne of recycled steel saves 1.4 tonnes of iron ore and 3.6 barrels of oil.

- Five plastic pop bottles are used to make one extra-large T- shirt.

- 55 million plastic bags are taken home by Canadians every week. Yikes, this has now increased to 2.86 billion bags.

- Six million tonnes of glass are thrown away in Canada annually.

- A tonne of recycled newspaper saves three cubic metres of landfill space and 17 trees.

- 35 two-litre plastic pop bottles make enough fibre fill for one sleeping bag.

Beyond the blue box: End uses of locally recycled goods

· Cardboard: Shipped to mills in Vancouver, Washington and Taiwan to be made into cardboard boxes, liners, and cereal boxes.

· Newspaper: Shipped to Vancouver, Oregon and Taiwan to be made into newsprint.

· Mixed Paper: Shipped to Vancouver, Washington and Taiwan for use in duroid shingles, packing material, corrugated cardboard liner and Gyproc paper.

· Tin: Shipped to tin and steel smelters to be remade into tin cans.

· Glass: Ground for use in road aggregate and highway marker beads.

· Plastics: Divided into one of seven categories and sent to Merlin Plastics in Vancouver to be pelletized, eventually shipped overseas for use in clothing, carpet, drainage pipe, car parts, polar fleece and more plastic containers.

Friday, June 15, 2018

On voyeurism while urinating: The strange tale of the Opus Hotel video cam

I first heard about this story in April from a co-worker of mine, the wife of Paul Razzell. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and my old reporter instincts came to life in an instant as I encouraged her to have Paul call me so we could do a story.

The question at the heart of the story: Is it OK to film people as they go about their business in the bar for the entertainment of men as they pee? Like Paul Razzell, I found the idea revolting and was dumbstruck that it had been a practice at Yaletown's Opus Hotel since 2002, apparently with few complaints.

I thought I'd found an interested outlet for the story after I heard back from the Georgia Straight, which was interested in me writing the piece for them. For whatever reason, I never heard from them again after I submitted the story. So here it is, a blog post now.

I found it a fascinating example of the weird ideas that come into people's heads as "entertaining and fun," though it's too bad it will never be tested through our privacy laws. The resolution of the issue just as a complaint went to BC's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ended that possibility. Not a coincidence, I'm thinking, but at least Razzell did get his wish to see the practice ended.

It’s last call for the Opus Hotel’s 16-year-old practice of featuring a video feed of bar customers on monitors above the men’s urinals.

A complaint to BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) was filed May 3 by Victoria man Paul Razzell. He’s been trying for the last six months to persuade the Yaletown hotel to stop the practice. He stumbled upon it in November after visiting the coffee shop next door and being pointed to the Opus washroom when he asked about facilities.

Contacted for comment about the privacy complaint, Opus general manager Nicholas Gandossi said the hotel is planning a major washroom renovation this month (June). The monitors will be removed as part of that reno. The video feed from the bar camera is gone already, replaced by CNN, he adds.

“I know this fellow felt it wasn’t right, that there were privacy issues,” says Gandossi, who contends that nobody else has complained about the video feed. “But in the privacy context, we were never trying to cross the boundary with this. [Razzell’s] timing is perfect, because we’ve been planning an update of the washrooms for a while. And when even one person says he doesn’t like what we’re doing – well, it did get me thinking. “

Razzell says he was stunned last fall to be in front of the hotel urinals and realize he was looking at a number of large monitors on the wall showing a live feed of bar patrons and staff.

He went into the bar to confirm that’s what he was viewing, eventually spotting the discreet camera mounted high on the wall. He then sent his wife into the women’s washroom to see whether there were monitors in there as well. (There weren’t. But Gandossi says that up until the wiring fritzed out two or three years ago, the same feed was displayed in the mirror of the women’s washroom.)

Razzell wrote his first outraged email to Gandossi soon after. He told the hotel manager that the practice was not only an invasion of privacy, it was insulting and demeaning to the women unknowingly being watched by urinating men. It was all “so creepy and voyeuristic.”

Gandossi sees things differently.  The monitors were simply displaying the same images that anyone would see if they passed by on the sidewalk and looked in the bar window, he says. The feed isn’t recorded, or broadcast anywhere other than in the men’s washroom.

The Opus has always gone for a bit of “tongue-in-cheek” and voyeurism, adds Gandossi, noting that its hotel rooms have windows between the bathrooms and the living rooms.

“But this is voyeuristic in an ugly way,” says Razzell. “There are the bar patrons’ faces, broadcasting in proximity to guys peeing. It permits men to observe women without their knowing it.”

Is it legal? OIPC communications director Erin Beattie says the office can’t comment on any case that it hasn’t reviewed, but noted that all 500,000 or so private organizations in BC – whether churches, schools, businesses, unions, charities or Yaletown hotels – are governed by the Personal Information Protection Act.

On the issue of videotaping people, PIPA is considerably more restrictive than the act that governs the public sector, says Beattie. A case can be made for video surveillance to prevent or solve a crime, she says – installing security cameras in a parkade, for instance. But what happens to that footage, and who it’s shared with, has to meet tests around consent and reasonableness.

For private organizations, getting consent typically comes down to posting a bold sign at the entrance that says some version of “There’s video surveillance here,” says Beattie.  That way, a customer can choose not to enter.

“If we get a complaint about video surveillance, the questions we ask are: Do they have consent? Is it reasonable under the circumstances to collect these images? What authority do they have to collect it? That’s how we determine if it’s legal,” says Beattie.

 “But even after that, there are further considerations, such as whether that information is being disclosed to people outside the organization, and for what reason.”

The key considerations under BC privacy law are collection, use and disclosure. A private organization might be within the law to collect certain kinds of information through video surveillance, says Beattie, but it could still be breaking the law if the way that information is used – or who it’s shared with – fails the test of reasonableness and consent.

Some video surveillance gets a pass. Audiences at sporting events are presumed to be consenting (the Rogers Arena “Kiss Cam” being one such example). But “very few applications allow collection without consent,” says Beattie – and that consent has to come either on or before the information is collected.

Razzell says that even if what the hotel was doing turned out to be legal, it’s morally unacceptable, most especially in a time when campaigns like #MeToo have brought global attention to sexual harassment, abuse and rape. The high height of the camera alone was a virtual invitation to men to peek down the tops of women, he adds.

While Gandossi asserts there have been almost no complaints about the video feed in 16 years, Razzell says he posted his discovery on Facebook last fall and soon had a long list of comments from others who were equally outraged and disgusted. He’s been pushing hard since then to convince the hotel to stop.

“This is not 2002 anymore,” says Razzell. “We don’t want to permit things like this to be normalized in our world. If there was ever a time to do the right thing and stop this, now’s the time.”

Done, says Gandossi: “It was fun back in 2002, but we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to evolve.”