Small acts of community in our own little garbage patch

The Lamb on the Quay boardwalk. Photo: Laura Schneider.
The Lamb on the Quay boardwalk. Photo: Laura Schneider.

The other day I noticed a bunch of Canadian geese down at the Fraser River Styrofoam patch. Why, I wondered, would they prefer to toddle here rather than fly south for the winter? More importantly, I wondered why was no one cleaning this mess up.

The area in question is home to a bunch of stray logs that get jammed into a small grassy, muddy alcove making it a perfect catchall for all kinds of debris.

These logs, which look natural and quite fetching tangle themselves up with those nasties; large pieces of Styrofoam, their offspring chunks and worst of all those pellet sized eggballs that are near impossible to pick up.

I think we all know that Styrofoam is bad and unsightly on our shoreline, but why is it so bad?

Well aside from those crumbling little eggballs that birds and other wildlife seem to find so tasty and then get sick from because it blocks their digestive system which ultimately causes starvation, new research shows that contrary to popular belief, plastic and its chemically gassy, blown-up sibling Styrofoam may actually be breaking down in as little as one year, if the conditions are right.

So the good news is that plastics may be breaking down in no time; the bad news is that these plastics may be releasing all their unpronounceable and potentially toxic chemicals in to our water system a whole lot sooner than we thought.

Well thank goodness none of us drink from the Fraser.

Garbage bagged in a one-person, one-day cleanup at the Quay included about 15 pounds of waterlogged Styrofoam, plastic and glass bottles, cigarette butts, newspapers, a mountain dew box, plastic bags, rope, drink caps, tampon applicators, both paper and plastic, tons of those little wrappers that cover mints you get when you leave the Boat House and, oddly, a coconut. Photo: Laura Schneider.
Garbage bagged in a one-person, one-day cleanup at the Quay included about 15 pounds of waterlogged Styrofoam, plastic and glass bottles, cigarette butts, newspapers, a mountain dew box, plastic bags, rope, drink caps, tampon applicators, both paper and plastic, tons of those little wrappers that cover mints you get when you leave the Boat House and, oddly, a coconut. Photo: Laura Schneider.

And as an aside… why don’t we recycle Styrofoam? As it turns out, no one wants to. Apparently, it can’t be made into much except plastic lunch trays and packing material and it costs a lot to do that. Additionally, the pollution generated by making these lunch trays etc. is far more than making them from scratch.

So anyway, back to the garbage patch that my dog Lamb and I have been walking past for years. It’s interesting because it changes. I’ve seen some really big stuff in there. I once crawled down to investigate an industrial cooler that was about three quarters the size of a refrigerator. My mischievous self wondered if wasn’t big enough to contain a body or some other nastiness.

Anyway this stuff does occasionally appear and surprisingly disappear, but not often enough for my liking. So today I put on my boots, a warm winter coat and red rubber gloves. I grabbed my rake, garbage bags and the Lamb and off we went to clean the mess up.

Lamb in tow, I tossed her over the rail, in order that she may have a good spot for supervising. The idea being that if I fell in or hurt myself she’d sound the alarm.

Once down there you become aware that it isn’t just Styrofoam, it’s all kinds of stuff. And in keeping with the recent Queensborough Shoreline Clean Up initiative held this past September, I think that it’s really important we document my findings.

Here is a list of what I found: lots of Styrofoam, about 15 water logged pounds worth, plastic and glass bottles, some of which were alcoholic and surprisingly still contained remnants inside, cigarette butts, newspapers, a mountain dew box, plastic bags, rope, drink caps, tampon applicators, both paper and plastic, tons of those little wrappers that cover mints you get when you leave the Boat House and of all things a coconut, which I left there.

The interesting thing is that many of these items start to look like natural detritus, which I think, is a plus, to some degree. A while back I was in Hawaii taking pictures of shoreline garbage, which is virtually unnoticeable until you get close. In part because wave erosion, salt and sun convert it to look like everything else in the environment. What a coup.

Again, back to the Quay… so a few people walked by and asked what I was up to, in fact, one person took photographs, as if this was something amazing or covert. I explained that I was taking half an hour out of my day and putting it toward my own personal community initiative. I was going to pick up garbage and report my findings.

In closing, I would like to challenge all New Westmintonians to make their own community initiative. Find something to do that gives back to the community and report back. I’d love to hear from you.

In the words of Noam Chomsky

“We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.”

New West volunteers needed for Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup this weekend

Two plastic pop bottles washed onto the bank of the Fraser River in Queensborough. Photo courtesy NWEP.
Two plastic pop bottles washed onto the bank of the Fraser River in Queensborough. Photo courtesy NWEP.

When I was young and living in Alberta in the 1980’s, I belonged to the Dairy 4-H Club. One of our big projects every year was Highway Clean-up. We picked up garbage on the side of the Highway for probably about 4 hours on a Saturday afternoon. It was amazing to see the amount of garbage that littered the side of the road.

Fast forward to 2011. Have we as humans learned our lesson about littering? It seems that we as a collective whole have not. That is why The Vancouver Aquarium partnered with TD Canada Trust and started the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up, happening this weekend in New Westminster and beyond.

Every year tons of garbage collects on the vast shore lines of Canada and across the world. Marine life eat cigarette butts and get caught in plastic pop rings. Also, plastic never fully decomposes in the water, it breaks down into minute particles, which are then swallowed by fish, and then we consume the fish. We are literally eating our own garbage.

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup is an annual event that helps keep our oceans, rivers, and lakes healthy. People from all across Canada join in to remove the human-made litter and garbage that was either dumped or accidently deposited into our water systems. This year, with the City of New Westminster, the New West Environmental Partners (NWEP) has committed to taking care of two sections along the Fraser River: the Carter Foreshore Park and the South Dyke Road. There is also a group working on the Central Valley Greenway in Sapperton.

As a volunteer, you can take part in the shoreline cleanup along with an invasive plant pull to help take care of our portion of the Fraser River. The Cleanup is about more than just picking up garbage. An important part is collecting data on the numbers and types of garbage found. As a volunteer, you will see for yourself the types of litter people throw out and which have the highest amounts. Having this data helps people to understand the behaviours that lead to littering and find ways to get people to stop.

Let’s do the environment and ourselves a favour and spend one day picking up garbage along the shoreline. The event runs this weekend, but it’s not too late to sign up.

Please visit: http://shorelinecleanup.ca. There is a search function; just type in New Westminster. There are a few different New West locations that are available for you to sign up with:

On Sunday, September 25, the tide will be low, making it perfect for an hour or two of shoreline clean-up. The City is providing bags and will make sure that the collected trash and invasive plants will be properly taken away and disposed of. All you need to do is show up and make sure you are dressed for the weather and for being outside—boots/shoes that you don’t mind getting a little muddy and pants and long-sleeved shirts/jackets to protect yourself from reeds and tree branches. Participants under age 19 must bring a signed waiver to participate.

Let’s put on our rain boots and gloves for Mother Nature!

Event Details:

  • What: The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup – New Westminster
  • Date: Sunday, September 25
  • Start Time: 9:30AM
  • Meeting Location: walkout at Suzuki Street and S Dyke Road in Queensborough, New Westminster
  • Wear: boots/shoes that can get muddy, long pants, gloves
  • Tools for the Invasive Pull: shovels, pitch forks, pruning shears, hedge clippers—remember to label/mark your tools for identification
  • Good to Have: water, snacks, etc to
  • Participants under 19 must attend with their parent or guardian or bring a signed waiver with them. Waivers can be printed off the website.

Multi-family recycling numbers can no longer be ignored

This is a guest post by Matt Lorenzi. Matt is a New Westminster resident. He volunteers with the New Westminster Environmental Partners and sits on his building’s strata council.

Garbage in a BFI truck. Photo: Matt Lorenzi
Garbage in a BFI truck. Photo: Matt Lorenzi

The issue of garbage and recycling rates in multi-family dwellings is finally being addressed by Metro Vancouver.

The region’s Zero Waste targets are for 70% trash diversion by 2015. Single family homes are well on their way with 55% diversion, but multi-family lags far behind with an estimated 16% diversion.

So why such a disparity from multi-family to single-family? A number of New Westminster residents gathered at City Hall a few weeks ago to tackle this very issue. The results of the evening’s findings were numerous; everything from garbage chutes, poor signage, lack of containers, and language barriers were touted as reasons hindering recycling.

Municipalities and Metro Vancouver share some blame in these low participation rates. In many municipalities the collection of waste and recyclables from multi-family dwellings has been offloaded to private operators. While this in itself is not the problem, it does make it fairly easy to pass the burden of education and enforcement onto strata councils, building managers and the private haulers.

It appears the industry is starting to take matters into their own hands. One of the larger haulers is soon to install cameras on their trucks which will allow them to audit the garbage at the point of pickup. If the load is contaminated with too large a number of banned items, the resulting fine can be billed back to the building from where it was picked up. This same company stated that they incurred $600,000 in fines from Metro Vancouver due to contaminated waste. Clearly they are not interested in absorbing this cost alone. The result will be more responsibility for each building and in turn for each resident.

So what are the barriers to getting better participation in multi-family buildings? One of them main complaints is a lack of space. It takes a certain amount of commitment to put aside space in your suite to sort and collect. Buildings also have to make it easier and more convenient to participate. Many recycling rooms are out of the way and once you get there the bins are often full. There are some creative solutions being looked at; for example collection could be handled on each floor or in front of each suite using individual sized blue bins.

One of the greatest challenges living in a multi-family building is personal accountability. While costs for garbage removal is gathered through strata fees, individual behaviour is not factored into the equation. There is nothing stopping me from creating as much waste, or using as much hot water as I wish. The challenge is bringing everyone on board and having everyone behave in a similar manner. Barring a change in the way personal accountability is handled, education and behavoir change is the best bet in improving results.

The bottom line is that every year the cost of disposing garbage at a Metro Vancouver transfer station is expected to go up. This cost will be handed back to whomever produced it; be that a business, single-family home, or multi-family building. The days of cheap garbage removal are behind us and a more proactive, equitable approach to dealing with it is the only way forward.

Trash talk at Green Drinks this Wednesday

Green Drinks is an informal monthly meeting of people interested in the environment and sustainability issues, held on the first Wednesday of  every month. This months’ get-together is on July 7th, starting around  6:00pm, in the “Back Room” of the Heritage Grill, 447 Columbia Street.
Green Drinks is an informal monthly meeting of people interested in the environment and sustainability issues, held on the first Wednesday of every month. This months’ get-together is on July 7th, starting around 6:00pm, in the “Back Room” of the Heritage Grill, 447 Columbia Street.

On the first Wednesday of every month New Westminster Environmental Partners hosts ‘Green Drinks’ at the Heritage Grill in New Westminster. I’ve never been able to make it down because of the kids, but I think it’s an awesome idea.

Green Drinks is a monthly meeting of people interested in sustainability and the environment, and is usually free of themes or agendas.  This week, however, there’s a special focus on Metro Vancouver’s ‘Zero Waste Challenge.’

A short panel discussion featuring local Zero Waste Challenge participants, including a community group in Glenbrook North who recently completed a 3-month “Neighbourhood Zero Waste Challenge,” will kick off the event. The Glenbrook neighbours who took the challenged significantly reduced their garbage output, and inspired a group in Sapperton to build upon this success over the summer. Here’s hoping the idea spreads to other New West neighbourhoods too!

According to the “Code” of the International Green Drinks movement, the emphasis is mingling and sharing insights, inspiration, and ideas in a very social setting. The mixed crowd of environmental professionals, politicos, community activists and general rabble-rousers ensure lively conversations.

NWEP is hoping the example of our local Zero Waste champions can inspire others to look at alternatives to expanded landfills and building trash incinerators, as Metro Vancouver is finalizing its longer-term plan for managing the region’s trash problem.

However, true to the Green Drinks Code, the panel will only be the conversation starter. With so many environmental issues jostling for attention right now, from Gulf oil spills to collapsing wild salmon populations, there will be no lack of topics for discussion.

Green Drinks is an informal monthly meeting of people interested in the environment and sustainability issues, held on the first Wednesday of every month. This month’s get-together is on July 7th, starting around 6:00pm, in the “Back Room” of the Heritage Grill, 447 Columbia Street. For info: www.nwep.ca or www.greendrinks.org

Kudos to council on garbage decision from NWEP

I promised an update on automated waste collection, and it is (almost) all good news!

Council passed a motion on Monday that represents an improvement (from an environmental sustainability and solid-waste-diversion perspective) over the recommendation from staff presented to the Environmental Advisory Committee last week.

I paraphrase slightly, but Council requested that the 120L bin be the default size for mixed waste and that 240L be the default size for Clean Green waste (this is the staff recommendation), but then they put a cherry on top by suggesting that the administrative fee for size switches be waived if one is switching to a smaller bin, and that the annual charge for choosing the larger bin be indexed to tippage fees: the more the City pays to dump your trash, the more you pay for having a large bin.

Kudos to Council for taking these progressive measures. Extra Kudos to Councillor McIntosh for proposing (and Councillors McEvoy and Cote for supporting) a 120L option for Clean Green Bins. Hopefully, staff will find a way before the roll-out of the Clean Green bins to come back with a proposal to offer this 120L option, as it seems appropriate for us backyard composters and those with smaller lots.

The New Westminster Environmental Partners will stay involved in this process. Hopefully, Council and Staff will take the NWEP up on our offer to help with the education part of the Clean Green bin roll-out. We also have some great ideas on how to work on waste reduction at New Westminster’s numerous multi-family dwellings. More exciting news surrounds New Westminster’s first Neighbourhood Zero Waste Challenge, taking place on a block of Colborne Street.

For info on all or any of these, or if you have ideas or opinions about garbage, or any other aspect of New Westminster’s environment, check out the NWEP website.

Now I have to finish tearing up my front yard and get some carrots in the ground…

Small question of trash bin size has a big impact

There is a lot happening on the trash front right now.

The New Westminster Environmental Partners have been talking a lot of trash this year, as solid waste and it’s reduction, is one of our key initiatives for 2010. Trash is timely right now, with all the recent talk of Cache Creek Landfill limits, waste-to-energy plants, and Metro Vancouver’s Zero Waste Challenge.

Right here in New Westminster, the City is preparing to roll out its automated trash collection system. With the trucks on order, and the crews ready, the City is now about to make the one decision that will likely have the biggest impact on waste reduction goals in the City over the next 15-20 years: what size of bins to buy?

There is lots of info over at the NWEP website about what the City does now, what some other Cities have done, and where the New West is going. However, that hastily gathered info is already out of date. At Wednesday’s Environmental Advisory Committee meeting, City staff introduced the report that will be going to council on Monday, and it shows that Staff recognize that we don’t need bigger bins than we have now, and that moving to larger bins does not reflect our commitments to waste reduction. This is a good sign; and let’s hope Council is on the same page as Staff about this.

The NWEP still have some concerns about the plan. For example, the 240L Green Waste bins seem ridiculously large for anyone who composts in their back yard. Apparently, this report is going to council on Monday, and some NWEP members will be going as well to speak to several waste reduction issues. Stay tuned!