Highlights from the AMRC conference

I’m back from the AMRC conference and want to share a few thoughts and observations. There’s no particular order to these, so forgive me if this comes across as a bit “stream of consciousness.”
I arrived late on the Wednesday and missed some of Janet Robins’ presentation on the “utility model” for waste. However I discussed it with her and Maria Kelleher later on, and feel strongly that this model could provide significant benefits to many jurisdictions. Quite a bit of research is being done right now into the legal and economic details (and the pros and cons) of shifting municipal waste management into a utility (very common for water infrastructure, for example). There are something like nine such waste utilities in Ontario at present. Anyway, I have invited Maria Kelleher and Janet Robins to write a feature article on this topic, probably for our June/July edition. Watch for it.
There were sessions on a wide range of topics, including SSO organics, HHW and e-waste. Some of the presentations were a bit general or just short updates. However, I expect next year’s conference will really shine on those topics, as there are some major projects starting up this spring and some major policy initiatives that could or should be in motion by next year. For instance, Peel Region is about to do the ribbon cutting ceremony for its new mega-recycling and composting plant, and Hamilton is also about to open its large new plant. (There’s an article on each in the upcoming Feb/March edition of the magazine, due out in a couple of weeks). Ontario might have a stewardship plan approved for e-waste, used oil and scrap tires by next spring, (Hey, I’m still an optimist after all!) so hopefully the “insiders” from that process can be enticed to come out and speak about how it all came to be.
I almost missed the last day of the conference (Friday) as I had to drive through a snow storm and view magazine proofs in Toronto the night before. But I’m thankful that I made it back in time to attend the markets update, especially the segment on glass recycling presented by Geoff Love, who also gave a very insightful presentation on the Effectiveness and Efficiency Fund administered under Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) and related topics such as best practices. It was clear to me that I have to stay in closer contact with Geoff, whose forthright attitude and intellect I hold in high esteeem, and Stewardship Ontario (SO) generally, so as to report for the benefit of readers on the findings of all the SO and WDO research and projects. Ontario may lag some of the other provinces in regards to certain waste programs, but one thing that Ontario now has that is highly coveted is the information from the municipal datacall. This will allow for very close scrutiny of how the plethora of different systems and approaches truly function. We can now start to accurately measure what is being achieved and at what cost. This will no doubt lead to articles; our magazine can share with readers across the country what is being learned about the cost/benefit of certain waste diversion approaches, including those that are appropriate for rural areas as opposed to major urban centres.
I enjoyed attending the hospitality suite of Hamilton-based REMM, and chatting with Atul Nanda, who will start writing the Commodities Corner column in our next edition (April/May). I noticed that the AMRC and other organizations like Stewardship Ontario are making use of Atul and his company to do research on various topics, so it looks like we found the right guy to write our column!
On the second day of the conference I moderated a session on emerging industry trends. A fairly lively discussion ensued near the end of session, including a spirited debate about glass recycling and whether or not LCBO containers should be put on deposit. I admit I was trying to provoke a discussion, so don’t hold me to everything I said literally or forever. One panelist produced the recent OI Canada letter about the shortcomings of glass recycling via the blue box, and this elicited a range of comments in the session and afterwards in the hallway. Some municipal recyclers agreed that glass was a tremendous problem in their programs, and expensive to collect and process. Others thought that the blue box is still the way to go, as it collects about 68% of the glass material, and they were skeptical that it was worth the added expense of a deposit-refund system to capture only 10 or 15% more. A deposit system wouldn’t capture all the glass anyway (e.g., pickle jars). There were some highly technical side-discussions about the environmental economics and lifecycle aspects of the two approaches, and how deposit-refund would generate a more valuable glass-to-glass container recycling system, and even refilling, while others disagreed, and so on. Too much to report here, but I got some good ideas for future articles and we’ll be inviting the experts to comment further in the magazine and on the website.
Mention of the OI Canada letter (search under Headline News on this website for the recent news item on that, and the full text of the letter) precipitated the circulation of a letter from Unical — a Quebec-based company — that is critical of OI Canada’s position. Unical won a recent bid process and up to $2 million in funding to build a large plant in Ontario to take blue box glass, including low-value mixed color cullet, and recycle it into value-added raw material for such applications as fibre glass and container manufacturing . (Ironically, OI Canada is a customer of Unical — it’s amazing how these policy debates cause various commerical interests to join, break and re-join with one-another.) OI Canada and the Beer Store were sponsors of the environment minister’s speech on Thursday night, and all the pamphleteering in the hallway was an interesting backdrop to what is now a heated debate in Ontario about how glass should be collected and recycled.
My antipathy toward the LCBO is well known, and I’ve recently stated in this blog that I currently favor LCBO containers being put on deposit. However, I am very interested in offering readers a thorough and fair airing of both sides in this debate, and will work hard to make sure that this happens, both on this website and in the pages of our magazine. I’ve asked Unical to send me an electronic version of its letter for posting here, and I will invite them to write an article about the plant they propose to build in Ontario. They could be a big part of the solution in Ontario and perhaps could redeem the shortcomings of the blue box at present. Frankly, I don’t know either way, but our magazine is a “forum for ideas” so we’ll get all that good information out in the daylight for all to see and make up their own minds.
Another fiesty dimension of the conference occurred after Maria Kelleher gave the final presentation at the conference. Maria presented on waste recycling and climate change, an area where she’s done a lot of work recently for the federal government. I noticed that she made extensive use of some PowerPoint slides from Ralph Torrie, a consultant who is considered an expert and proponent of global warming issues. Now it’s no secret that I am a skeptic of the global warming theory (and I consider it my job as a journalist to BE a professional skeptic). But I really took exception to the presence in Maria’s presentation of the famous “hockey stick” chart that purports to show that a dramatic increase in global temperatures is occurring, and that a real and measurable “signal” has emerged from the background data “noise.”
This hockey stick chart (called that because of the sharp upward shape at the right of the chart) was published years ago in a peer-reviewed journal years ago and adopted by the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change as justification for its dire predictions of what was happening to the earth, and the negotiations that led to the famous Kyoto Accord. I like Maria a lot and was going to mention to her privately in the hallway after her session that this chart has been COMPLETELY DISCREDITED and that scientists have disowned the scientifically invalid process via which the original team collected and manipulated the data. But I couldn’t help myself telling Maria in the public forum that this chart is discredited and that she must remove it from her presentation. I couldn’t stand the thought of the session delegates hearing all this and not being alerted to the serious problem that the climate change proponents now have with this discredited diagram, which they continue to trot out at conferences as though it’s still true. Anyway, Maria is a tough lady and my being mean to her in the session didn’t stop us from having a nice chat at lunch afterward, at the end of which I invited her to write an article about recycling and greenhouse gases, etc. So maybe I’m not so awful after all.
I told the audience that I would dig up some articles about the hockey stick chart debacle and put them up on this website, so that we will ALL KNOW about this, and not act surprised when it pops its ugly head up again in future, as it no doubt will. I will also try to locate and put up the article that appeared in the VERY SAME peer-reviewed journal as the original hockey stick article, revealing the problems with it. (I forget whether it was Nature or Science, but I will find it, I promise.) I also promise not to be mean to my friends in future at conferences (although I warn my fingers may be crossed.)
Lastly, I want to comment on what was the most lame aspect of the AMRC conference, and something that really ticks me off. YET AGAIN, no one from Ontario’s Ministry of Environment attended this conference! Everyone at the conference was very observant of this fact and some were highly annoyed. It’s just further proof that this ministry is not engaged (as the consultants and recycling coordinators politely put it). Also, while I respect the fact that she braved a snow storm to get there, the Environment Minister Lauren Broten deliverd a very UNINFORMATIVE speech. Sorry to be so blunt but everyone at my table agreed that there was nothing worth writing down, just platitudes worthy of maybe a Grade 12 student delivering their “speech project” at the end of term. What was irritating is that the minister’s staff had agreed to have the minister answer some questions that were in fact emailed to her in advance of the vent. No, I wouldn’t expect her to reveal “state secrets” about controversial topics like e-waste stewardship, used oil or LCBO glass, but she could have at least offered some comments. This minister needs to get it in her head that when professional people (real experts in environmental topics) pay a lot of money to stay overnight at a resort so they can listen to the minister, they expect more than a canned speech of the ilk Brenda Elliott used to deliver, over and over again. This is not a highschool audience that needs warm and fuzzy messages about “all their good work” recycling. They want content. They want insight. They want a minister who will entertain questions and stick her neck out, at least a bit. I give the minister “two thumbs down” for her performance.
Well, that’s enough of a novel. Watch this space for updates on the glass recycling issue and the climate change hockey stick diagram matter. I’ll try to get ontop of each in a day or two. And if anything I’ve written above aggravates you, please don’t call me or email me privately. Instead, enter a comment of your own by clicking on the green word “comment” below, and join the debate here, in this space. Thanks!