Opinion

The problem with "Environmental" groups

by Emily Atkins

Today's National Post features a wonderful article by one of my favorite writers, Lawrence Solomon, on the topic of supposed wilderness protection in B.C. (As a convenience, I have pasted the whole article below.) I've followed GreenPeace's campaign for years to get a large area of old-growth forest in B.C. protected from exploitation. I recall being mildly offended at the organization coming up with the cheesy name "Great Bear Forest" which is in fact their creation, which was quickly followed by posters and a boycott campaign directed at Europeans (e.g., Germany) who don't know enough about realities on the ground in Canada to see how they were being manipulated. Don't get me wrong, I'm a conservationist (as opposed to "environmentalist") and I very much favor settting aside certain tracts of land and water as world heritage sites. Actually, I'm of the school that things we can't, in fact, be trusted to "manage" wilderness, which is why I favor setting aside large pristine areas for the preservation of habitat and wild creatures, and the enjoyment of future generations of backpackers and canoeists or kayakers. Which is why, as Solomon so deftly points out, the Great Bear deal is such a sham. It's not at all what the environmental groups advertised, beforem during or after the deal. And it's entirely the kind of "manage the wilderness" arrangement that I distrust and that is sought out by rent-seeking corporations. Sometimes my friends react with amazement when I tell them I have no time for GreenPeace and some of the other mainstream environmental groups. They assume this means I'm somehow against the environment. Nonsense. Read Solomon's article and you'll see a perfect illustration why I distrust these groups, and overtly dislike them, in fact. They allow their members and supporters to feel smug and superior to everyone else, while in fact they are the biggest sellouts around. It's true, and I've encountered literally dozens of sad stories like this over the years. This Great Bear sell-out is not an exception -- it's actually the rule nowadays with environmental deal making. It's a bit simplistic, but my rule-of-thumb in assessing these things is to follow the money and ask, Is there a subsidy? If there is a subsidy (direct or indirect) that's usually a red flag that someone is fooling us again. In a perverse way I have to admire the Machiavellian lumber companies for their cynical tactics. I hate the outcome, but I have a sort of awed respect for how good they are at playing this game, actually getting the government to underwrite the costs of logging old growth forests, and getting the world's best-known environmental groups to applaud them for it in public. Who'd a thought it possible? Anyway, here's the story.

The LCBO affair

by Emily Atkins

Today's National Post expands upon a segment of Monday evening's six o'clock news program on Global TV about a fired LCBO accountant who has launched a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the Ontario wine and beer crown corporation, alleging millions of dollars of funds have been misappropriated. I have reprinted the National Post article in full below. The article speaks for itself. There's not enough detail for me to analyze the situation in a meaningful way, other than for me to say that rumours have swirled around the LCBO for years among journalists of possible mismanagement and outright corruption at the organization. Yet no one has ever had enough solid material to go to press, especially in the wake of a libel chill that has most news organizations only printing or going to air with material that is "bullet proof" -- meaning it must be of the same quality as a sworn affidavit to withstand a possible legal challenge. Obviously, there are a lot of great stories that don't get to press because of this situation. Media critics may be glad about that, but in fact the famous fifth estate has its hands tied in Canada at the moment, and this is only abetting the interests of crooked politicians and powerful businesspeople. If Watergate were to occur today, I doubt the lawyers for the Washington Post would go to press with the investigative journalists' copy. they wouldn't be allowed to reveal things as they encountered them; the whole story would have had to be told at once, and Deep throat would have had to sign a sworn affidavit. Unlikely. Anyway, this most recent scandal to hit the LCBO may or may not signal the beginning of the unravelling of the status quo at the moribund organization. I hope so, but we'll have to wait for details from the court case to see. (Note: On Wednesday I will be in Toronto meeting with a trade association about redesign of its website, and reviewing final proofs of our magazine. I won't enter another Blog entry until Thursday.)

Industry lobbying New Brunswick over fees

by Emily Atkins

As noted in our news section today, an industry lobby is asking New Brunswick’s environment minister to alter Bill 15’s new product stewardship legislation that, as drafted, would prohibit separate stewardship fees from being shown to consumers and, in effect, make it difficult for brand owners to pass on recycling and waste diversion costs to a third-party stewardship board. The letter is reproduced in full below. In Canada, the western provinces have moved forward with product stewardship schemes that use advance disposal fees (ADFs). This is sometimes casually called the “Western model” and is notable in Alberta where it's used for such things as scrap tires, used oil and electronics waste. In ADF schemes, companies set up a stewardship organization that funds recycling and diversion from landfill of waste materials. While this may be effective in keeping certain materials out of landfill, this “arms length” relationship between manufacturers and their waste streams comes in for heavy criticism from environmentalists, who want programs to be designed in such a way that more responsibility is placed on manufacturers to change the way they manufacture, package and distribute their goods in the first place. For materials like used oil, the Western model has been shown to actually undermine environmentally superior re-refining and to encourage burning. New Brunswick’s Bill 15 may be the first step in what could become the “Eastern model” -- i.e., programs that function without ADFs. A good example of what these could look like is the new e-waste program in the State of Maine. (We recently posted a news item on that program under Headline News.) The industry letter uses careful wording to suggest that prohibition of visible fees prohibits "a transparent cost recovery process, which in turn will impair consumer awareness of the recovery/recycling costs for designated products and packaging, thereby reducing consumer compliance." This statement is meant to appeal to people who don't understand how ADF schemes function, and to characterize visible fees as superior (in the sense that no fees, or hidden fees, are somehow nefarious and dishonest). I doubt that the policymakers in New Brunswick will be confused by these statements. The signatories to the letter probably feel they just "have to" defend and promote the stance they've taken elsewhere over fees, while fully understanding the full ramifications of every aspect of this "game." My guess is that within a year or so there will be two (maybe even three!) regimes for funding of product stewardship in Canada: a Western ADF-based model, and Eastern/Atlantic Region fee-less model, with Ontario and Quebec in the middle (sucking their thumbs, probably). We should all follow this with interest. Here's the letter (also posted as a pdf file under Posted Documents on this website home page)

Truth coming out about LCBO

by Emily Atkins

Today is an important media day for anyone who, like me, hates the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). There are two reasons. First, the National Post ran a column today on its op-ed page by journalist and consumer affairs writer David Menzies that is the best succinct analysis I've ever read of what's wrong with the money-losing (you read that correctly!) crown agency. Menzies' conclusions fit with some of my own research, and fill the dismal overall story beyond the more narrow packaging waste issue that we look at in our magazine and website. In my editorial in the forthcoming February/March edition I offer readers some insights into cynical strategies the LCBO is using to avoid recycling fees and a deposit-refund system for used beverage containers. The second reason is that I'm told there will be a rather sensational segment tonight on Global Television's Six O'Clock News program. Global TV advertised what it claimed will be revelations of a major piece of LCBO financial mismanagement throughout the SuperBowl on Sunday, apparently at every commercial break! (I have to confess I wasn't watching the game.) I'm told there was even a two-minute long teaser at the half! Apparently they have a fired LCBO accountant who has blown the whistle and claims millions of dollars have been squandered. So tune in tonight and watch, and then check back here for commentary tomorrow. Now, here's Menzies' wonderful piece. Way to go, Dave!

Judging Ontario's environment minister

by Emily Atkins

There are various yardsticks for measuring the success or failure of a government, or specifically a minister and his or her staff. I've been watching Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten for some time now, and have suspended judgement. There hasn't been to much to get excited about so far, and no major disasters. It's clear that the Liberal McGuinty government wants to play up its agenda, such as post-Walkerton drinking water safety, and avoid being drawn into other priorities, especially those that concern solid waste. I'm not going to sit on the sidelines any longer. For me, there's one issue that will go a long way toward showing whether we have an effective government and environment minister in Ontario or not. It's my personal litmus test. The issue is whether or not the government is prepared to take on the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), both in the sense of privatizing this moribund crown corporation, and in the specific matter of putting LCBO glass containers into a return-to-retail and/or return-to-depot deposit-refund system. I have read a great deal about this issue, and attended many conferences and workshops in which the current blue box recycling of glass has been discussed. I know the environment minister has access to all this information, too. Now we have today's news item, from Owens-Illinois -- which operates two large glass manufacturing and glass-to-glass recycling plants in Ontario (one of them in Minister Broten's own riding!). O-I Canada has submitted its critique (a five-page letter) of glass recycling in Ontario to the Stewardship Ontario Blue Box Funding Review Committee. We've posted the letter as a downloadable pdf file on our website under Posted Documents. For your convenience, I also reproduce today's news item below in full. If there was ever a searing indictment of the status quo of blue box recycling, at least as it applies to glass, this is it! I'm going to watch Minister Broten's reaction carefully. My expectation is that sometime in the next six months to a year, she and her government will (a) pass legislation that requires the LCBO to place its glass containers on deposit and (b) halt the LCBO's tactics in trying to shift suppliers into Tetra Paks (or at least fund the full cost of diverting these from landfill). If Minister Broten accepts the status quo for LCBO glass, or if she allows the lobbyists to guide her into some policy in which the poor performance of the current system is further masked, the data fudged, I will conclude that Broten is a lousy environment minister, and I will sharpen my pen here and in our print magazine to point out in painful detail exactly why. So there, I've thrown down the gauntlet! Watch this space for ongoing commentary on this issue. And DO read the O-I document. It's one of the most powerful critiques I've read of this issue in a long time.