Organics, the AMRC event, and some big news

by Emily Atkins

Yesterday I attended a one-day workshop presented by the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC) entitled "Organics and 2008 – moving towards 60% diversion" at the Richmond Hill Country Club, December 6, 2005. The event was co-hosted with The Composting Council of Canada (CCC). I took lots of notes on my laptop computer, and cut and pasted them below for anyone who cares to browse. Please note that these are just my point-form notes and more detail will be available from the workshop proceedings when posted at the AMRC website (see below). You can read the notes for yourself, but there are a couple of "big picture" observations and comments I'd like to share quickly. First, a representative from the Ministry of Environment was invited but no one came. The event organizers were very polite about this, but I don't have to be. It's totally unacceptable that the environment ministry didn't send someone to talk to this excellent professional audience, especially since the ministry is pushing for 60% waste diversion, and claims to believe that organics diversion is a big part of that. Several peopl commented that this is yet another sign that the ministry is completely "disengaged." I would go so far as to say the ministry is arrogant and just not doing its job. The environment minister is concerned these days about sticking to her script and setting the agenda with drinking water, and is just not dealing with the waste file. Politicians seem to forget they were elected to serve the public, and not even being bothered to send a mid-level (or even junior) staff person to this event is reprehensible, and part of a very clear pattern. One highly regarded consultant muttered that if this is their attitude, we should all just stay home. I share his disgust, and I intend to keep bringing this topic up again and again until the minstry does something about it. The other big "take away" for me from the event involved the issue of plastic bags. The discussion about biodegradable bags was very interesting, and one or two people pointed out that they serve no purpose if some people use them and others use regular bags within a given program. Yet Jim Graham of London-based Try Recycling said that plastic bags were no big deal for his company and by using screens and some elbow grease, they were able to remove the bags and generate clean compost. Hamilton's Pat Parker had a very different perspective, and stated that the new Hamilton organics plant is not being built to handle bags, and that in pilots they've discovered people won't use bags at all if you communicate clearly and educate the public carefully. So it was interesting to see totally different attitudes toward plastic bags for organics. Apparently they're not a problem when allowed in a program, and they're not a problem when forbidden. I'd want to talk to these people in depth before going one way or the other if I was designing a program, but it was overall good news for anyone wondering if plastics prevent the generation of clean compost. (This whole discussion reminded me about glass apparently not being a big problem in single stream systems -- for some people -- in the last AMRC workshop.) The other big "take away" for me was the importance of Ontario adopting some version of the new CCME standard for compost. This was another reason someone from the ministry should have been there. (Are you listening, Minister Broten? I won't natter on about the new standard, since our Composting Matters columnist Paul van der Werf and consultant Michael Cant have written an excellent article about the new CCME compost standard for the December/January edition of our magazine, due out near the end of this month. A very big news item came out from this workshop, and that is that Recyc-Quebec is going to develop a certification for biodegradable bags. Apparently a news release is due within days, and I'll be sure to post it on Headline News on this website as soon as I get it. susan Antler (see below) said Recyc-Quebec is going to is investing $39,000 on a certification program for biodegradable bags. BNQ will undertake a review through the Standards Council of Canada. It's a six-month review process and will make use of the ASTM and two other standards so as to not reinvent what has been established elsewhere. There will be committee meetings, public meetings, public input, and SCC will give a number and its endorsement. The process will be complete in 2006 and companies will pay to be certified and will receive a BPI-style stamp. Hats off to the AMRC and the CCC, by the way, for yet another excellent workshop. Last month the AMRC put on a workshop on single stream recycling that was equally informative and interesting. (You can download the proceedings at the AMRC website.) I'd like to add that the venue of the Richmond Hill Country Club was superb. The CCC and the Recycling Council of Alberta (RCA) put on a wonderful conference in Lake Louise in October, too, so we'd like to see more joint ventures between the CCC and various recycling organizations in future. This reminds me that everyone should mark their calendars re. the AMRC Spring Workshop and Annual General Meeting (February 15 - 17, 2006) in Hockley Valley. Call (519) 823-1990 for details. I plan to attend, and I'll be bringing my snowboard this time -- now that I live in Collingwood this is de rigeur.

New Orleans landfill — finally!

by Emily Atkins

I was pleased to see a news item on the wires today concerning the New Orlenas ASL site, a notorious old Superfund landfill that was submerged by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. Although I won't take credit for the coverage of the unfolding story (and I wasn't the only one to worry about contamination in general), I will take credit for being the first journalist to write specifically about the ASL site and figure out from map overlays that it was submerged under floodwater, soon after the hurricane hit. (I reproduce the intial news item below, that we covered in more detail in the subsequent print magazine.) I'd like to share with readers my frustration in trying to share this story with the major news outlets in the U.S. and one happy outcome. I have contacts in the USA who know producers at CNN, NBC, ABC etc. and they put me in touch with those producers; I emailed those producers the story, and never heard back. I could understand why they were focused on the humanitarian crisis in the early days of the event, but what frustrated me was that after some time, TV stations like CNN started to "jump the shark" a bit and show highly repetitious footage and run stories that seemed increasingly frivolous. It looked to me like they were trying to fill air time, and were desperate for a fresh angle. That's why I couldn't understand them ignoring not just the contamination story in general (there was very little perspective or detail offered to viewers) but this especially scary "made for prime time" angle of the flooded Superfund site. But there you go, you never can figure what the TV stations and larger papers are going to cotton on to. Then an independent producer who sells his stuff to major networks got hold of my story and pitched it. Someone at National Public Radio (NPR) took an interst, but did nothing with the story. I was told to expect a call any time. No call came. I then found out that a reporter at NPR took my story and developed her own version, which ran on NPR. She gave me no attribution at all. I actually sent her an email and told her that her actions felt like intellectual property theft to me. I was steamed, as was the independent producer who had promoted the story in the first place (and had conducted a pre-interview with me on the phone.) She (predictably) blew me off with an email saying she had the idea anyway and other people had contacted her about the ASL site and so on. (Yeah, sure.) So it was satisfying when yet another producer for NPR called me out of the blue, having independently stumbled across my ASL site story by Googling on the internet. He was intrigued and conducted an interview over the phone. His interview with me ran on a highly popular morning program that runs during the rush hour, which is when most people have their radios turned on in their cars. The show has about half a million listeners. I was very satisfied that at last my version of the story got out, with my name attached to it. As an aside, a technician attended my end of the phone interview, because it had to be synced digitally with the NPR studio in the U.S. After he heard the interview, he commented that he has a lot of experience with that NPR radio show and he suggested that of the 15 minute conversation, about four minutes would actually make it to air after editing. And he added that it would likely be the most sensational statements I made, quoted out of context. When I heard the program, I found he was absolutely right. The interview was quite good, but the producers definitely ran with the most "shocking" statements, minus the more subtle context. The whole experience made me glad I work for a trade magazine where we can take the time and space to tell stories in more detail and in context, and not the superficial radio or TV media, where that sometimes ephemeral "media is the message." Postscript: Over time I'll follow up on this story and find out what the government does (or does not do) about investigating possible contamination from the old landfill, and a couple of others that were also submerged by Katrina's floodwaters.