The Joke's On Us

January 21, 2000

By Michael Jessen

"I don't know jokes; I just watch the government and report the facts." - American humorist Will Rogers.

Listen up, Kootenay communities. This is a story about how not to make changes to a system that was working.

It's a tale about poor communication, poor planning, and poor implementation. That it's brought to us by our regional district government is no laughing matter.

Because the joke's on us.

Government is the instrument through which we provide services to ourselves. We have a right to expect these services to be supplied in a competent way. The recycling system provided by the Regional District of Central Kootenay in the Central Subregion (that area from Meadow Creek south to Salmo, including Balfour, the North Shore and Nelson) was functioning reasonably well - 'was' being the important word.

But in an age when government insists that what is deemed "uneconomic" must go, the budget for recycling was slashed, people were laid off, and a good part of the system (processing recyclables) was contracted out.

So what's wrong with that you say, doesn't the bottom line matter? Yes, but most of the things that make life worth living (like the quality of our environment, our health, our relationships, our ability to find work, and good working conditions) cannot be measured in cash terms. Yet we continue to allow politicians and bureaucrats to define our quality of services in strictly financial language. For instance, recyclables will now be trucked to Trail for processing. This will cause increased traffic congestion, truck pollution, noise, and possible accidents, all of which are not accounted for in the politicians' financial analysis.

If you saw the advertisement in last Friday's West Kootenay Weekender, you saw the only announcement of the changes to the recycling program. And yet the ad didn't really announce the changes, it merely said what was recyclable and where you could take it. Only a sign on its door mentions that the Nelson depot on Front Street is now closed.

Nelson residents immediately saw their options reduced by half, with only one location to go to. Plastic milk jugs are announced as acceptable, but the fine print says in the near future. Other sites to take recyclables will be determined, says the ad. The ad doesn't say all colours of glass will now be crushed together to make landfill cover instead of being sold to be remade into glass bottles.

Central Subregion politicians received a two page memo on the changes; the public got one ad in one newspaper. Of course it's more "economic" to send a memo to seven politicians than to 22,000 residents.

Written by Services and Waste Management Supervisor Reinhard Trautmann, the memo says the new "Igloo Recycling program" will be implemented in a staged program beginning January 15. "Our plan to have all depot locations equipped with the Igloo type bins can not be accommodated as we do not have sufficient bins ready for all sites," writes Trautmann. "Some bins and spare parts we have ordered have not arrived, and our other bins have not been completely labelled to put out in the communities.

"Even though the original timetable will not be met," Trautmann continues, "we will continue to offer a recycling program to all municipalities while we put in place the new depot system. In addition, we will not be in a position to offer the Milk Jug program until such time that all sites are equipped to handle the product." The memo goes on to say that time may come in "6 to 8 weeks."

Privately, some waste management workers admit the program changes were poorly planned. Locations - which should have been a number one priority - are still to be secured in both Nelson and Kaslo. Some of the Igloos and other equipment were previously used and had to be modified or repaired. One worker tells of a tent at the landfill being heated with a propane heater so another worker can try to fix fiberglass in the middle of winter.

All of this is enough to make Suzy Hamilton see red. Hamilton is a director of the Nelson EcoCentre and a member of its recycling committee.

"This is the height of arrogance to dismantle a system as critical as recycling before a better working alternative is in place," says Hamilton. Her committee has called for a Rally for Recycling at noon on Friday, January 28th outside the regional district office on Vernon Street.

"We want to send a message from city hall to the regional district that it is not okay to dismantle years of work, especially with no better options in place." Hamilton's committee also hopes to get an audience with the regional district's waste management committee.

"One of the most disturbing aspects of the dismantling of the recycling system is the lack of public input into the decision," she says. "They don't even have an interest in telling us through public meetings or pamphlets what's going on. It would have been far easier, and cheaper in the long run, to determine resident's needs and improve on what we had."

Hamilton recently visited the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary landfill in Trail and was impressed with their reuse depot which is diverting more than three tonnes of material a month, according to RDKB waste management coordinator Raymond Gaudart.

"The response from the community has been tremendously positive," Gaudart said in an interview. "We've never had a similar response to anything else we've done so from a public relations point of view it was worth it."

While the RDKB has raised its waste disposal fee to $60 per tonne, financed additional waste management expenditures on a regional basis, and improved its public relations, the neighbouring RDCK seems to flounder along. While one RDCK employee says the district is learning as it goes, the district's actions provide a textbook example of how not to implement changes. It's also a prime example of what can go wrong when we use money as our only yardstick.

ONE SMALL STEP - Hamilton's committee is distributing a survey on recycling and seeking additional members to help prepare a proactive plan. She can be contacted by telephone at the EcoCentre at 354-4615 or at home at 825-9372 or by e-mail at kbarter@netidea.com. If you want information on the regional district's new system or to register a complaint, Trautmann's telephone number is 352-8161. In the meantime, keep recycling if you can and keep the faith that one day, we'll get it right.


All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.