Water Bottles and Schools

This is good news for a couple of reasons.

First off, the idea is right. Selling bottled water in schools is a stupid idea. Here in Metro Vancouver, we spend MetroVancouver’s drinking water quality is exceptional, with standards amongst the highest in the world, there is not reason for anyone to spend money on bottles of water, creating plastic waste, along with other impacts.

Bottled water is sometimes seen as convenient, but in Metro Vancouver we pay $0.0008 for a litre of the highest quality tap water in the world, compared to $2 or more for a litre of bottled water. That is a 2500x mark up. That is a spectacularly stupid consumer choice. Imagine if your ATM charged a 2500x mark up for the “convenience”, or if a cell phone call cost 2500x that of a pay phone. Like the new BC hydro ads: the amazing thing about wasting money on bottled water is that it is considered normal to do it.

Why? Clever marketing, and creating a culture where people are raised to think it is a reasonable, even the “safer” choice, to pay Pepsi or Coke a 2500x mark up for water. And Schools are a part of that plan. There is a reason most marketing of products are pointed at high-school aged people, it isn’t because they have money to spend, it is because that is where life-long habits are formed, from smoking to selecting toothpaste brands, to selecting religions. If they get you at 16, they likely have you for life. Worse, Schools are a “captive audience”, and the big soda marketers sign sweetheart deals to make sure only their brands are available in a particular school. In the case of NWSS, about $20,000 a year goes to the school athletic programs because of these deals.

But that $20K is not a “donation”, it is a bribe. An investment by a multi-national to bombard a captive audience and build brand loyalty. It is a bribe we should say no to. As obesity becomes a public health threat bigger than smoking, maybe we should take $20K from Rothmans to put cigarette machines in the school instead… the harm would probably be less. Bottled water is only part of the issue here, we should be banning the sale of pop and all snack foods in schools. If kids want to bring snacks to school, let them, but let us not use our schools for captive marketing exercises.

Too bad this debate got so mired in pro- vs. anti-labour rhetoric and politicking. Because it deflected from the real issue: what the hell are we thinking bilking kids for bottled water, and selling them malted battery acid cola in schools?

The second good news part of this story is the active group of High School students willing to take the lead on an initiative like this. The Environment is one area where the youth are teaching the parents, we are raising a generation of students who actually give a shit about the state of their home and their planet. With apologies to Gord Downie, every generation is smarter than it’s parents.

I’m back.

Rested, refreshed, with eyes opened and lessons learned. An educational vacation, as they all should be.

Seems there was a lot going on when I was away. The City somehow found a way to both say “no” and “maybe” on the UBE (no surprise there). My buddy John Baird decided to finally release the independent report on Oil Sands impacts, and he did it a few days before Christmas to make sure it got the maximum possible exposure. The Tea Party finally got violent. And the Canucks didn’t lose a single regulation game.

I will resume almost-daily blogging in the next few days, but in the short term, here is the short interview I did with the News Leader before I left, as part of their Year in Review – Looking Forward series, called “2011 Hopes and Plans”, along with some expanded comments in italics that didn’t fit the word-count requirements of printed-on-dead-trees format.

Q: Were there any surprises for you in New Westminster environmental issues during 2010?
The immediate success of the Clean Green organic waste collection. The system was rolled out with surprisingly few problems, and the early returns show a huge reduction in “trash” the city has to ship to the landfill or the Burnaby incinerator. This is better for the environment, and will save taxpayers money in the long run. City council and staff deserve kudos for making this work.
The surprise is the immediacy of the success, not the success itself. There was a concurrent news story about the measure of the success: the huge decrease in garbage going to the curb, and the huge increase in green waste going to the compost facility. Kristian Davis from the City deserves the bulk of the credit for this success, it was a complicated program to administer and the roll out went amazingly smooth. The fact he became a new dad in the middle of the roll-out no doubt made for some stressful days.

Q: What do you think is the most pressing local environmental issue now?
Transportation. The United Boulevard Extension is on the front page now, but the NFPR and Pattullo Bridge replacement are elephants in the room. It is imperative that the city stop taking a wait-and-see approach and come out with a strong vision, backed by policy, that makes clear what the city will and will not accept for transportation routes through our neighbourhoods. Nothing will have more impact on the liveability of our city in the decades to come.
The UBE issue is the beginning of this debate, not the end. The City is phasing up for an update of the Master Transportation Plan; the Pattullo is apparently on hold, but with Falcon running for Premier, it will no doubt be coming back at a politically advantageous time; the Evergreen Line is still delayed; the train bridge over the Fraser needs replacement; no-one knows how they will fit 3 rails, 4 lanes of “truckroute” and a Pier Park between the River and the buildings on Front Street; and I don’t see any leadership from our local on this file.

Q: What are your plans to help address this, or other, issues in the new year?
The NWEP have an active transportation group, and brought together regional experts on the topic for a forum in November. It is important that the eventual shift to alternative modes of transportation is not forgotten in the current debate about congestion and goods movement in our city. Our role is to engage stakeholders, politicians, and the public, and keep this open conversation going. I hope we can make this “Topic #1” in the upcoming civic elections in November 2011.
We also have people on the Traffic Advisory, Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory, and Environmental Advisory Committees. We are coordinating an approach to the Master Transportation Plan, and hope it will include real alternatives to building more road capacity. Not by protesting or writing inflammatory rhetoric, but by engaging the decision makers and providing them the information they need to make more sustainable choices, and stand behind those choices.

Q: What would be the best thing that could happen in your sector in 2011?
Our federal and provincial leaders taking real action to address climate change. We have a provincial government that is aware of the issue, but decides to spend billions on freeways anyway. The federal government has a head-in-the-(tar)sand attitude about the whole thing. It is becoming an embarrassment.
It just gets worse. Baird’s performance in Cancun was ugly. I had people in other countries actually ask me what the hell is wrong with Canada on this topic.

Q: The worst thing?
The province approving Metro Vancouver’s plan to expand trash incineration, in the face of massive public opposition. Burning garbage is not a sustainable way to make electricity, or a sustainable way to manage solid waste. With local backers pushing to locate the incinerator in New Westminster, this debate is going to come back to our front yard this year.
It verges upon rumour-mongering at this point, but the suspicions about our Mayor’s desire for locating an incinerator on the Canfor lands won’t go away. With Barry Penner off the file, the Minister of Environment has no reason to not approve incinerators, and after that it will be up to Metro Vancouver to decide the location. Sapperton Residents may find the UBE debate was just training for the real political fight they have ahead.

Q: What are your hopes for the community in the new year that have the best chances of actually happening?
Increased awareness. Sapperton residents are engaged in the UBE debate, a group in Glenbrook North completed a groundbreaking Zero Waste Challenge, Green Drinks are a happening event, community gardens are cropping up: we are at a tipping point where people are realising living “greener” actually means living better. We are starting to see “environmentalism” as improving our quality of life, not threatening it.
The good news is that our Cities are becoming “greener” every year, because that is what the voters want. People like clean air, clean water, green space, less traffic, lower taxes, all the things sustainability initiatives can bring (example: green bins). The NWEP keeps hearing from different people from different walks of life who want to make a difference. I am actually really positive about the years ahead.

Q: Give us your wildest and craziest prediction?
Besides a Canucks-Canadiens final?
Note that I wrote this back in the end of November, when the Canucks were in 4th in the West and the Habs were in 5th overall. I picked the Habs because I’d love to see an all-Canadian final as much as Gary Bettman would hate it, and neither Ottawa nor Toronto are going to make the Playoffs. It helps that my Dad is a Habs fan, and watching each other’s teams lose brings us together as a family.
Now, I’m not one to plan parade routes prematurely, but I will be in the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the first week of June, so if the Canucks are playing Hockey in June… I might miss it!