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Kamloops News

GEORGE: When it comes to social change, every little bit helps

August 21, 2018 - 12:00 PM



Six years ago I grew impatient with the speed of social change. People didn't seem prepared to do anything meaningful about environmental issues, sustainability, or conservation. 

I felt that political action was the only path that showed the possibility of progress on a number of fronts. So I put my self forward to run for the Greens, both provincially in 2013 and federally in 2015, with predictable results. It turns out that I would likely have been better off dedicating my efforts towards social change.

I always knew that social change was how things got done in our society. Top-down efforts could provide quick wins but relied on the state to provide the whip. Social change was much slower but didn't require much coercion and was many times more powerful in the long run.

The civil rights movement is a great example of what can happen when the great unwashed masses decide that it is time for a change. Bottom-up efforts will bear fruit. They are just really slow.

Once a movement gets going though, well, implacable is a word that comes to mind.

On two occasions this week I found myself at events in our area.

First up was the first night of JCI Vernon's Lawn Days of Summer last Wednesday. It happens that the junior chamber chose my wife's non-profit as their charity this year. Full disclosure: my wife Samara is the executive director of Food Action in the North Okanagan. I went along with her to help out as Food Action volunteers were cooking the burgers and manning the compost/recycle/garbage sorting station.

This was the group's first year trying such a thing. So far, so good. Everyone seemed happy to participate. In the end, the fifty people all ate and drank and a small garbage bag about the size of a football went to the landfill. The rest of the single-use items were either composted or recycled. This is a huge win for sustainability and in a roundabout way, local food.

The primary benefit of this type of initiative is the elimination of some single-use plastic from the waste stream. The plates, cups, napkins, and cutlery were all chosen for their ability to be composted. Compared to recyclable plastic, compostable consumables are much easier to deal with. No need to scrape, rinse and sort. Just put it all into the compost.

No need to ship the recycled material to some location far, far away for processing into new products. Commercial composting facilities are necessarily local. And the compost that comes out the other end goes directly into enriching local soils. Sustainable local food production benefits from this, as do taxpayers. Less waste flowing into the landfill means reduced waste disposal costs. And at every step of the way we reduce the CO2 pollution inherent in the old process.

Now for the social component of this transition.

The same type of initiative was rolled out at Roots and Blues this weekend in Salmon Arm.

Food Action was asked to coordinate it by organizing volunteers to man the seventeen compost/recycle/garbage stations scattered around the grounds. The food vendors were all required to source compostable disposables. There were a few glitches as the open festival nature of the event did little to prevent people from bringing in material from offsite but in general, it worked well.

Volunteers policed each station to provide education and do their best to keep the compost clean of plastic.

It was how the kids behaved that gave me hope that the earliest glimmers of social change are happening. Many wanted to help. Some would bring different bits and pieces they found on the ground and ask which bin it should go into. They wanted to help sort when people got it wrong and put things into the wrong bins. They were excited about the idea of compost as the next step after recycling.

Festivals and small events have a huge role to play here. Around 25,000 people go to Roots and Blues and were all exposed to this idea in practice.

The extra cost to food vendors for compostable disposables (in some cases up to 3x on some items) means most wouldn't choose to do this voluntarily. The festival made it a requirement. Scale is required to get prices down and these initiatives can generate that scale.

I do not know the outcome from Roots and Blues as far as how much waste was diverted or how much compost was hauled away. I look forward to seeing the results when they are published. I also look forward to a time when we can use similar materials to start replacing the major source of single-use plastic; packaging.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.

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