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April 16th, 2008 COREY PEIN | Featured Stories
 

Green With Envy

Seven things Portland should do if we’re serious about being green.

     
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PLASTICS, OREGON: The plastic shopping bag recycling rate in the U.S. may be as low as 2 percent, Plastics News estimates.
IMAGE: courtesy reusablebags.com
Another Earth Day. How far we’ve come in 38 years! Sure, we’re still beating up the planet. But these days, melting ice caps and all, we do feel more guilty when we leave the lights on at home while we drive to the grocery store.

Especially in Portland, “America’s top green city,” according to February’s Popular Science. The biggest city in the state that gave birth to the bottle bill. The first U.S. city to adopt Kyoto Protocol targets.

Portlanders drive an average of three fewer miles a day than the average American Joe. We have more certified green buildings per capita than any other U.S. city.

Canola-based biodiesel flows from some of our gas pumps. Our recycling rate is double the national average. Even our antiwar rallies run on solar power.

Time to kick back with an organic IPA and watch the clouds go by, right?

Hardly.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists 15 hazardous Superfund sites in Portland. Last October, Business Week reported that Portland had one contaminated site for every 34 people, making us the country’s third “most toxic” city, ahead of Los Angeles.

And let’s not forget those “sewer overflows,” which is a nice way of saying the Willamette River fills with shit when it rains.

We’re not even the biggest dreamers.

Last year it was not Portland Mayor Tom Potter, but Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels who convened a headline-grabbing climate change conference—and this month proposed to ban disposable shopping bags and foam food containers in his city. It was not Portland, but Chicago that hosted the annual Greenbuild conference. Potter and the Portland delegation rented a room.

It’s not Gov. Ted Kulongoski, but Gen. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, who is investing $15 billion to build a “carbon-neutral” city.

You know Portland is off its game when the world’s next sustainability mecca is in a friggin’ petro state.

Wake up, Portland. We’re slipping. Sometime between Gov. Tom McCall’s speeches and Al Gore’s Nobel Prize, Portland ceded the green crown.

Why? Two things happened. First, other cities caught on to our brand of sustainability. “At one point we were the greenest corner of the country and perhaps one of the trendsetters of the world. And now, I don’t want to say we’re falling behind, but we’re no longer uniquely the ones to watch,” says Clark Williams-Derry, research director at Seattle enviro think tank the Sightline Institute, formerly Northwest Environment Watch.

“The problem is, because life is good in the city of Portland, people don’t have a sense of urgency,” says Dick Roy, who runs the nonprofit Center for Earth Leadership. “We’re adrift in an extraordinarily critical period of time.”

Roy, who gave up a high-paying lawyer gig to become an eco-missionary, remembers the first celebrated Earth Day in 1970. Then, protesters buried cars in the dirt—instead of drinking chai and visiting “environmental education” booths rented for $100 in Overlook Park, the site of this year’s celebration.

Even greenies who didn’t live through the ’70s think local enviros have lost their edge.

“We’re riding on fumes, and we’re riding on our reputation,” says Jules Kopel-Bailey, 28, an economist who’s running for state representative from Portland’s Sunnyside neighborhood. “The time for half-measures is over.”

We can do better. And we can start by stealing these seven green ideas. Call it “sharing,” if that makes you feel better. Either way, we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to ignore a good idea just because we didn’t think of it first. What would you rather have 10 or 20 years from now: a city that’s still livable, or bragging rights?

These ideas were stolen with a method. All of them make it easier to conserve energy. Some of them put a price tag on waste—and raise money for more good ideas.

1. IF UGANDA CAN DO IT, WHY CAN’T WE?

Earlier this month, Seattle city leaders announced plans for a 20-cent tax on disposable plastic—and paper—grocery bags. It’s probably the best-written anti-bag ordinance yet.

At least 16 other U.S. cities—including Reno, Nev., which has a Republican mayor—plus states like Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey are working on banning or taxing plastic bags, or setting up special recycling programs.

“Everybody’s doing it,” says Dan Kammen, a prof at U.C. Berkeley, another city that’s moving ahead with a plastic-bag ban.

China’s ban takes effect soon. Bangladesh already banned the bag. So did Uganda, where leaders are pushing a return to bags made of renewable banana leaves. In Zanzibar, possessing contraband plastic bags can get you a six-month jail sentence, according to the BBC.

In Portland? City Commissioner Sam Adams proposed a ban this time last year, telling WW, “We should have done this a long time ago” (“Paper or Plastic?” WW, April 11, 2007).

In the past 12 months, higher-end stores like IKEA, Whole Foods and Zupan’s have either stopped offering plastic or started offering discounts for reusable bags.

Adams? He got busy with other things, like running for mayor.

Why does this matter? Most of the oil in a 42-gallon barrel goes toward making fuel—making plastic bags, a petroleum product, consumes about five tablespoons.

That doesn’t sound like much. But with the current U.S. demand for oil, one tablespoon out of each of those barrels would, over the course of a year, fill up the largest reservoir on Mount Tabor.

Vincent Cobb, who founded ReusableBags.com, has taken hundreds of pictures of plastic bags stuck in trees. “It’s symbolic of wasteful consumerism, the plastic bag,” he says. “And it’s something we can change so easily.”

Plastic bags may take hundreds of years to decompose in a landfill—no one’s sure quite how long, because the bags themselves are a recent invention. Those that become litter pose a bigger problem—sunlight breaks them down into ever-tinier chunks, which wind up polluting the oceans, carried by the currents to a massive floating plastic tumor called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

2. DEAR CANADA: INVADE US ANYTIME

A strong dollar. Universal health care. Habeas corpus. Canada seems to have it all. And now this: In February, our near-neighbors in the province of British Columbia adopted an environmental policy that could be as effective as taking half a million cars off the road. It’s a simple two-point plan:

First, cut income taxes.

Then, raise the taxes on pollution.

B.C.’s new “carbon tax,” which should start in June, will charge $10 Canadian per metric ton of greenhouse-gas emissions, ratcheted up to $30 a ton over three years.

How, you ask, will they tax emissions? The Mounties can’t track everything that comes out of your car’s tailpipe, your gas stove and your Zippo. But the government can tax the fossil fuels that cause global warming before they’re burned.

Here’s how it works:

The manufacturers and importers of fossil fuels (think Big Oil) will collect a security deposit from their customers, the fuel wholesalers and retailers (think Little Oil, like the corner gas station).

Every month, Big Oil turns that security deposit over to the B.C. government. Big Oil gets its money back when Little Oil sells the fuel to the people who will actually burn it: consumers (that’s you, in your car).

The dirtier the fuel, the higher the carbon tax. For instance, it will add 9 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline. Diesel, being slightly dirtier, will be taxed another penny and a half. Propane, being cleaner, will be taxed a few cents less than gasoline.

Biofuels, like corn-based ethanol or plain old wood, are exempt from the tax.

Besides making driving even more expensive, the carbon tax will mean higher bills for heating and hot water. (Which explains why many carbon-tax opponents live in B.C.’s northern hinterlands, where average wintertime lows are about minus-10 degrees F.)

Because the B.C. plan cuts other taxes to make up for the pollution penalty, it comes out a wash.

The genius of the carbon tax is that it makes not conserving energy about as smart as cashing out your 401(k) to go on spring break with PSU basketball players down in Cabo.

The carbon tax was adopted as part of the provincial budget by Finance Minister Carole Taylor, a member of the Liberal Party, which is the closest thing B.C. has to a Republican Party.

Sigh.

3. BIG BROTHER’S GREEN SIDE

London has the best example of congestion pricing. In 2003, planners there drew a line around the city center. If you drive past the line into the city, you pay a $16 toll, which covers all the trips you make in a day. There’s no charge at night or on weekends.

The fee can be paid (or prepaid) online, by phone, mail or credit card in parking garages. It can’t easily be dodged, because the city’s Big Brotherly surveillance cameras automatically scan passing license plates. (Granted, that’s creepy.)

The scheme generates over $243 million a year, which, by law, must be spent on buses, street and bridge maintenance, road safety, and programs for cyclists and pedestrians.

The result? Less traffic. In four years, car traffic within the zone declined 37 percent. Bicycle traffic increased 43 percent.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone had to run for re-election in 2004, after congestion pricing took effect. His opponent promised that his first official act would be to “ring the people who are in charge of congestion charging and tell them to stop.” Livingstone won.

Done right, congestion pricing works. Singapore has used a form of it since the 1970s. Stockholm tweaked London’s model in 2006. And New York City leaders recently moved on an $8 congestion charge, though the plan sank last week in New York’s state legislature.

Granted, Portland’s traffic problems aren’t the same as London’s or New York’s. And both of those cities have subway systems. Driving is optional.

But congestion pricing could work here, too.

Adams, who heads the city’s Office of Transportation, says he’s “absolutely” open to congestion pricing. But he’s not pushing it. “In our polling, 4 percent of Portlanders supported it,” Adams says.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski said last week he’s open to broaching the idea in the 2009 Legislature.

And to their credit, Oregon and Washington state planners have talked about a form of congestion pricing on the new I-5 bridge project, the Columbia River Crossing. It’s not as sophisticated as what London’s doing, but it’s a start.

4. ACCOUNTANTS MEET SUN WORSHIPPERS

In June, Berkeley is rolling out a clever energy-saving scheme that could easily work here.

“Berkeley First” leverages the city’s credit to front people the cash for upgrades, like a more efficient furnace or rooftop solar panels. Though city staff is still hashing out the mechanics, the program already has a waiting list of 400 people.

Here’s the gist: A homeowner who wants, say, a $20,000 solar energy system applies to the program through the city or a local bank. The city borrows money to pay for this, but without raising taxes. That’s because the homeowner is obliged to pay back the city over 20 years, through an increased assessment on his property tax bill.

Since the city is backing the loan, not the homeowner, banks can offer better terms. (“Berkeley has a very low default rate on our property taxes,” says Julie Sinai, chief of staff to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.)

And since the loan payments are tacked on to the homeowner’s property taxes, he can deduct the extra cost from his state and federal taxes. Those deductions, combined with existing tax incentives and lower energy bills, mean homeowners see a payback from their investment much sooner.

“I think it’s one of the cleverer things we’ve done in a while,” says Kammen at U.C. Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, which helped devise the program.

5. $147 MILLION FOR THIS?

Curitiba is a landlocked Brazilian city with slightly more people than Portland, much less money and an infinitely better bus system.

The buses in Curitiba work like trains, with dedicated lanes and express service; fares are paid before boarding. During peak times, a rapid-transit bus shows up every 90 seconds.

In Curitiba’s metro area, there’s a bus for every 1,100 people.

In the Portland metro area, there’s one TriMet bus for every 3,500 people. Only 16 of the agency’s 92 bus routes offer “frequent service,” with waits of 15 minutes (theoretically) between buses.

Anyone who relies on TriMet’s buses knows their weaknesses. Work weekends? Add two hours to your trip. Need to transfer? Start walking. Closed the bar? Call a cab.

TriMet’s planners know people will take the bus if they don’t have to wait. “Even people that have cars in Curitiba use public transportation because it’s convenient, it’s affordable and it serves the city well,” says Clara Irazábal, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of an urban planning book that studied Curitiba and Portland.

Before you assume we’re asking for yet more tax dollars, wait. We’re suggesting something else: fewer dollars—for streetcars.

Federal policy forces trains and buses to compete for the same money. And in Portland, light rail and streetcar projects have hogged funds that could’ve gone to buses and drawn more people out of their cars.

Over the next five years, TriMet wants to add five new frequent-service bus routes. More likely it will be two, depending on funds. Or quite possibly none. According to the agency’s five-year plan, “actual implementation depends on funding availability.”

Now, consider: Portland’s next streetcar line will serve a 6.7-mile loop on the inner east side. It won’t open until 2011, by which time, Metro’s projections show, Portlanders will be losing another hour of their lives each day on our increasingly congested roads.

The new streetcar will cost at least $147 million in federal, state and local money.

That could buy at least 25 miles of “bus rapid transit” like Curitiba’s, or the fareless, four-mile Eugene-to-Springfield bus line that opened last year.

Which is why Portland’s rail fans need to make peace with the bus.

“It’s a weird sort of religious war,” says Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute. “People who care one way or the other are people who have a direct financial stake. They fight with each other, and the car manufacturers sit back and chuckle.”

6. PRICE GOUGING YOU CAN LOVE

In March, Washington, D.C., added several “market rate” parking zones, including areas around the Columbia Heights shopping district and the Nationals’ ballpark. Parking prices are adjusted continuously, based on date, hour and location so that about 15 percent of parking spaces are always vacant.

That means jacking up curbside parking rates to $18 an hour when there’s a ballgame. “Most people who park there during ballpark events are from out of the area,” says Donald Shoup, a parking expert at UCLA. “The Pearl District, with all those tourists there—it would be perfect.”

The D.C. ordinance sets aside the extra money for “non-automobile” improvements within the parking zone, including bus-only lanes and prettied-up bus stops, new sidewalks, better crosswalks and street lighting, and separated or painted bike lanes.

Redwood City, Calif., did something similar in 2006. The most popular parking spots, on downtown’s main street, cost 75 cents an hour. A block away, 50 cents. Two blocks away, a quarter. Commissioner Adams floated—and quickly dropped—a Shoup-style parking zone in Portland’s Hawthorne District more than a year ago (“Street of Schemes,” WW, Oct. 4, 2006). “It makes a lot of sense, but I’m not going to force it on the business districts,” he says.

“How could any city claim that they’re green when they have all these people driving around and around and around looking for curbside parking?” says Shoup. “Is that your climate-change action plan?”

7. NOBODY SAYS, “BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A NICKEL?”

Michigan is the only state that charges a 10-cent bottle deposit. Oregon’s deposit is 5 cents, the same as it was when this state passed the country’s first bottle bill, in 1971.

In one state, 98 percent of deposits get redeemed, and the bottles get recycled. In the other state, only 84 percent do.

Can you guess which is which?

“We should double the deposit,” says Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine and member of a state committee that will suggest tweaks to Oregon’s bottle bill this November.

Plastic water bottles will be redeemable in Oregon starting next year, for the first time. Powell wisely suggests expanding the bill to include juices, sports drinks like Gatorade, iced teas, wine and booze—pretty much every “non-milk beverage,” as he puts it.

Why not milk?

“Politics,” says Powell. “People from Tillamook with cows” would complain.

Tough noogies. The Legislature should throw milk containers in the mix, too. Alberta, Canada, is doing it, and presumably an Oregonian can open a powdered-milk box as well as a Canadian can. Or buy the black-market, unpasteurized stuff.

And don’t just double the deposit—fix it for inflation. A nickel in 1971 is worth 26 cents today. We’ll settle for a quarter.

Less than half of Portland’s population is old enough to remember when Oregon passed the bottle bill, or a year before that, when a Stanford-educated hippie named Denis Hayes, who was born just up the Columbia River in Camas, Wash., organized the nation’s first Earth Day.

But back then, we were the cool kids. Everybody copied our style. Four decades later, maybe Portland has grown up enough to look beyond itself.


Earth Day is April 22.

The B.C. carbon tax plan includes a quarterly kicker to low-income families of $100 per adult and $30 per child. It cuts personal income taxes by 5 percent, and corporate incomes taxes by 1 percent.

Plastics News estimates the plastic shopping bag recycling rate in the U.S. may be as low as 2 percent.

Buses burn a lot of gas. But MAX and the streetcar also have an exhaust pipe—it’s just 160 miles away, at Portland General Electric’s coal plant in Boardman. Coal provides 42 percent of Oregon’s electricity—about as much as comes from hydropower.

Sightline’s analysis shows that a train with 50 riders per car is roughly as efficient as a bus that’s three-quarters full.

If it takes three minutes to find a parking space, and 10 cars use that space in a day, then over a year, all those cars cruising for a free parking spot rack up enough miles to circle the earth 36 times, figures Shoup.

Last year, the California Energy Commission decided that by 2030, all new buildings should produce as much energy as they consume. Opponents say that amounts to a solar-panel mandate that would add $50,000 to the cost of a 2,500-square-foot home.

Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development helps people fill out the pile of paperwork for state and federal tax credits that can cut the cost of an $18,000 solar system down to $5,500. Visit sustainableportland.org.

 
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