GUELPH — An unstoppable wave of environmental conscientiousness has begun to infiltrate all areas of consumerism, and it is starting to seep into the gravel industry, an audience of about 70 heard Tuesday night during the launch of a proposed certification program that could change the way aggregates are mined and marketed in Ontario.
The plan already has its critics, and there is much work left to be done, but if the timetable plays out as envisioned, aggregate products could be the subject of a kind of green seal of approval by early 2013. One major aggregate industry player, Holcim Canada, is in on the ground floor and has indicated it will seek certification for all 25 of its Ontario sites.
Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, addressed a Gravel Watch Ontario-organized forum Tuesday night at the Puslinch Community Centre. His organization is a lead on SERA — Socially and Environmentally Sustainable Aggregate — a set of voluntary environmental and community standards by which the vast aggregate industry can be judged.
Hypothetically, aggregate companies that would seek the certification would win the approval and business of green consumers. Be it an environmentally concerned homeowner or a municipality with green procurement policies, a SERA-approved company could capitalize on what Smith called a “green consumerism” phenomenon that is here to stay and growing.
A similar, competing certification-type process called Ontario Aggregate Forum is also in the planning stages, involving aggregate industry insiders and six non-governmental organizations, Moreen Miller, president of the Ontario Stone Sand and Gravel Association, said in an interview. The SERA process, she said, is limited in that it only involves one industry player (Holcim) and one environmental group (Environmental Defence Canada) in the planning process.
“In a few years,” said Rick Smith, “most stuff we buy will be subject to some green-labelling standard or other.”
We already have national organic labelling, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) labelling system.
Smith explained that stewardship council now has a huge influence on consumer spending decisions, because a council label on a product means the wood came from forestry operations that met a host of environmental standards.
The same is needed in the aggregate industry, he said, and SERA could fill the void, bringing a set of seven standards to bear on the industry — standards that act as a “lens through which aggregate is viewed,” Smith said.
Among those standards are a commitment to community consultation and involvement, respect for First Nations rights and culture, the realization of benefits to local communities and workers, and full consideration of environmental and water impacts and site stewardship.
There is no doubt we need aggregates, Smith said, but the question is, “How do we do this better and establish new, world-class standards? How do we mine aggregates in a more sustainable way?”
Smith said SERA could help to avoid costly and lengthy Ontario Municipal Board challenges. When companies seek and meet the standards there is assurance for all stakeholders that projects will go ahead in the best interests of communities and the environment.
But Miller believes the SERA process is flawed, at least so far.
“I believe these SERA draft standards have been drafted with many people being excluded from the process,” she said.
Miller said she hopes that a “path of consensus” is found as the process of setting new standards advances. Like the SERA process, members of the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association have been working on a similar certification program for over two years. Miller acknowledged that the association started into the process in part because of the need to address green procurement issues.
“But we believe we have been inclusive and consensus-driven,” she said, adding that the process includes a $100,000 research project to look at whether certification is appropriate for Ontario and the right direction to take. Miller said her organization was unaware of the SERA process until recently.
Tony Dowling, a co-chair of the group Bridge Keepers — a West Montrose community group that is opposing a proposed aggregate operation — said SERA is promising.
“But I think there are still some major gaps,” he said.
It is unclear what incentives there will be to go green in the industry, he said. It is also unknown what role government will play in the certification process, or whether consumers will pay a premium for SERA certified aggregate products.
‘Green consumerism’ invading aggregate sector