NANAIMO, BC: What stops a person from adopting a change in their business operations, and what factors could convince them to make that change?
Students in Vancouver Island University (VIU) Professor Dr. Matthew Bowes’ upper-level Cultural Geography class are attempting to answer these questions as part of his latest research project, which looks at the barriers and benefits to bio-diesel use in commercial, industrial and institutional vehicle fleets within the Regional District of Nanaimo.
“Cultural geography looks at understanding the relationship between people and the places they live,” says Bowes. “In doing this research, students are going out and actually doing geography, getting both field experience and research experience and writing about it. As geographers, it’s really important for us to be out in the world. Making the world a better place is a core part of geography.”
Bio-diesel is produced using renewable resources such as waste cooking oils. It is clean-burning, biodegradable, can be produced locally and is either blended with petroleum diesel or used in full concentration.
The research project received funding through the Vancouver Island University Regional Initiatives Fund, a partnership between VIU, the provincial government and a community partner to enable students to participate in meaningful, community-based, applied research that directly responds to community needs. Both the province and the community partner – the Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op (CB-DC) – have provided $10,000 each towards the project; VIU’s contribution is in-kind.
Bowes hopes the research will be able to target potential greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions in the RDN and increase awareness among commercial and industrial fleet operators about bio-diesel as an alternative to fossil fuels. According to the provincial government, fossil fuel-dependent transportation accounts for 37.2 per cent of BC’s total GHG emissions. The focus on large fleets – what Co-op President Brian Roberts calls “low-hanging fruit” – would put a significant dent in that total if many operators chose to make the switch.
“The problem is there are a lot of misconceptions out there about bio-diesel,” says Bowes. “This is an opportunity to dispel some of the myths and create awareness about bio-diesel as an alternative.”
Bowes hired three research assistants – two from VIU and one from the CB-DC – to conduct an inventory of commercial, industrial and government fleets operating in the RDN region, collect background research on the use of bio-diesel in large fleets and come up with a short list of fleet operators for students in Bowes’ Cultural Geography class to interview. Each student interviewed one business operator and wrote a paper summarizing the results of their findings.
Global Studies student Jordan Lineker and Geography student Caleb McIntyre were two of the students involved in the research. Lineker, who interviewed a farm operator, says aside from learning about some of the barriers this particular farmer faced to converting to bio-diesel – the biggest hurdle was the cost of converting from gas-powered to diesel-powered machines – he found engaging people with different values and perceptions than his own to be eye-opening.
“On a personal level, it makes you really aware of the ways you think and how our backgrounds shape our behaviour, which is important for planners to take into consideration,” says Lineker, who wants to become an urban planner. “To ask people to do something differently, you need to recognize where people are coming from.”
McIntyre, who is interested in community development and helping the world move towards more sustainable, regenerative systems, says conducting his interview and going through the research process has helped him understand his coursework better.
“It would be difficult to understand how cultural geography is actually applied without doing a project like this,” he says. “I’m so glad I get to contribute to a project I believe strongly in. Bio-diesel is 100 per cent carbon neutral in its pure form and is a viable way of reducing waste. If our research can help shift people’s preconceptions about it, I believe that is a win.”
Co-op President Roberts, who is also a sessional Geography instructor at VIU, says he is thrilled to get students involved in researching this topic. The co-op produces and distributes bio-diesel from waste cooking oils collected from restaurants and people’s homes to about 250 members, including commercial and industrial transport and local government fleets on Vancouver Island.
“It’s really important for us to try and get an understanding of how people perceive it so we can better present it to the public as a feasible alternative,” he says.
Bowes and Roberts will present the research at the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June.
To learn more about Geography at VIU, visit the Department’s homepage.