New Waste Plastic to Hydrogen Facility planned in the UK

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Peel Environmental – part of Peel L&P – recently announced it was working in partnership with Waste2Tricity to build a waste plastic to hydrogen facility at its 54-hectare Protos site near Ellesmere Port, England.

The $12 million (Cdn.) plant will use ‘UK first’ advanced thermal treatment technology developed by PowerHouse Energy Group (AIM:PHE) at Thornton Science Park, next door to Protos. The pioneering DMG® (Distributed Modular Generation) technology could transform the way plastics are dealt with in the region. The plant will take up to 35 tonnes of unrecyclable plastics a day and create a local source of hydrogen which could be used to power road vehicles.

This local source of hydrogen could be used as a clean and low-cost fuel for buses, Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) and cars, helping to reduce air pollution and improve air quality on local roads. The facility would also generate electricity which could be provided to commercial users via a microgrid at Protos, helping to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Peel Environmental is looking at developing a closed loop solution at Protos where plastics are recycled on-site with the leftover material used to create hydrogen.

The development would see a further 14 full time permanent jobs created at the Protos site with over 100 jobs created in the North West during fabrication and construction.

Myles Kitcher from Peel Environmental – part of Peel L&P – said, “This is a great step forward towards delivering the first of many waste plastic to hydrogen facilities across the UK. There is huge potential for hydrogen to replace fossil fuels in our transport system. We already have hydrogen buses in Liverpool and trains being converted to hydrogen in Widnes. Using waste plastic to generate a local source of hydrogen could not only help to reduce our reliance on landfill but improve local air quality with a clean and low-cost fuel for buses, HGVs and cars.”

David Ryan, CEO of PowerHouse Energy Group (AIM:PHE), said, “The submission of the planning application is an important step forward in delivering the first commercial application of the DMG technology, creating hydrogen from waste plastics. The team have worked hard to develop a robust application and we’re hopeful of securing consent and subsequent financial close in the coming months.”

The Protos strategic energy hub sits within the Energy Innovation District (EID), which is spearheaded by the Cheshire Energy Hub and brings together energy users, network owners, innovators and partners working alongside Cheshire & Warrington LEP, Cheshire West and Chester Council and the University of Chester. The EID is looking to develop a local, smart energy microgrid which a recent report demonstrated could lead to energy cost savings of up to 25% and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 34%.

The project is also one of many under the North West’s bid to become the UKs first low carbon cluster by 2030. The North West Energy and Hydrogen Cluster is being led by the North West Business Leadership Team, with support from Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region Mayors and the Cheshire & Warrington LEP.

City of Montreal awards contract to build, operate, and maintain a SSO Anaerobic Processing Facility

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The City of Montreal recently signed a contract with SUEZ to design, build, operate and maintain a source separated organics (SSO) waste treatment center. This contract, worth $167 million (Cdn.), provides for a two-year construction period of the plant followed by a five-year operating period. This is the second contract won this year by SUEZ in Montreal, which is currently building a composting facility. The new plant will convert organic material into biomethane, producing enough renewable gas to power around 3,600 households.

SUEZ will build an organic waste biomethanation center that can process 60,000 tons of organic material each year, on the east side of Montreal Island. This plant will recover organic waste produced by nearly 1.5 million inhabitants of the east side and the city center into biomethane. SUEZ will equip the plant with innovative technologies allowing for the anaerobic digestion of organic material to generate biogas, which will then be purified using high-performance membranes to produce biomethane. Expected to be commissioned in 2022, the facility will be operated and maintained by SUEZ for a period of five years.

This plant will contribute to the City of Montreal’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. First, it will significantly reduce the distances traveled in treating this waste, which is currently taken to a facility around 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Montreal. Moreover, the new plant will convert the organic material into biomethane, a renewable energy that offers the same advantages as natural gas. Non-polluting and locally produced, the biomethane will be injected into the local gas network.

This facility is the second organic waste treatment centers planned by the City of Montreal to recover and divert away its organic waste from landfills by 2020. In April 2019, SUEZ was selected by the City of Montreal to design, build and operate the city’s first organic waste treatment center, located in the Saint-Laurent borough.

About SUEZ North America

SUEZ North America operates across all 50 of the United States and throughout Canada. It has 2,825 employees. The company provides drinking water, wastewater and waste collection services; treats water and wastewater ; delivers water treatment and advanced network solutions to industrial and municipal sites; processes waste for recycling; rehabilitates and maintains water assets for municipal and industrial customers; and manages $4.1 billion in total assets. The company posted revenues of $1.1 billion in 2018 and is a subsidiary of Paris-based SUEZ.

Unintended consequences: How Environmentalism is becoming a luxury that poor and marginalized communities cannot afford

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

The title of this article may seem like a bit of “click bait”, but the topic itself is one near and dear to my heart, but is often neglected in conversations surrounding waste. How socio-economic inequality manifests itself in the form of impeded access, or participation in waste management initiatives is a poorly understood topic. Much of the existing academic research on environmental justice has been on the unequal distribution of environmental hazards and benefits along racialized lines, where there are consistent indications that waste facilities and waste related hazards are disproportionally located in lower income areas (or those predominated by minorities). Perhaps more alarmingly is the epidemiological link between waste exposure-related health effects and low income areas.

But that isn’t what this article is about – My hope is to begin an uncomfortable conversation about a two tiered waste management system in Ontario (one for affluent “woke” Ontarians, and one for lower income groups making the daily grind), that by all indications is going to get worse, before it gets better.

I want to preface by saying I don’t think this is necessarily the result of deliberate, malicious design (or least I wouldn’t like to think so). Equitable access to a clean and sustainable environment is an issue that has garnered enormous attention, and I would expect this issue to grow in importance moving forward.

I just ask that from the perspective of waste management (diversion, recycling etc.), that we take the time to consider how changes in our industry affect, or are going to affect, the most vulnerable or marginalized groups of our society.

In all fairness, the connection between waste management and socio-economic inequality is not something that is top of mind for most policy makers. Generally speaking, there is an idea that a municipality will provide waste management services to a particular area, support that initiative through a combination of promotion and education efforts, and hope for sustained public participation.

The help provide some boundaries on this wide ranging discussion, I am going to break my comments down into three key areas: Economic Access and 2) Knowledge Access, and 3) Infrastructural Access

Economic Access

I was recently interviewed by the CBC, and almost inevitably, the conversation shifted to the perils of plastic packaging.

Given that I am actually an advocate of some single use plastics, I was trying explain how a cucumber wrapped in plastic isn’t the world’s worst idea, considering that it can help mitigate against spoilage.

That’s when the interviewer said something that surprised me a bit “Don’t you think consumers should be paying a little more to ensure that less waste is being generated?”

I actually didn’t know how to answer that question, largely because it depends on so many different factors. Do I think all consumers should be willing to pay a little bit more to avoid waste? No – absolutely not. I do however I think that consumers who have the discretionary purchasing power to make more sustainable choices should try and do when possible, but I ascribe no right or wrong in doing so.

What people can and choose to purchase is largely a function of economics –those of us that have the luxury of being conscientious consumers that can shop locally and participate in programs such as Terracycle’s Loop should be applauded.

However, it is important to recognize that the ability to do so is a luxury – in a focus group conducted of more than 1800 consumers in the Greater Toronto earlier this year, more than 80% of respondents indicated that price was the primary determinant for making a purchase. If possible, respondents indicated that they would like to make more sustainable purchases, but budgetary restraints largely impeded them from doing so.

More than 70% of respondents also indicated that they did not have the ability to travel outside of a 5km range to make daily purchases, and often shopped at specific retailers because of a mix of multiple factors such as: convenience, price, familiarity and purchasing agglomeration (one stop shopping).

In a 2019 analysis of consumer purchasing preferences in the Greater Toronto Area, households characterized as “low income” (household income less than $40,000 per year) consumed 18.4% more pre-packaged goods (namely grains, produce and frozen meats), when compared to families whose household income exceeded $100,000 a year. There is an inverse, statistically significant correlation between household income and % of prepackaged foodstuff of overall weekly purchases.

The expectation that households have the ability to readily switch between products based on packaging type doesn’t appear to be a realistic one. People might like the idea of Loop, or want to participate in more sustainability initiatives, but at present, they are priced out of “taking part”.

A particularly interesting phenomenon is that more than 30% of respondents indicated that they are increasingly feeling a “shame” factor from friends or family, who were questioning why they continue to make “unsustainable” choices in light of increasing awareness surrounding single use plastics (i.e. using plastic bags, seran wrap etc.). An anecdote provided during one of the focus group sessions included “A co-worker admonished me for purchasing frozen meat products for my children, alluding to the fact that fresh is better… obviously it is, but I can’t afford that every time and I was left feeling guilty”

While the results of these focus groups/surveys are merely a subset of the diverse range of experiences faced by Ontarians, the sample was designed to be statistically significant and stratified to reflect different demographic contributions.

What was not considered in this study is the potential impact on packaged good prices once a 100% producer responsibility model is implemented in Ontario. Given that lower income groups are the greatest consumers of packaged goods (both in absolute terms, and as a relative % of the overall purchasing basket), any upwards pressure in the cost of food stuff could have potentially adverse impacts.

Knowledge Access

Did you know that I could now schedule my used clothing bin pickup with Diabetes Canada? Or that the TOwaste App allows users the ability properly sort more than 2000 materials?

Even the University’s own Waste Wiki site offers users the ability to download thousands of resources related to waste.

While advents in technology that allow us to engage and communicate in new ways with city residents, we have to remember to ask ourselves: Who is my intended audience? And who is my tool designed for? We often erroneously presume that the majority of people are social media savvy and have the ability to navigate and use a smartphone, but research conducted by York University suggest that smartphone ownership among first generation immigrants is as follows:

Figure 1: Smart Phone Ownership

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Amongst the more than 1200 survey respondents, only adults between the ages of 17-44 reported owning and regularly using a smart phone. The average across all age groups was actually less than 50%. A perhaps more salient finding is that the majority of first generation immigrants using smartphones DO NOT have English as their primary system language (in fact, for ages 45 and older, smartphone users almost exclusively navigate using their native language)

Figure 2: Primary System Language

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Now, you may be asking yourself why does this matter? And what does this have to do with socio-economic inequality?

Simply put, these applications have largely been designed and tested with a demographic that assumes a person is: fluent in English, knows where to download and remove applications from the Play Store, possesses the technical proficiency to consent to location tracking, cookies etc. and lastly, cares enough to see out these types of resources.

In a 2016 study conducted by York University examining “Effectiveness of Recycling Promotion and Education Initiatives among First-Generation Ethnic Minorities in Ontario, Canada” (Lakhan, Social Sciences, 2016), focus group participants struggled to navigate online promotion and education materials and resources (such as the Waste Wizard). The following is an excerpt from this study:

48 of 77 focus group participants expressed difficulty in navigating to and within municipal waste websites (commonly coded phrases included “It’s hard to find the information I’m looking for”). Of particular note, The second most frequently coded response for this question was that the municipality’s web pages were often translated incorrectly (coded 33 times), making it difficult to locate the appropriate waste related resource. While the Google translate feature was available on each of the municipal web sites, the translation was often inaccurate (mistranslated words and phrases, grammar, etc.). 24 study participants indicated that this was actually insulting to them—anecdotes recorded during the sessions include “If you’re not going to do it properly, don’t bother doing it at all” and “It shows how much they (the municipality) care about us”. The notion of “us” and “them” was a recurring theme during the focus group sessions. There was a sentiment that municipalities catered to “white” households and ignored (or placed less emphasis on) the needs of ethnic minorities.

Returning to the conversation of equitable access, how do we ensure that all participants within the system are aware of the tools that are available to them, and by extension, how do we ensure those tools are usable and meaningful to communities?

As an anecdote, I am going to pick on my late father again. As I have noted before, he was a brilliant man who was a professor in Environmental Science, (but he wasn’t exactly the best environmentalist). In spring of last year, as he was cleaning his house post retirement, I told him he could now schedule a pick up on his phone for someone to come get all of his clothes for a donation – no need to leave the house. He just scoffed at me as he loaded bag after bag of used clothing in to my car, ordering me to drive to the Salvation Army. The tool that gets a person like my father to participate, someone who wouldn’t have previously participated if not for this app, is what’s going to be the game changer. Tech savvy recyclers are already taking advantage of these services, and it is unlikely that future increases in diversion are going to come from them. 

Infrastructural Access

Infrastructural Access to waste management services is something that is more difficult to readily quantify, but perhaps, is most insidious in that it highlights that services (not just those pertaining to waste management) are two tiered: One for the rich, and one for everyone else.

Having done extensive work in multi residential buildings throughout the Greater Toronto Area, I have been privy to see the unique challenges that building managers face when attempting to promote diversion. While these are not an exhaustive list of observations (ultimately, every building is unique), but based on data collected over a three year period (which included gauging self-reported recycling behavior among building residents), the following was observed.

1)     Very few buildings are equipped with floor level recycling chutes, with most older buildings having a “recycling room” that required residents to drop off their recyclables at a designated location (normally in a room in the basement). Only recently constructed condominiums have floor level tri sorters.

2)     Not all building managers have the same level of commitment in promoting and maintaining waste management services in their building. City Staff are routinely engaged with building managers to provide materials to residents instructing them about various elements of the City’s waste management programs. 

3)     Recycling/Waste rooms located in building basements or parking garages were seen as an inconvenience, and potentially unsafe

4)     Many “waste/recycling” rooms were seen as dirty, poorly lit and heavily contaminated, which significantly deterred participation among residents. As an extension of this, a household’s willingness to use the waste room was directly related to the building manager’s commitment to maintaining the waste room.

5)     Residents wanted to recycle, but found the inconvenience of both storing and transporting waste to the designated room acted as a deterrent

6)     Residents had much lower rates of recycling awareness compared to single family households, as it was a situation of “out of sight, out of mind”. In the absence of weekly/bi-weekly collection, people forgot about it.

The common thread across each of these observations is that the more affluent the building (ownership was a significant predictor of diversion behavior), the more building/site staff were committed to promoting and maintain a safe and accessible recycling room. It should be noted that this was not universally the case, and overall, building residents expressed strong positive attitudes towards recycling, but low levels of perceived behavioral control that ultimately deterred recycling behavior. Generally speaking, these behavioral obstacles were most prevalent in buildings characterized by lower income and/or immigrant families.

Figure 3 below is taken from as an excerpt from a study I had conducted examining the link between public space recycling and neighborhood income levels (2017)

Figure 3: Density of Bin Per Sample Area

1 – # of Recycling Bins Per Transit Stop

2 – # of Recycling Bins Per 1km sampled roadway/sidewalk

3 – # of Recycling Bins per sampled area

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While the scale makes it a bit difficult to follow, what the figure above shows is that the frequency of recycling bins in three public spaces (Transit Stops, Sidewalks and Parkettes/Playgrounds) is in direct correlation with neighborhood income level (greater income = greater density of bins).

It is important to note that incidents of illegal dumping or littering were not necessarily shown to be higher in these areas, but the purpose of this exercise was to merely determine whether “access to recycling” was equitable across all income groups. The answer, at least based on the time this data was collected, was no. Higher income areas have greater opportunities to recycle, at least with respect to the density of public space Blue Bins.

With respect to infrastructural access, it is very much a tail of two cities (although it would be difficult to say that was the result of deliberate design). Higher income households have greater opportunities to participate in diversion programs, experience more regular/predictable service and have access to supplementary tools and resources that are tailored more specifically to an English speaking audience. These experience further reinforce positive attitude attachments towards the environment, and may subsequently lead to recycling habituation. While this is a desired outcome, high income English speaking households already participate in household recycling at rates that exceed 90% – the next diverted tonne is unlikely going to come from these groups.

Stop and Think

I would strongly caution the reader from jumping to any conclusions based on this information – questions surrounding environmental equality is complex and multi-faceted, and I certainly don’t do any justice to them in this short article.

However, what I do want people to think about what our waste management system is going to look like moving forward. Will we all be using reusable ice cream cans and storing our mouth wash in artisanal metal bottles? I say that tongue in cheek, but conversations surrounding sustainability cannot be had without considering equitability and inclusiveness.

Both brand owners and policy makers cannot stop at saying “We found a divertable solution” and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Instead, we need to be thinking about how can we deliver this solutions at scale, across all income groups, so that everyone can participate in creating a circular economy?


About the Author

Calvin LAKHAN, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

Central-Alberta Village Championing Municipal WTE Facility

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As reported in the Red Deer Advocate, the Mayor of the Village of Caroline is championing the concept of a centralized waste-to-energy facility as an alternative to landfilling municipal waste.

Mayor John Rimmer gave a presentation to the Town of Rocky Mountain House council recently that the goal is to seek out private backers to own and operate a plant that would take garbage municipalities now truck to landfills and process it into a product that can be used to create energy.

The Mayor envisions the proposed WTE facility to use similar technology to that promoted by Fogdog Energy Solutions , which is working on a waste-to-fuel project for the Town of Sylvan Lake. The company is still awaiting final provincial approval.

Fogdog Energy is developing a technology that converts waste into refuse-derived fuel that can be used for heating, electricity generation, and other uses. The seven-step process includes crushing, evaporation to remove moisture, superheating, sterilization, and cooling. The entire process takes 30 minutes.

Fogdog Waste to RDF Converter

“They’re in the running,” he said of Fogdog. “But we’ll have several different bids from different companies.”

The Town of Sylvan, with a population of approximately 15,0000, signed an agreement with Fogdog Energy in 2018. Instead of burying waste in a landfill, the company says it can convert solid municipal and medical waste refuse derived fuel. The project still needs approval of the Alberta Environment Ministry.

Once the Fogdog Energy Converter system get government approval, it will take two years to get the system up and running. The Town of Sylvan’s Chief Administration Officer, Wally Ferris, believes there is potential for the town to save about $227,000 each year in waste management costs utilizing the converter vs. landfilling.

Albertans create about 3.4 million tonnes of waste yearly — or about one tonne each. A little under one-third of that is recycled, leaving about 2.5 million to be trucked to the province’s 162 landfills.

Smart Waste Management Market Outlook: 2019 to 2024

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According to the World Bank, across the globe, about 1.3 billion metric tons of waste is generated every year and is expected to reach 2.3 billion by 2020. This increase can be attributed to the rapid urbanization and industrialization, across regions.

According to a market study report prepared by Market Insights Reports, the smart waste management market was valued at $1.41 billion (USD) in 2018 and is expected to reach $5.19 billion by 2024, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.68%, during the forecast period of 2019-2024.

There are two innovative functions of smart waste management:  operational efficiency and waste reduction.

Smart waste management is a key aspect in the development of smart cities (along with water management, energy management, traffic management, etc.,) in order to provide improved lifestyle in the urban areas. The increasing adoption of smart city initiatives across regions supports the growth of the smart waste management market.

The waste management industry involves various activities, such as collection, transportation, disposal, and recycling. The industry has been facing efficiency issues at different stages of waste management, specifically, the operational costs corresponding to the collection and transport of the waste, thereby leading to the increasing adoption of smart waste management.

The growing complexity in the logistics of waste collection and the need to comply with regulations pertaining to waste processing demand better waste management solutions, which are made possible by the use of technologies, such as Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, RFID, GPS, and other technology advances.

GFL to Acquire Canada Fibers Ltd.

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GFL Environmental Inc. (“GFL”) recently announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Canada Fibers Ltd. 

Based in Toronto, Canada, Canada Fibers is an operator of material recovery facilities for the recovery and processing of recyclable materials for more than 28 years.  Canada Fibers provides recycling processing services to municipalities across Ontario, including the City of Toronto at its Arrow Road facility in Toronto, and to its institutional, commercial and industrial customers. Canada Fibers has also been awarded the contract to design, build and operate an advanced single-stream material recovery facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which will commence operations in the fourth quarter of 2019.

“Given the current state of commodity markets, we believe that now is the right time for GFL to acquire Canada Fibers, with its long established relationships with recyclable material buyers and its expertise in operating single stream material recovery facilities,” said Patrick Dovigi, GFL’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer.

GFL, headquartered in Vaughan, Ontario, is the fourth largest diversified environmental services company in North America, providing a comprehensive line of non-hazardous solid waste management, infrastructure & soil remediation and liquid waste management services through its platform of facilities across Canada and in 20 states in the United States.  Across its organization, GFL has a workforce of more than 9,500 employees and provides its broad range of environmental services to more than 135,000 commercial and industrial customers and its solid waste collection services to more than 4 million households.

The terms of the agreement were not disclosed. The transaction, which is expected to close in the third quarter of 2019, is subject to customary regulatory approvals.

GFL Environmental Inc. files for IPO, seeks to raise $1.5 billion

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Written by Abimbola Badejo, Staff Reporter

GFL Environmental Inc., a Toronto-based environmental services company specializing in solid and liquid waste management, hazardous and special wastes management and infrastructural services, has been rapidly growing its base since 2007 by acquiring environmental solution firms across Canada and abroad; and building its employee and customer base across North America.

With giant shareholders such as BC Partners and Ontario’s Teachers Pension plan, the privately-owned company is planning to recapitalize by releasing about $1.5 billion (USD) in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) and fund the company’s future growth. According to the filing, the company will be listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange starting in September. This move by the company will value GFL Environmental Inc. at about 15 billion US dollars.

GFL has facilities across Canada and in 23 U.S. states, serving 4 million homes. The company, which has more than 9,500 employees and 135,000 business customers, provides services including solid-waste hauling, soil remediation and liquid-waste management.

Even though the number of shares offered, and price range have not been determined, the IPO is already planned to be underwritten by financial houses which include Royal Bank of Canada, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of Montreal and Bank of Nova Scotia.

Solid Waste Management System Upgrade at The Six Nations Community

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Written by Abimbola Badejo, Staff Reporter

The Government of Canada recently announced it was contributing $8.3 million to the upgrade of the waste management system at The Six Nations of the Grand River. The government contribution will go towards funding the closing of an in-community landfill site and construction of a new transfer station at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation.

The Six Nations Community of the Grand River First Nation is located 20 kilometers southeast of Brantford, Ontario, along the Grand River. The reserve community encompasses about 71 square miles  in the northern portion of the province of Ontario, Canada; and the residents manage their own municipal solid waste at a landfill site in the same area.

With dwindling land resources at the Six Nations Reserve, there is the need for a better solid management system so that the available land can be preserved for other uses such as agricultural, residential, commercial and community uses.

In a media release, Chief Ava Hill stated: “The new transfer station will allow us to meet our community’s immediate and future waste management needs which is critical to support our growing and progressive community.  Our community has recycled over four million pounds over the last six years with our waste diversion rates increasing year over year.  We are committed to diverting as much waste as possible in order to reduce the global waste burden which is negatively impacting our ecosystem, lands, waters and contributing to climate change.”

Besides the $8.3 million invested in the project to date by the Canadian government, an additional $378,188 from Indigenous Services Canada was used in the preliminary feasibility and design phases of the project.

The waste management plan is to build a new transfer station on the existing site that consists of an old landfill and a recycling facility. The transfer station will operate as a temporary solid waste collection site where various material recovery pre-processing activities such as sorting, separation and compaction of metals, cardboard, paper; composting of organics and sorting of plastics can be carried out. These materials may be treated on site if the conversion equipment is available or they may be transported off the reserve for further processing. 

The improved solid waste diversion system which focuses more on recycling, composting and hazardous waste programs will not only help to preserve land resources, it will also help to protect sources of drinking water, prevent land contamination, reduce dangerous impacts to the environment, protect the habitat and reduce the risks to human health and safety. The project is expected to be completed by fall 2019.

Fun with Waste: UK Students create Boat Sculpture from Waste

Students from a School in Britain recently created a boat sculpture from waste. The sculpture, called HMS Revival, is made from discarded bottles, bin bags, shopping bags and plastic cups held together with bamboo, rope and glue.

The purpose of the sculpture was to raise awareness about the problem of litter in Henley and the River Thames. Henley-on-Thames is a town and civil parish on the River Thames in Oxfordshire, England.

It took the 12 teenage students a total of two days to create sculpture after spending the previous week collecting waste from along the river bank.

The sculpture will be displayed in the River & Rowing Museum‘s community gallery until December as part of its Nature on Your Doorstep exhibition.

Raining on the parade: A critique of packaging “take back”​ programs (Terracycle,Loop, Nespresso etc.)

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University 

I want to preface this post by saying that I wan’t to be proven wrong – while it may be a peculiar stance to take as a researcher, I want to believe in the environmental benefits of packaging take back programs offered by Terracycle, Recycle Bank etc.

The idea that we are now finding innovative ways to recycle problematic materials and transition towards reusable packaging is a breath of fresh air in an industry that finds itself in a waste crisis.

With that being said, it is important to fully understand what it is we are trying to achieve as we work towards a circular economy. A circular system is our end point, but the path that we ultimately take to get there is where we should focus our attention.

The following is an excerpt from the study (I have attached the full white paper for people to download). Please note that I welcome any and all questions, criticisms and comments – my goal is not to pick on any particular organization, but shed light on the challenges of using a decentralized network for waste collection.

Study Excerpt

In Spring of 2019, York University’s Waste Wiki team was asked to investigate the environmental and economic impact of take back programs involving coffee pods, and other reusable/recyclable items that have de-centralized collection networks (i.e. Terra Cycle programs for shampoo bottles, cigarette butts etc.)

It is a relatively recent phenomenon that consumer packaging goods companies are exploring end of life waste management solutions that exist outside of conventional curbside collection. Increasingly, CPG companies are announcing partnerships with “niche” recyclers (where niche is characterized as a company that specializes in the recovery of problematic/difficult to recover materials), enabling consumers to directly return used packaging to re-processors and have it be diverted from landfill.

However, scant attention has been paid as to whether these types of programs offer legitimate environmental benefits when taking a life cycle approach. While it may seem intuitive that keeping material of a landfill is a good idea, what constitutes recyclability is a much more nuanced question that requires a careful consideration of environmental benefits, costs, accessibility, availability and infrastructural capacity.

In the case of most take back programs offered by companies such as Terracycle, problematic materials are down-cycled into “one off” products. As an example, Terracycle presently has take back programs offered for a range of commonly used household products, including razors and other personal hygiene items, chip bags, multi laminate pouches, sharpies/markers and cigarette waste.

While this initially seems like a good thing, each of the aforementioned items are down-cycled, wherein the end of life secondary product cannot be subsequently recovered, and ultimately is disposed of (i.e. a shampoo bottle is converted into a running shoe, but that running shoe cannot be recycled at its end of life, and will either be landfilled or incinerated).

While Terracycle and their peers should be celebrated for their innovation and commitment to finding new uses for problematic materials, their approach to recycling and reuse creates a dangerous perception among the public about what items can (and should be) recycled/reused.

At present, the processing technology involved in any of the aforementioned take back programs is economically prohibitive, and is really only available in jurisdictions in which the collection program is being offered. Simply put – municipal waste management infrastructure is not designed to either collect or recycle problematic materials.

As an example, the only cost analog that can readily be found in a municipal waste system is for multi-laminate plastic packaging (chip bags, yogurt squeeze containers etc.). In 2018, for the limited number of municipal programs that accepted multi laminate materials as part of their Blue Bin, the cost of recycling exceeded $2000 a tonne.

While comparing Terracycle’s costs (which are not shared) with a public municipal waste management system isn’t a particularly useful comparison, it is done to highlight just how costly it is to achieve, even with established collection, consolidation and sorting systems in place.

Take back programs offered by packaging companies and their partners must find ways to economically consolidate and transport their material to specific facilities, and ensure that those facilities are readily equipped to process that material at scale. The economic and environmental impact of a decentralized logistics network is questionable – take back programs that ask consumers to ship things like coffee pods, chip bags, razors etc. hundreds of kilometers can be both inefficient and costly.

At this time, neither Terracycle nor their partners were willing to share their cost and diversion data with the university, limiting the ability to model our own costing scenarios.

However, as an intellectual exercise, let’s look at a take back program that we have a better understanding of – The “Nespresso” Aluminum Coffee Pod (also managed by Terracycle). 

Results  (See link below)

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rfERnYLOIhPsHcPA7JHf-BxPvErSiezB/view

Closing Comments

For those of you who may not be inclined to read through the entire white paper (although it is a relatively light read at a little under 8 pages – with lots of graphs), the closing comments are as follows:

Nespresso should be applauded for finding a recyclable alternative and innovating in a way that moves us away from single use plastic pods. However, the danger of programs such as Nespresso’s mailer program is that it creates the illusion of being a good environmental citizen (from both the perspective of the packaging producer and the consumer). However, as both consumers and decision makers, we have to perform our due diligence when evaluating whether our actions (in this case, recycling) are achieving our intended objectives (preferable environmental outcomes).

What is perhaps most damning is that Nespresso Aluminum pods is one of the only environmentally friendly packaging types managed by Terracycle that can readily be recycled at a low cost. Table 1 below summarizes the known emissions credits and recycling costs for commonly found Blue Box Materials (managed via curbside).

Table 1: Comparison of Emissions Credits and Recycling Costs

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Please note that the costs per tonne DO NOT include collection costs – these are just the costs of sorting and processing materials at a material recycling facility, net of any revenue received from marketed materials. Curbside collection costs for Blue Box materials typically range from $150-$300 a tonne (as different municipalities have different collection infrastructure, housing densities, labor rates etc.).

While Terracycle did not provide a breakdown of their collection costs for any of their take back programs, the purpose of this study is to highlight that voluntary take back programs, particularly involving those using a mailer system, can only work when there is a critical mass of consolidated material, and that material is being collected at designated intervals. A take back program that leaves it to consumer discretion for how and when they will return end of life materials is in all likelihood significantly more costly from a transportation perspective due to the number of unique trips required. The only way for material to be efficiently transported is when there is a critical mass of material to transport.

As a secondary concern, important questions surrounding the accessibility and affordability of take back groups needs to be considered. Many of the programs offered by Terracycle and their partners exist largely in urban areas – the reason for this is fairly obvious, as it is simply not economically feasible to offer recycling programs to everyone, everywhere. As a tangent to this statement, the introduction of reusable packaging such as Loop has placed upwards pressures on the price of packaged goods – once again, a novel and unique design, but one that is not readily affordable or accessible to a significant percentage of Canadians.

A recent study from York University estimated that lower income marginalized households are those most likely affected by increases in packaging prices, as a greater proportion of their purchases are made up of pre-packaged items.

The findings from this study should be interpreted with a degree of caution – in the absence of having Terracycle’s data, we can only make best guess estimates based on the existing cost of managing a municipal waste system in Ontario. We welcome critics of these findings to share their data, such that we can all have a better understanding of what it is we would like to achieve from our waste management systems moving forward.  

Simply “recycling” is not enough, and we need to be both ready and willing to explore packaging alternatives that “think outside the Blue Box”.