Cities and countries aim to slash plastic waste within a decade

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Written by Dr. Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto and Dr. Diane Orihel, Assistant Professor, School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University

If all goes well, 2030 will be quite a special year.

Global and local community leaders from more than 170 countries have pledged to “significantly reduce” the amount of single-use plastic products by 2030. Success would result in significantly less plastic pollution entering our oceans, lakes and rivers.

Today, societies around the world have a love affair with disposable plastics. Just like some love stories, this one has an unhappy ending that results in plastic bags, straws and takeout containers strewn about the global environment.

As researchers who study the contamination and effects of plastic pollution on wildlife, it would be nice if by 2030 we no longer heard about plastics showing up in the stomachs of dead whales, littering the beaches of distant islands and contaminating tap water and seafood.

Plastic doesn’t belong on the beach. Shutterstock

It is time for some good news about the environment, including stories about how cities and countries are managing plastics and other waste materials in more sustainable ways, and how children will have cleaner beaches to play on.

No reason to wait

Scientists have known about plastic pollution in our oceans for more than four decades. It is pervasive in rivers, lakes and soils too. Plastic pollution knows no boundaries, with small bits of plastic found from the equator to the poles and even on the remote slopes of the French Pyrenees mountains.

Plastic waste damages ecosystems, smothers coral reefs and fills the bellies of sea life. In the absence of action, the amount of plastic waste produced globally is predicted to triple between 2015 and 2060, to between 155 and 265 million tonnes per year.

As a welcome response, global leaders have decided to act. At the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March, environment ministers from around the world signed a voluntary commitment to make measurable reductions in single-use plastic products, including straws, shopping bags and other low-value plastic items that are sent to landfill after being used once.

Similar goals to deal with plastic pollution have been introduced by municipal, provincial, federal and regional governments across the globe. Non-profit organizations and industry leaders are making efforts to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. For example, Ocean Conservancy is uniting citizens and organizations around the world in cleanups to meet their goal of an ocean free of plastics by 2030, and Unilever has pledged to use 100 per cent recyclable packaging by 2025.

Canada joins the movement

Canada introduced the Ocean Plastics Charter at the G7 summit in 2018, committing nations to work with industry to make all plastics reusable, recyclable or recoverable by 2030. That means sending no plastic waste to landfill.

Vancouver aims to be a zero-waste city by 2040. Although the city has reduced the mass of waste going to landfill by 23 per cent since 2008, it still has a long way to go.

Ontario also has its sights on being waste-free by developing a circular economy, which means keeping materials in use for as long as possible. The province aims to cut the amount of waste sent to landfills in half by 2030, a reduction of 4.5 million tonnes, through reuse and recycling.

To propel Ontario into action, Ian Arthur, the member of the Ontario provincial parliament for Kingston and the Islands introduced a private member’s bill in March to eliminate Ontario’s use of non-recyclable single-use plastic products such as straws, coffee cups and plastic cutlery, which ultimately end up in landfills. These plastics do not feed into a circular economy.

In addition, school children in Ontario are working towards collecting 10,000 signatures on petitions to ban single-use plastics in the province.

Canadians would like to see more action against plastic waste. According to a recent poll, 90 per cent of Canadians were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about the environmental impact of plastic waste, and 82 per cent thought government should do more to reduce plastic waste.

Bye bye plastic waste

Our research, and the research of others, has found that single-use plastic products litter our beaches and coastlines, small pieces of plastics contaminate our Great Lakes and the Arctic Ocean, and microplastics are present in our sport fish and drinking water.

Ambitious global, regional and local collaborations are sorely needed to truly realize these goals. It’s time to commit to ending the love affair with disposable plastics.

Individual action does work. Quench your need for caffeine by using a reusable mug. Hydrate with water from a durable and refillable bottle. Purchase groceries that come in containers that can be reused or recycled. Plan your kid’s birthday party and your work meetings without using disposable single-use plastics.

A decade of positive habits could lead to a future where plastic is no longer waste, but valued as a material that can be reused and recycled — shifting our current paradigm to a more sustainable one that lasts far beyond 2030.



This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the Authors

Dr. Chelsea Rochman is an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto. Previously, she was a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow at the Aquatic Health Program at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Rochman received her PhD in a joint program with San Diego State University and UC Davis in Ecology.

Dr. Diane Orihel is an Assistant Professor, School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario. Dr. Orihel investigates human impacts on aquatic ecosystems through large-scale, multidisciplinary and collaborative research programs. She holds a B.Sc. (Honours) in Ecology and Environmental Biology (University of British Columbia), Masters in Natural Resource Management (University of Manitoba), a PhD in Ecology (University of Alberta). She was a Banting and Liber Ero postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa, and now holds the position of Queen’s National Scholar in Aquatic Ecotoxicology in the Department of Biology and School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University.

Windsor-Essex Recycling Success Story

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The Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority (EWSWA) is one of the few municipalities in North America that has had minimal impact from the recycled material bans issued in Asia. The secret to its success is due to dealing exclusively with North American processors.

The EWSWA is the governmental agency charged with the responsibility of providing an integrated solid waste management system for the County of Essex and the City of Windsor in Ontario. Windsor is directly across the Detroit River from the City of Detroit. The City of Windsor and County of Essex has a combined population of 393,000.

The Authority generates revenue through the sale of recyclable materials. The more materials recycled – the more revenue there is to offset the waste management system costs.

In an interview with the CBC, Cathy Copot-Nepsy, the EWSWA manager of waste diversion, stated, “EWSWA has been working strategically for years to get established in the domestic market. [This] has allowed us to be one step ahead of all the other recycling plants who have been sending it overseas.”

In the CBC interview, Ms. Copot-Nepsy did admit the EWSWA was not entirely insulated from the Asian ban on recyclables. With more North American municipalities looking for local processors of recyclables, an over saturated domestic market has meant that EWSWA had to reduce the contaminants in the recyclables it sold to processors.

The residential recycling program in Essex Windsor is two stream – container materials and paper materials. Every recycling truck has two compartments (one for containers and one for paper). The materials are delivered to two different facilities (one building for containers and another building for paper).

EWSWA is expanding it public education program to reduce contamination of the recyclables that are received at the material recycling facilities (MRFs). It has also added an optical sorter at its fibre plant.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/municipalities-recycling-windsor-step-1.5092863

City of Hamilton to bid on operation of its own Central composting facility in 2020

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The City of Hamilton plans on making a bid to takeover the operation of the City’s central composting facility (CCF) when the existing contract with a private contractor expires in December 2020.

The existing private contractor, Aim Environmental Group, has been operating the City-owned facility under contract to the since 2006. The CCF takes in about 70,000 tonnes of source separated organics (SSO) from the City of Hamilton, Halton Region, and Simcoe County annually.

AIM Environmental Group is well known for facility design while working with domestic and international partners to deliver award winning compost systems. Through internal and external experts, AIM designs, constructs, and operates municipal composting facility. Besides, the City of Hamilton, municipalities that are customers of AIM include the City of Calgary, the City of Guelph, Halifax Regional Municipality, Halton Region, the City of Waterloo, and Simcoe County.

Hamilton City Councillors wanted a City bid to be included in the next operations contract for the CCF and passed a motion that will allow the city to create a separate in-house bid team to make a proposal to take over the contract of the facility’s operations.

In an effort to encourage private companies to bid on the operation of the City-owned CCF in 2020, the city will separate its bidding process with the public issued tender for operation.

Public Works General Manager Dan McKinnon said the city will make sure there is no biased tender process. He said the city has the experience in separating its bidding process with public issued tenders. McKinnon said an “ethical” wall is created, and a “fairness” monitor oversees the process.

It’s not the first time the city has participated in its own bid process. Dan McKinnon, general manager of public works, said the city uses a third-party independent monitor to make sure the bid process is fair.

In June of 2018, the city shut down the facility in response to numerous odour complaints related to the compost facility. The odours were caused, in part, by updated Ontario regulations that stated that compost had to have a minimum moisture content of 40 per cent during the curing process.

During the shutdown, carbon filters were added to the air emission outlets of the CCF and stacks were extended to disperse air emissions. An odour neutralizer misting system was also installed at the fence line. The CCF reopened in February of this year.

B.C. Municipality rewards community groups for waste reduction initiatives

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The Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD), located on the southern mainland coast, across Georgia Strait from Vancouver Island in British Columbia, has been holding a competition since 2015 as a means of encouraging waste reduction.

The annual contest is open to Sunshine Coast based community groups and associations, non-profit societies, registered charitable organizations, and school groups that will reduce waste in the region.

The program has a total of $5,000 available for financial assistance on winning projects.

Project applications must include a plan for measuring and reporting the amount of waste diverted from the landfill. The Waste Reduction Initiatives Program was introduced to support the initiatives of the SCRD’s Solid Waste Management Plan.

Project categories considered for the Waste Reduction Initiatives Program (WRIP) include:

  • Community reuse and repair
  • Composting
  • Construction and demolition waste reduction, reuse and recycling
  • Food waste reduction
  • Green waste reduction
  • Recycling initiatives

In 2018, Serendipity Child Care received funding under the contest. The funding received through WRIP was used by the organization educating children and families on composting and waste reduction.

In 2017, six organizations received funding for projects as part of the Waste Reduction Initiatives Program (WRIP).

  • North Thormanby Community Association – Implementation of a community composting program
  • Roberts Creek Community School – A community composter project in partnership with local businesses.
  • St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church – An on-site composting program for the food bank and nearby organizations.
  • Sunshine Coast Repair Café – Launch of monthly repair cafés to Sechelt and Pender Harbour (currently monthly in Gibsons)
  • West Sechelt Elementary – Launch of a school composting program
  • West Howe Sound Community Association – Expansion of the association’s mobile community composting initiative.
Representatives from Organizations that received funding as part of the SCRD’s WRIP in 2017 (Photo Credit: SCRD)

Applications for WRIP opened on Monday April 15, 2019 and all applications must be received by midnight on Friday, May 24, 2019. Successful applicants will be announced in June. Projects must be completed, including a final report, by December 31, 2019.

Ecolomondo secures $32 million loan to finance Thermal Decomposition Facility

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Ecolomondo Environmental (Hawkesbury) Inc., a subsidiary of Ecolomondo Corporation (TSXV: ECM)  recently announced that it entered into a loan agreement for $32.1 million in project financing with Export Development Canada (EDC), the proceeds of which are to be used to build the Company’s new, first of its kind turnkey Thermal Decomposition (TDP) facility that will be located in the Town of Hawkesbury, Ontario.

The Town of Hawkebury, where the TDP facility will be built is located on the Ottawa River, half way between the Cities of Ottawa and Montreal.

Once built and fully operational, this turnkey TDP facility is expected to process a minimum of 14,000 tons of tire waste per year and to produce 5,300 tons of recycled carbon black, 42,700 barrels of oil, 1,800 tons of steel and 1,600 tons of process gas.

Management now expects to break ground by June 2019 and to begin commissioning of the TDP facility in the first quarter of 2020, as originally scheduled.

“Ecolomondo is proud to conclude this loan agreement for this innovative project and proud to do so with an extremely professional organization such as Export Development Canada. EDC will be a key player in the commercialization of our cleantech proprietary technology and in doing so EDC is supporting the development of Ecolomondo’s future expansion both in Canada and overseas”, said Elio Sorella, President and CEO, Ecolomondo.

About EDC

Export Development Canada (EDC) is a financial Crown corporation dedicated to helping Canadian companies of all sizes succeed on the world stage. As international risk experts, EDC equips Canadian companies with the tools they need – the trade knowledge, financing solutions, investments, insurance, and connections – to take on the world with confidence. Underlying all EDC support is a commitment to sustainable and responsible business.

About Ecolomondo Corporation

Ecolomondo is a cleantech Canadian company that is commercializing its waste-to-products technology. The Thermal Decomposition Process (TDP) converts hydrocarbon waste into marketable commodity end-products, namely carbon black substitute, oil, gas and steel. Technologies such as Ecolomondo’s are expected to play an important role in resource recovery needed in today’s circular economy.

The Company’s main revenues will come from the sale of TDP turnkey facilities and royalties from their operations. TDP facilities will generate revenues from the sale of end-products, tipping fees and carbon credits. Ecolomondo’s first focus is to market TDP turnkey facilities that use scrap tires as a feedstock, because scrap tires yield end-products with a higher commercial value, especially the recycled carbon black.

Fun with Waste: Feasting on Food Waste

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According to a report prepared by Second Harvest, approximately 60% of food waste is wasted. On an annual basis, this adds up to 35.5 million tonnes. Of that total the Second Harvest report estimates that 32% is edible food that could be redirected to support people in Canadian communities. The total financial value of this potentially rescuable lost and wasted food is a staggering $49.46 billion.

To raise awareness of the amount of food wasted in Canada that is actually edible, the Culinary Historians of Canada recently hosted an event at the George Brown College Hospitality and Tourism Campus called Food Waste – Past and Present in which patrons were able to Feast on Food Waste. Tickets for the event was $15.

Besides feasting of food waste, patrons learned about the history of food waste in Canada from Magdaline Dontsos, former faculty of the Food and Nutrition program at Centennial College as well as a member of the Ontario Society of Nutrition Management and the Canadian Society of Nutrition Management. Part of the discussion included an examination of the modern-day adjustments that could be made to make food production more sustainable.

The Culinary Historians of Canada (CHC) is an organization that researches, interprets, preserves and celebrates Canada’s culinary heritage, which has been shaped by the food traditions of the First Nations peoples and generations of immigrants from all parts of the world. Through programmes, events and publications, CHC educates its members and the public about the foods and beverages of Canada’s past. 

Wood ash recycling program could help save Muskoka’s forests and lakes

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Written by James A. Donaldson, Canadian Wood Waste Recycling Business Group

Implementing a new residential wood ash program in Muskoka, Ont., to restore calcium levels in its forest soils and lakes could help replenish the area’s dwindling supply of crayfish and maple sap, according to new research co-led by York University.

Calcium levels in soil and lakes are essential for the growth of all forms of life, but the levels across central Ontario are declining due to decades of acid rain. It could take centuries for this calcium to rebuild on its own.

Researchers discovered that residential wood ash – a common household waste derived from wood-burning fireplaces and wood-fired ovens – was rich with the nutrients needed for restoring growth, including about 30 per cent calcium.

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The study, published on March 28th, 2019 in the journal FACETS, shows that adding controlled doses of cold residential wood ash to the watershed of Muskoka’s forests could help solve the calcium decline problem and boost forest growth.

“Calcium is an essential nutrient for all living things,” said Norman Yan, a senior scholar and professor emeritus of biology in the Faculty of Science, who co-led the study. “When you suffer from low calcium, you get osteoporosis and the ecosystem can suffer from osteoporosis as well. Many scientists have called this calcium decline problem ecological osteoporosis.”

Supplementing watershed soils with calcium-rich wood ash may also improve the region’s crayfish stock, water quality, seedling regeneration and sugar maple tree production of sap, used to make maple syrup.

“Lack of calcium has slowed the growth, reproduction and development of trees in Muskoka’s forests,” said Yan, Chair of Friends of the Muskoka Watershed, a not-for-profit environmental organization that has conducted the research with York University, Dorset Environmental Science Centre and Queen’s University.

While forest programs using industrial wood ash exist in areas of Europe such as Sweden, the use of the non-industrial residential wood ash has not been researched and tested until now, said the study co-author Shakira Azan, a former postdoctoral biology student and research associate at York University.

“A lot of people in Muskoka burn wood for heat and some send it to the landfill so, by collecting and recycling their wood ash, we are diverting waste from landfills,” said Azan, an environmental project lead at Friends of the Muskoka Watershed.

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The second phase of the research is AshMuskoka, a three-year pilot project that aims to be Canada’s first residential wood ash recycling program. The project team, which launched in January, is working on securing 200 homeowners to donate their wood ash. This fall, researchers will conduct small-scale wood ash additions to test dosage needs, develop tools to identify site-specific doses, and determine the benefits and harm of residential wood ash applications. The first test site will be three sugar bushes in Muskoka, where maple syrup producers are eager to see if the controlled doses will restore the bushes to good health and yield maple sap.

Friends of the Muskoka Watershed is working on the project with nine Canadian partners, including Trent University, the University of Victoria, Laurentian University, the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association, and York University’s Learning for a Sustainable Future.

About the Author

Jim A. Donaldson is the founder and CEO of Canadian Wood Waste Recycling Business Group, Canada’s leading Wood recycling, industry resource management business group. The organization brings the elite like-minded Canadian and International people, business, academia and government together to develop the “Canadian Wood recycling, Bioeconomy” as a viable eco-sustainable industry.

Jim is also the owner of Waste Reduction & Recycling Consultants Inc., a firm founded in 2009 to facilitate the emerging need by large and small corporations to outsource their environmental Waste management business requirements. Waste Reduction & Recycling Consultants is a multidisciplinary Environmental waste management consulting firm that specializes in providing a full array of environmental administrative Waste management advice AND project-specific Environmental waste management services.

Federal grants to boost LFG collection at Calgary, Regina, and Waterloo landfills

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The federal government recently provided grants to three municipal landfills in an effort to reduce methane emissions from all three. The money for the operational improvements at the landfills come from the federal government’s Low Carbon Economy Fund.

The $2 billion Low Carbon Economy Fund (LCEF) is a part of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (the Framework). The Fund supports the Framework by leveraging investments in projects that will generate clean growth, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help meet or exceed Canada’s Paris Agreement commitments.

City of Calgary, Alberta

The Federal Government has committed up to $5.9 million to help Calgary’s Waste & Recycling Services reduce greenhouse gas emissions by expanding its landfill gas collection systems. The East Calgary Waste Management Facility will install new wells to collect landfill gas, distribution piping for wells, and mechanical and electrical upgrades to expand the volume of landfill gas collected.

LFG, which consists of methane and carbon dioxide (with trace amounts of other gases) gas is created as landfill waste decomposes in anaerobic conditions. The city’s vertical extraction wells then collect and convert the gas to CO2 by burning it off by a flare rather than seeping out into the atmosphere.

The City of Calgary will operate between 40 to 50 methane wells, like the one pictured here, to help reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses coming from Calgary landfills. CRAIG GLOVER / CRAIG GLOVER/LONDON FREE PRESS/Q

Martin Ortiz, performance operations leader for waste and recycling services, said methane is around 25 times more harmful to the environment than CO2. He said the project will help reduce Calgary’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 630,000 tonnes of CO2 over the lifetime of the system.

“In 2017 we gathered around 40,000 tonnes of CO2 . . . at this site, which is good news for the environment,” Ortiz said.

City of Regina, Saskatchewan

The City of Regina municipal landfill is to receive $1.3 million in federal funding to pay for and expansion of its landfill gas (LFG) collection system. Greg Kuntz, Regina’s manager of environmental services, said the money will be used to drill 30 new wells into the old landfill site.

“What we are doing is extracting that methane and burning it off on a flare so it converts the methane to carbon dioxide which is much less harmful as a greenhouse gas,” Kuntz said.

The project is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 per percent. The goal of the project is to remove 30,000 tonnes of methane gas, the equivalent of taking 8,000 vehicles off the road a year.

The LFG to energy system was installed at the Regina Landfill in 2017 at a cost of approximately $5 million. The City of Regina and SaskPower entered into a 20-year power purchase agreement at the time operations began. SaskPower handles the sales of electricity produced by the facility. The facility generates approximately $1 million in revenue for the City annually.

Regional of Waterloo

The federal government is investing up to $1.5 million, subject to a formal funding agreement, to help the Region of Waterloo increase gas collection efficiency at the Waterloo Landfill facility.

This investment will help expand the Region’s existing landfill gas capture system, which prevents greenhouse gases like methane from being released into the air, and instead uses them to generate renewable energy. The new project will increase gas collection efficiency, further reduce carbon pollution, and increase the generation of renewable electricity at the Waterloo Landfill facility.

Capturing of additional landfill gas will result in additional gas flows and improved quality, which helps increase renewable electricity generation in the Region of Waterloo.

The Waterloo landfill opened in 1972. It consists of 71 hectares of dedicated landfill space which has a maximum capacity of 15 million tonnes of waste. The landfill is expected to reach capacity near 2030. The Region of Waterloo has already started researching future waste management options through its Waste Master Plan process.

Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling

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Written by Cheryl Katz, Independent Science Writer

This article has been republished with the permission of Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The original posting can be found at Yale Environment 360 website.


It has been a year since China jammed the works of recycling programs around the world by essentially shutting down what had been the industry’s biggest market. China’s “National Sword” policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling processors, which had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem — and this one not of its own making.

In the year since, China’s plastics imports have plummeted by 99 percent, leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed. While the glut of plastics is the main concern, China’s imports of mixed paper have also dropped by a third. Recycled aluminum and glass are less affected by the ban.

Globally more plastics are now ending up in landfills, incinerators, or likely littering the environment as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials increasingly render the practice unprofitable. In England, more than half-a-million more tons of plastics and other household garbage were burned last year. Australia’s recycling industry is facing a crisis as the country struggles to handle the 1.3 million-ton stockpile of recyclable waste it had previously shipped to China.

Communities across the U.S. have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely.

Across the United States, local governments and recycling processors are scrambling to find new markets. Communities from Douglas County, Oregon to Hancock, Maine, have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely, which means that many residents are simply tossing plastic and paper into the trash. Some communities, like Minneapolis, stopped accepting black plastics and rigid #6 plastics like disposable cups. Others, like Philadelphia, are now burning the bulk of their recyclables at a waste-to-energy plant, raising concerns about air pollution.

Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastics were being recycled, while 12 percent were burned. The rest were buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans. Without China to process plastic bottles, packaging, and food containers — not to mention industrial and other plastic waste — experts warn it will exacerbate the already massive waste problem posed by our throwaway culture. The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics — more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades — continues to grow.

“Already, we’ve been seeing evidence in the past year of the accumulation of plastic waste in countries that are dependent on exporting,” says the University of Georgia’s Amy Brooks, a Ph.D. student in engineering and lead author of a recent study on the impacts of China’s import ban. “We’ve seen increased cost to consumers, closure of recycling facilities, and ultimately decreased plastic waste diversion.”

The recycling crisis triggered by China’s ban could have an upside, experts say, if it leads to better solutions for managing the world’s waste, such as expanding processing capacities in North America and Europe, and spurring manufacturers to make their products more easily recyclable. Above all, experts say it should be a wake-up call to the world on the need to sharply cut down on single-use plastics.

Over the coming decade, as many as 111 million tons of plastics will have to find a new place to be processed or otherwise disposed of as a result of China’s ban, according to Brooks and University of Georgia engineering professor Jenna Jambeck. However, the places trying to take up some of the slack in 2018 tended to be lower-income countries, primarily in Southeast Asia, many of which lack the infrastructure to properly handle recyclables. Many of those countries were quickly overwhelmed by the volume and have also now cut back on imports.

Prior to China’s ban, 95 percent of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70 percent in the U.S. were sold and shipped to Chinese processors. There, they were turned into forms to be repurposed by plastic manufacturers. Favorable rates for shipping in cargo vessels that carried Chinese consumer goods abroad and would otherwise return to China empty, coupled with the country’s low labor costs and high demand for recycled materials, made the practice profitable.

“Everyone was sending their materials to China because their contamination standard was low and their pricing was very competitive,” says Johnny Duong, acting chief operating officer of California Waste Solutions, which handles recycling for Oakland and San Jose. Like most municipal recycling programs, those cities contract with Duong’s company to collect and sort recyclable waste at its materials recovery facility, where they are baled and sent to end-market processors. Before the ban, Duong says, his company sold around 70 percent of its recyclables to China. Now, that has fallen to near zero.

China’s action came after many recycling programs had transitioned from requiring consumers to separate paper, plastics, cans, and bottles to today’s more common “single stream,” where it all goes into the same blue bin. As a result, contamination from food and waste has risen, leaving significant amounts unusable. In addition, plastic packaging has become increasingly complex, with colors, additives, and multilayer, mixed compositions making it ever more difficult to recycle. China has now cut off imports of all but the cleanest and highest-grade materials — imposing a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters found all-but impossible to meet.

“Costs associated with recycling are up, revenue associated with recycling is down,” says an industry official.

“All recyclable plastics from municipal recycling programs have been pretty much banned,” says Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the U.S. trade group National Waste and Recycling Association. “It’s had a tremendous impact. Costs associated with recycling are up, revenue associated with recycling is down. And that’s not turning around in the next few weeks.”

The U.S. and Europe, where many cities have longstanding recycling collection programs, have been especially hard-hit. Decades of reliance on China had stifled development of domestic markets and infrastructure. “There are just not very easy or cost-effective options for dealing with it now,” says Brooks. “So if nothing is done to ensure efficient management of plastic waste, the cost-effective option is to send it to landfills or incineration.”

In the U.S., small town and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest. While most continue to operate, rising costs and falling incomes are forcing some, like Kingsport, Tennessee to shut down. Others, like Phenix City, Alabama, have stopped accepting all plastics. Places like Deltona, Florida suspended curbside pickup. Residents in municipalities like these now must travel to collection points in sometimes distant locations if they want to recycle. Some are inevitably tossing their recyclables in the trash instead.

Most larger cities — such as New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon — have been able to either find alternative markets or improve and expand their municipal operations to process higher-quality and more marketable materials. But many have had to make changes, including dropping some harder-to-recycle materials from their programs. Sacramento, California, for instance, halted collections of plastics labeled #4 through #7 for several months last year at the city waste operator’s request. Residents were told to discard those items in their household garbage.

“That was a real eye opener for a lot of folks who love to feel good about putting their recycling in their blue bin and then it magically turns into something else,” says Erin Treadwell, community outreach manager for Sacramento Public Works. “We wish it was that easy.” Collection there resumed in November after a public education campaign on how households should clean and sort their recyclables.

In Philadelphia last year, when the city’s waste contractor demanded higher fees for collecting and processing recycled materials, the city sent half its recyclables to a waste-to-energy plant, where they were burned to generate electricity; the rest went to an interim contractor.

Displaced Chinese companies have announced plans to open new processing plants in South Carolina and Alabama.

Simon Ellin, CEO of The Recycling Association, a UK industry group, said these countries have struggled to cope with the volume displaced by the Chinese ban and were beginning to impose their own import restrictions.

Whether China’s ban leads to increased plastic pollution in the environment remains to be seen. “The plastic is now getting diverted to countries with a high risk of improper management and high leakage rates,” says Roland Geyer, an industrial ecology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and lead author of a recent study on the ultimate fate of disposed plastics. Still, China, with its high volume of imports, had been the source of more than a quarter of the world’s mismanaged waste, Jambeck says. So if proper alternatives are found, plastic pollution could actually decrease.

Some options are beginning to emerge. Several U.S. materials recovery facilities are expanding operations, upgrading equipment, and adding workers to improve sorting and reduce contamination so that the materials are acceptable to more discerning buyers. Duong’s Oakland-based company — which handles paper, plastics, and some metals — has modified its equipment and devised better ways of separating materials. The company has developed new markets domestically and in places like South Korea, Indonesia, and India.

And displaced Chinese processors have announced plans to open new U.S. processing plants in Orangeburg, South Carolina and Huntsville, Alabama. The companies will shred or pelletize things like plastic food containers to make products such as artificial plants and hangers.

“There is the expectation that we’ll be able to expand domestic processing,” says Germain. “That’s the good news. [But] you don’t build a new facility overnight.”

A variety of new policies aimed at reducing plastic waste are also in the works. The European Parliament recently approved a ban on single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery, straws, and drink-stirrers. Several North American cities, including Seattle and Vancouver, and companies like Starbucks and American Airlines have taken similar actions. And many places around the world now restrict plastic shopping bags.

“Reducing the amount of waste we generate in the first place is the most important thing we can do,” says Lance Klug, information officer for California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. The agency has been working with manufacturers for the past decade to reduce the discarded packaging that makes up about a quarter of what’s in the state’s landfills, he says, adding, “We’re trying to get industry more involved in the end-of-life disposition of their products.”

Britain is planning to tax manufacturers of plastic packaging with less than 30 percent recycled materials. And Norway recently adopted a system in which single-use plastic bottle-makers pay an “environmental levy” that declines as the return rate for their products rises. The bottles must be designed for easy recycling, with no toxic additives, only clear or blue color, and water-soluble labels.


About the Author

Cheryl Katz is an independent science writer covering climate change, energy, earth sciences, and environmental health. A former newspaper reporter, she has reported from Iceland to Africa on topics ranging from new geothermal technology to rapidly warming lakes. Her articles have appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic News and Hakai Magazine, among other publications.

Pennsylvania recycling facility part of pilot program to accept flexible plastic packaging

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J.P. Mascaro and Sons, a Pennsylvania-based recycling company, recently declared itself ready to be the first recycling plant in the United States operating a pilot program that accepts plastic shopping bags as part of the usual recycling stream.

The experiment, which Mascaro hopes will start in the late spring at its TotalRecycle Inc. plant near Birdsboro PA, “could revolutionize the recycling industry,” the company claimed.

Shopping bags and other forms of container products known to the recycling trade as “flexible plastic packaging” are generally banned from curbside recycling collections, such as those Mascaro now conducts weekly across many municipalities. Some packaging contains quantities of recyclable paper that contaminate the plastic, and some recycling sorters now in use cannot accommodate flexible material.

J.P. Mascaro & Sons is part of a two-year pilot program to recycle plastic packaging (i.e., grocery store bags)

There are several advantages flexible plastic packaging has over other packaging materials. It is durable, less costly to manufacture, and lighter and easier to transport. That makes it an ideal choice for all kinds of businesses. So far though, according to Mascaro, the bulk of such plastic has ended up in landfills.

It hopes the pilot program will change that. New machinery at the heart of the project can detect and separate flexibles from other recyclables. Company spokesman Frank Sau proclaimed the additional equipment “is to recycling machinery what the Ferarri is to automobiles.” It’s already been installed at the two-year-old facility in Exeter Township (above), and is being tested “to work out the bugs.”

The plant processes 20,000 tons of recyclables each month. Adding flexibles would grow its volume. Estimates indicate TotalRecycle will produce 3,100 tons annually of high-quality post-consumer flexibles’ feedstock for new end-market uses.

Mascaro is working in a joint effort with “Materials Recovery for the Future,” a research group of leading retail brands, manufacturers, and packaging companies that have a vested interest in flexibles’ recovery and recycling. The pilot is being supervised by Resource Recycling Systems, an Ann Arbor MI recycling consulting firm.

The company hasn’t formally decided which municipality in Berks or Montgomery County, that is under contract with Mascaro and uses “covered recycling trash cans,” will be selected as ground zero for single-stream curbside recycling of flexibles. The need for covered recycling would seem to rule out Lower Pottsgrove as a test location; its recycling bins are open and uncovered.

Mascaro is thinking beyond the test, too. “We plan to roll (out) this program to all our residential customers in two years from inception,” Sau said. Company officials believe its results will prove the economic feasibility of including flexibles with other recyclables, and keep them out of landfills.