Separating fact from fiction – are we really only recycling 9% of plastics?

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

It seems like everywhere I turn, I see the headline “Canada only recycles 9% of its plastics” – this figure, taken from a report prepared by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada, has now become the focal point of both those within the industry and the general public alike.

For a country that prides itself on being environmentally conscious and engaged, can we really be doing that badly?

I want to start this post off by saying that I will readily admit to not knowing what % of plastics are recycled in Canada (or anywhere else for that matter). However, I would venture to say that nobody knows, and we should be cautious about taking any estimate at face value without fully understanding the methodology and limitations used to arrive at that figure.

How do we calculate a recycling rate?

For those of you well versed in the subject, feel free to skip ahead. However, it is important to understand how exactly recycling rates are calculated. At a high level, a recycling rate is total tonnes of waste recycled divided by total tonnes of waste generated. This seems simple enough, but this grade school arithmetic actually involves a tremendous amount of modeling, assumptions, and to be perfectly blunt, guess work.

Solid waste diversion and disposal, Canada, 2002 to 2016
(Source: Government of Canada)

Total Tonnes Recycled (The Numerator)

First, let’s consider the numerator in the equation – total tonnes of plastics recycled. For certain jurisdictions, (i.e. Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec etc.), total tonnes of residential plastics recycled is tracked by municipalities (using total tonnes of material marketed), who then subsequently report those figures to a provincial body. These figures are then summed and aggregated, to arrive at a figure for total tonnes of residential plastics recycled.

Generally speaking, tracking recycled tonnes for residential recycling programs is fairly straightforward, as these are actual measurements being reported by collectors. This sounds simple – until we are asked to determine total tonnes recycled by the IC&I (industrial, commercial and institutional) sector. The vast majority of all waste generated in Canada comes from the IC&I sector – by comparison, it is estimated that the residential waste stream makes up less than 20% of the overall waste stream.

As noted in a previous post, data surrounding plastics generation/recovery in the IC&I sector remains extremely poor, with little consensus regarding who is generating plastics waste, how much is being generated, and how much is being diverted.

The IC&I sectors consist of a range of establishments, including: malls, office buildings, construction and demolition sites, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, educational institutions, manufacturing plants, and multi-residential buildings.

Previous attempts to model IC&I recycling rates have ranged widely, with plastic diversion rates ranging from as little as 10% to as much as 80% depending on the sector and what actually constitutes diversion activity. The reason for this widely ranging disparity is that there is no formal legislative requirement for the majority of the IC&I sector to report the quantities or types of waste being generated, diverted or disposed to provincial authorities.

In Ontario for example, only large IC&I establishments are regulated under existing legislation (which requires establishments to have a formal waste diversion plan and conduct waste audits). However, it is estimated than 80% of waste generated from the IC&I sector comes from small and medium sized establishments, and thus, fall outside the purview of existing regulation. This issue is exacerbated in other provinces which have no formal legislation that monitors the IC&I sector, and relies on voluntary reporting to keep track of waste generation data.

In short, the majority of the plastic waste being generated across Canada is not being tracked – which makes the figures reported by Deloitte all the more curious.

As an intellectual exercise, think about your average food court for a moment and how much packaging waste is being generated (both recyclable and unrecyclable). Are shoppers putting all their papers in the recycling bin? Oops, somebody with a half full drink tossed it in and ruined the material. How many plastic forks, knives and straws are being handed out? Did the person taking out the trash really just put all the recyclables and garbage in the same bag? Variations of this chaotic scene plays out every day, all over the country, and somehow, I am supposed to believe that this is being tracked by the owners of establishments?

One of the reasons why legislation for the IC&I sector has been so challenging in Ontario (and nationally) is due to the poor quality of the data. Whatever estimates do exist, have largely been based on a relatively small sample of waste audits, and modeled using a combination of waste generated per employee estimates (by sector and by NAICS code). If this sounds confusing, it is – at no point have we ever been able to credibly quantify the total tonnes of material recycled for both the residential and IC&I sectors. At best, we are making educated guesses, and at worse, we are producing inaccurate estimates based on a flawed methodology.

In short, the majority of the plastic waste being recycled across Canada is not being tracked – however, this does not necessarily mean that this material is ending up in landfills.

On site recovery, reuse and recycling

Despite the fact that there is very little formal data for plastics waste that is being tracked, many IC&I generators (particularly in the industrial and manufacturing sector), rely on on-site waste management programs to reuse and recycle plastic waste. True to the spirit of a circular economy, many producers use plastic waste outputs from one part of their production process, as inputs for the next. Anecdotally, many producers claim diversion rates close to 100%, as any material of value is reused, recycled or reprocessed internally. It is estimated that more than 50% of all IC&I material being generated is managed using on-site options. While this makes sense intuitively, it is difficult to gather any firm data regarding the quantities or scale of on-site material management for plastics. As noted previously, existing legislation does not require this information to be reported, and as such, any data that is available is left to the discretion of private companies and associations to share publicly.

Previous attempts to gather this data (most recently by the Ontario MOECC in the IC&I Review conducted in 2014) was met with resistance from the IC&I sector, who claimed administrative burden and commercial sensitivity in collecting and sharing this data.

Total Tonnes Generated (the Denominator)

I could probably stop here having made the point that we are working with insufficient data – however, I am also writing this article so that people can fully appreciate what goes into calculating a recycling rate, as very few ever stop to ask how we come up with our numbers.

With that being, I now turn my attention to the denominator in the equation – total plastic waste generated. Unlike total tonnes recycled, which is something that can be measured and recorded using a weigh scale at a material recycling facility, total plastic waste generated is an entirely modeled number. For the residential recycling sector (Blue Box), producers of packaging are asked to report their unit sales into a given market, and generation rates for households are modeled using a series of assumptions based on population density, locality, urban/rural split etc. I have worked in this space for the better part of a decade, and I still could not tell you what exactly goes into the waste generation model used for printed paper and packaging.

Turning our attention back to the IC&I sector, there is no formal requirement for any establishment to report how much of a particular plastic waste they have generated into a market every year. Unlike printed paper and packaging, we cannot assume that unit sales is a proxy for waste generation, as many plastics are durable goods. To use a very simple example, a company may sell 1000 tonnes of plastic lumber into a market every year, but that doesn’t mean all 1000 tonnes will reach end of life during that period.

To accurately model the quantities of plastics needing to be managed at end of life, we would need to know its life expectancy, composition, primary and secondary use etc. To make a very long story short, you would almost need to do a mass balance of all plastics before we could credibly estimate overall generation. Simply put – we do not have that information, and even if it could accurately monitored and tracked, there is no legislative requirement for plastic producers to share that information.

Is “Ball Parking” good enough?

The exact findings from the Deloitte report said:

3.2 million metric tonnes ended up as garbage, 86 per cent went to landfill, 4 per cent to incinerators and 1 per cent — 29,000 metric tonnes — ended up as litter which can contaminate lakes and oceans. Most of the wasted plastic comes from offices, institutions or industries.

To be quite frank, I do not think the above numbers are accurate – however, does that really matter? I suppose that depends on what we are trying to achieve. If the purpose is to highlight that a significant percentage of our plastics is ending up in a landfill, necessitating immediate corrective action, then I am all for it. Communicating the size and scale of the problem is of greater importance than precision.

However, if our intent is to develop policy and legislation, particularly with respect to asking producers to pay for end of life costs associated with managing plastics at end of life, then we have to press pause.

Solid waste diversion rate by source, Canada, 2002 to 2016
(Source: Environment Canada)

Developing a data acquisition strategy

Identifying stakeholders who may have access and be willing to share sector specific data with respect to plastics generation/recycling/diversion will be critical in fully understanding the size and scope of the issue. It is only possible to achieve “Zero plastic waste” if we can understand how much is being generated, and what is presently happening to it.

Potential sources for this data include individual producers, industry associations and waste service providers. The latter has not traditionally been used as a source for data on tracking/measuring plastics waste, but waste service providers must often maintain detailed manifests regarding what they are collecting, and where they are processing it.

It is also the recommendation of this article that extensive research be conducted into on site waste management activity. As noted above, many manufacturing and industrial stakeholders claim to operate on site plastic recovery and diversion programs. However, access to this data (how much is being managed, how is it being managed (technologies, end use applications etc.) has historically been very difficult.

Designating who will be responsible for collecting and maintaining this information is also a critical early step in developing a successful circular economy. Many stakeholders have expressed concerns surrounding the sensitivity of sharing this data (for competitive/proprietary reasons), while provincial governments have cited lack of resources and administrative oversite to collect and maintain data repositories. This problem is compounded when attempting to gather data across multiple jurisdictions.

The report prepared by Deloitte was a critical first step in helping understand the plastic waste issue, but I would caution readers from jumping to conclusions when reading a sensationalized headline like: “Canada does a bad job at recycling plastics” – a more accurate statement would be “Canada doesn’t know what is happening to plastics at end of life”

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. Calvin has worked as both a policy planner for the MOECC and as a consultant on projects for Stewardship Ontario, Multi Material Stewardship Manitoba, and Ontario Electronic Stewardship. Calvin currently sits on the editorial board for Advances in Recycling and Waste Management, and as a reviewer for Waste Management, Resources Conservation and Recycling and Journal of Environmental Management.