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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”.

Lithium Batteries – Rethink, Recycle

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Written by Zachary Gray, B.Eng.Biosci., Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering

Electricity is in, and fuel is out — The Dutch Royal Shell’s 50-year plan is in motion. Much to longtime shareholder’s chagrin, the 112-year-old global behemoth is pivoting their business model away from fossil fuels in the decades to come in favor of more sustainable forms of energy, including wind, solar, and hydrogen.

The Dutch Royal Shell transition is not limited to ethereal boardroom speak, placating the dry martini-sipping corporate climate change activists, but aligns with the tenets of the Paris Accord and emerging trends in consumer behavior: more electric vehicles and charging stations, less crude oil. Indeed Canadians with ambivalent, and often geopolitically divergent attitudes towards their energy sector are purchasing electric vehicles (“EVs”) at an accelerating pace: EV sales increased 125% from 2017 to 2018, putting an additional 100,000 on our roadways.

The problem to avoid is exchanging one environmental sin for another. There is a greater understanding among the general road-faring population that the fuel they are pumping into their cars, on the way to doing more important things with their time, combusts, adding to the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, charging one’s EV adds a degree of separation between drivers and their energy source.

Generally, driving an EV in Ontario, where 93% of the province’s energy comes from carbon-free sources, is far better for the environment than the combustion box on wheels sitting in the queue at the Shell station. Not so much in Kentucky, where 92% of the state’s energy comes from low-energy-density coal; or worse: Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, or Texas, where they burn far more to keep the lights on – or, EVs cruising along their streets. An EV’s positive environmental impact is only as good as its energy supply and battery.

Often, the EV’s greatest sin is its battery. In a study comparing Tesla’s Model S alongside a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle, the former’s manufacturing process generated 15% more greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. Despair not, however, the same study acknowledged that a Tesla generally rack up fewer GHGs over its lifespan compared to the latter.

For context, Tesla’s position is far better than the first generation of Toyota’s hybrid vehicle, the 1997 Prius. Between mining nickel for its catalysts in Northern Ontario and the spiderweb of trans-continental shipping bringing together the car’s disparate components across Toyota’s decentralized manufacturing sites, the first Prius’s GHG emissions over the course of lifetime dwarfed those of military-grade Hummers – which, some readers may be surprised to learn, are not known for their fuel economy. Tesla’s cathode and electrolyte are its central issues.

Lithium-based Batteries

There are three components to EV’s lithium-based batteries: the anode, made from graphite; the lithium electrolyte; and cathode, often a mixture of nickel, aluminum, and manganese cobalt. Tesla’s cathodes, a combination of nickel, cobalt, and aluminum, are the main environmental culprit; the lithium is salt on the wound.

Analysts estimate that Argentia, Bolivia, and Chile hold 15% of the world’s lithium reserves. Abundance, however, is not the problem: water usage and isolation are. Clean water is scarce high in the Andes, and mining operations use immense volumes in their salt brine ponds to separate the lithium from magnesium and potassium that are also present. Lithium brine ponds now litter the famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats. While TIME magazine may celebrate the wealth potential, and the relative cleanliness of lithium mining throughout these South American countries, consumers should remain vigilant to ensure extractors are not given carte blanch over the region’s resources – besides, who gets a medal for not placing last?

Lithium Mining Operation

For some perspective, the Guangdong province in China used mining to further its economy, much like the three South American nations are doing, feeding the world’s growing appetite for electronics with its vast supply of heavy metals – perfect for batteries and processors. Now, it costs $29/kg to remediate soil in the region. Nor do few publications outside of Canada’s right-wing press celebrate the economic value that the Oil Sands mines deliver to Albertans.

There is also the social impact to consider outside of the environmental damage brought on the world’s growing appetite for electronics and the batteries that keep them charged.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the largest global producers of cobalt, a critical element in Tesla’s cathodes. There are also an estimated 35,000 child laborers working in the Congo’s cobalt mines. At $83,000 per metric tonne, the high commodity prices for this scarce metal are incentivizing the less than stable Congolese government to turn a blind eye to the increasing rate of child enslavement in their country. Meanwhile, citizens in developed nations enjoy faster charging times for their phones and better performance in their EVs, for which they can thank cobalt’s presence. 

That’s how it is: Fossil fuel reliance diminishes as society increasingly coalesces around electronics and sustainable forms of energy. Metals such as lithium and cobalt, play a critical part in the transition’s material infrastructure. However controversial, mining provides the initial access to these vital materials.  Consumers can take heart knowing that battery components, while not non-renewable, are recyclable – unlike the proceeding technology. The rare earth elements can feed a closed-loop supply chain as they enter circulation while robust recycling technologies ensure their place within it.

The importance of battery recycling

Tesla ensured that recycling as part of its battery’s supply chain. The company recycles 60% of spent cells from its cars, reuses a further 10%, and landfills the rest due to technical difficulties. They use Kinsbursky Brothers in North America and Umicore in Europe. Both of these recyclers use traditional furnace techniques called pyrometallurgy to process the spent batteries.

Four high-level events place during the pyrometallurgical process; they are:

  1. Preparing the furnace load, including the battery components and coke;
  2. Treating the off-gas, filtering the batteries’ vaporized plastic parts, before discharging to the atmosphere;
  3. Removing slag from the kiln, including aluminum, silicon, and iron;
  4. Completing the smelting process.

The resultant product is a copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel alloy, representing 40% of the batteries contents, while The treated off-gas and slag account for the remaining 60%. For reference, a Model S has 7,100 battery cells, weighing 540 kg, meaning that the heating-based approach recovers ~220 kg of valuable cathodic materials, representing approximately 80-85% of the original amount, for the industry’s growing closed-loop supply chain. 

Altogether, the pyrometallurgical recycling of lithium-ion batteries reduces GHG emissions by 70% over using new resources, further lowering the environmental impact for the next generation of EVs.

Umicore’s process can handle 7,000 metric tonnes per year, equivalent to 35,000 EV batteries. Right now, the company is focusing on better serving smaller-scale electronics and pivoting their technical model towards less-energy intensive forms of battery recycling. Fully embracing hydrometallurgical techniques, the process extracting metal ions from aqueous solutions and forming salts, is the new frontier in lithium battery recycling. One Canadian company stands out in the emerging technical group: Li-Cycle.

Li-Cycle Corporation

The Mississauga-based Li-Cycle Corporation is piloting its two-step, closed-loop recycling technology in Southern Ontario. First, the “Spoke” mechanically reduces the size of the battery’s components, leading to the “Hub,” which leverages hydrometallurgical technologies to yield high-value salts. In addition to emitting few GHGs and expending little solid waste, the company also treats and reuses its water and acid. Encouragingly, the company achieved a >90% recovery rate for critical metals during their pilot-scale operations.

Li-Cycle Technology™ is a closed loop, processing technology that recycles lithium-ion batteries. The technology recovers 80-100% of all materials found in lithium-ion batteries.

Li-Cycle’s technology minimizes energy usage and operational inputs while outperforming competitor’s return. Going forward, the company will separate the two components business units, better serving regional markets: Multiple Spokes, each processing 5,000 tonnes of used batteries per year, will supply a 15-20,000 tonne Hub. A constellation of Li-Cycle’s units would increase the availability of critical metals from other electronics, such as cell phones, for the rapidly expanding EV market.

Concluding remarks

Tesla recently announced its concern about the impending shortage of metals critical to their batteries’ chemistry. In the future, companies such as Canada’s Li-Cycle and Umicore will be able to mediate discrepancies in the EV supply chain. Used batteries languishing in the dump are harmful to the environment and damage the growing, technical infrastructure around recycling rare earth metals. Mining brings the batteries’ minerals into circulation while recycling keeps them in use.

Recycling will be an integral part of the EVs’ industrial arc as they proliferate in usage, while the energy paradigm continues to shift from fossil fuels to sustainable forms of electricity and new generations of battery technology minimize the use of precious minerals.


About the Author

Zachary Gray graduated from McMaster University with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering.  He has worked with several early-stage cleantech and agri-industrial companies since completing his studies, while remaining an active member of his community.  He is enthusiastic about topics that combine innovation, entrepreneurism, and social impact.

Polystyrene foam recycling returns to two Ontario Municipalities

Two Ontario municipalities recently began recycling polystyrene foam. The Town of Brockton and the Town of Hanover now recycle polystyrene foam, in part due to $9,700 in grant money received from the Foam Recycling Coalition.

Brockton, Ontario is located Bruce County, approximately 200 km northwest of Toronto. As of 2016, the population was 9,461. Hanover, approximately 20 km east of Brockton, has a population of of approximately 7,600.

Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is a type 6 plastic that is also known as the trademarked brand Styrofoam.  It is used in in food and beverage packaging (i.e., coffee cups), insulation, and for protection of materials during shipping.  It has very low density as it is over 95 percent air.

Although 100% recyclable, EPS’s low density means transporting any quantity of it for recycling proves prohibitively expensive.

The municipalities began collecting post-consumer polystyrene foam in 2007, but the popular recycling program was suspended 10 years later due to changing markets for the material. The recycling services will resume with the help of a polystyrene densifier, which compacts collected materials into condensed polystyrene bricks. End markets then recycle the bricks into new products.

“The discontinuation of the agreement to transport materials in 2017 was sudden and unexpected. With this grant from the Foam Recycling Coalition, we found a solution that allows us to begin collecting polystyrene again and bring back this service to our residents,” said Ron Cooper, director of public works for the Town of Hanover, Ontario.

Brockton and Hanover’s waste management departments will operate the program through the use of community drop-off depots. Businesses and residents can bring foam cups, take-out containers, egg cartons and meat trays, as well as protective foam packaging often found around shipped electronics. The material will then be sent to a central location for densification and turned into new products as varied as crown molding, picture frames and receipt spools.

Foam Recycling Coalition

In 2014, the Foam Recycling Coalition (FRC) was launched to support increased recycling of foodservice packaging made from foam polystyrene. In order to meet this objective, the FRC shares general information on foam recycling, provides technical resources and offers funding assistance to programs ready to start or strengthen post-consumer foam recycling.

In addition to encouraging the recycling of foam foodservice packaging (i.e. cups, plates, bowls, clamshells and cafeteria trays), the efforts of the FRC also extend to other foam food packaging like egg cartons and meat trays.

Other Polystyrene Recycling Projects in Canada

Nova Scotia

The Solid Waste Management Department of Colchester County, Nova Scotia is responsible for providing solid waste and recycling service to 130,000 residents across several communities.  In 2015, the Solid Waste Management Department estimated that foam polystyrene comprised one percent—620 tons—of the annual municipal waste stream. However, at the time, the county did not possess the equipment to efficiently recover foam products at their MRF, so the material still went to a landfill. To begin recovering this “lost” material, Colchester County applied for and was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Foam Recycling Coalition (FRC) that the county used to purchase a foam densifier for installation at their MRF. 

Unless it is densified, foam polystyrene is very lightweight. This makes the product inefficient and expensive to ship. Densifiers help compact foam into smaller, heavier, and more manageable bricks that can be easily transported in full truckload quantities. The MRF installed the new densifier in April 2016 and began densifying the foam that MRF employees captured at the end of the container line.

Densified foam polystyrene is a valuable commodity and tens of thousands of pounds can be trucked to end markets in a single load. Once the material is shipped from the MRF to plastic recycling facilities, the facilities grind, wash, and then pelletize the polystyrene which manufacturers can use instead of virgin plastic.

Quebec

Pyrowave, a pioneer in catalytic microwave depolymerization of plastics, has received a $50,000 grant from the Foam Recycling Coalition in 2017 to purchase equipment to allow for in-house processing of recycled polystyrene.

The Montreal, Quebec, company commercializes microwave-based equipment modules to perform fast depolymerization of mixed plastics and is focusing initially on post-consumer polystyrene. According to Pyrowave, the machines can depolymerize (or break down) post-consumer polystyrene materials into a styrene oil with up to 95 percent yield, which is then shipped to styrene buyers. 

Myths vs. Facts on Recycling in Canada

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With major headline in newspapers and newscasts on recycling in Canada, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) deemed it necessary to publish a fact sheet that dispels the myths and state the facts on recycling in Canada.

The Fact Sheet addresses one of the most persistent myths surrounding recycling, which is that no one knows how to address the challenges that the industry is currently facing. SWANA wanted it to be known that solutions are being implemented. Recycling facilities are embracing new technologies such as robotics to keep up with changing market requirements and material streams. New facilities are opening and existing ones are expanding, providing more demand for recyclables. Organizations are considering redesign, reuse and repair to address hard-to recycle items.

SWNA Fact Sheet of Recycling Myths and Facts

“Although the recycling industry is currently having some difficulties marketing some of their materials, the industry isn’t broken,” says Art Mercer, SWANA’s Incoming International Secretary. “Materials are recycled into new products and this has many benefits, such as energy and resource conservation. Just because it is temporarily difficult to market some of the items, this is no reason to stop recycling and throw these items away, often filling up landfills. Also, we need to remember that we all have a responsibility to reduce the items we buy and throw away. Recycling is not the only solution.”

SWANA is an organization of more than 10,000 public and private sector professionals committed to advancing from solid waste management to resource management through their shared emphasis on education, advocacy and research. For more than 50 years, SWANA has been one of the leading associations in the solid waste management field. SWANA serves industry professionals through technical conferences, certifications, publications and a large offering of technical training courses. 

Waste Not, Want Not: Recycled vs. Recyclable

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

This past weekend, at a gathering with friends, the topic of recycling came up.

“Did you know that they can recycle cigarette butts now?”

Being known as the “garbage man” among my peers, eyes turned to me to confirm this seemingly revolutionary advancement in recycling.

I hesitated, knowing that my answer was about to make me a “Debbie Downer” and open a can of worms about what it really means to recycle something.

“No – cigarette butts cannot be recycled in conventional recycling systems” – I made sure to add the latter as a qualifier.

“But I heard about a program that takes back used cigarettes and turns it into new forms of plastic and compost!”

What my friend was referring to was the breakthrough program offered by Terracycle (read more about it here: https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/brigades/cigarette-waste-recycling).

And with a heavy heart, I launched into a lecture about the difference between something that can be recycled, versus something that is recyclable.

By the end, the disappointment in the room was palpable – I was the proverbial wet blanket that ruined the “feel good factor” of trying to do the right thing.

My feelings towards Terracycle and other similar organizations are heavily conflicted. On one hand, they are innovative, transformative and committed to finding new uses for problematic materials. The accolades they receive are well deserved, but I also think it creates a dangerous perception among the public about what items can (and should be) recycled.

Most materials can technically be recycled – be it cigarette butts, laminated coffee cups, chip bags etc. Given the resources, infrastructure, technology and time, we can find ways to re-purpose problematic materials.

It is in this space that organizations such as Terracycle thrive – they have forged literally dozens of partnerships with companies across the globe to successfully “recycle the unrecyclable”.

Win, win situation, right? Wrong.

While it may seem novel to turn ocean plastic into shoes, or chip bags into handbags, the hard truth is that this type of recycling cannot be readily replicated at scale. The processing technology involved is economically prohibitive, and really only available in jurisdictions in which the collection program is being offered.

The latter point is also why the environmental and economic 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.

Going back to our cigarette butt example, there is no recycling facility in Canada (that I am aware of) that can economically recover the material… which is why it is so imperative that we distinguish between something that can be recycled, versus recyclability.

To me, the former is a technical question – does the technology exist to recycle a particular good? The latter however is a much more nuanced question that requires us to consider the economic, environmental and social impact of recycling activity.

As an example, 99.99% of people who work in waste will tell you that glass can be recycled, but I would bet that a significant portion of those people would question whether it should really be recycled (at least in a curbside collection system).

Why this matters is that the average consumer has difficulty differentiating between recycling and recyclability. Much like my well intentioned friends, once people hear that something can be recycled, they assume that to be a universal truth. When Keureg teamed up with Recycle BC to pilot a recycling program, people across the country thought that they could now put K-cups in their Blue Bin (which was never the case).

Perhaps a more insidious example of how this consumer confusion can result in catastrophe, is in the green washing of packaging. My social media feed is full of examples of CPG companies partnering with Terracycle (and others) to pilot new recycling programs. The dangers of this is that companies may be more concerned with the “optics” of recyclability, as opposed to developing products that can be sustainability managed at end of life. The key to a successful pilot is accountability and transparency – I don’t want a headline announcing a partnership, I want to know how much is being diverted, where it is being diverted and at what cost.

I want to impress upon the reader that this post is not about bashing Terracycle or any other company attempting to develop new ways to recycle problematic materials. Their work is critical in promoting consumer awareness, and has successfully married CPG companies and recyclers to work collaboratively.

However, we have to remember that recycling is only one of many tools we have to promote a circular system. Inordinately focusing our attention and resources on recycling may be at the expense of other, more sustainable options. Consumers have an intense appetite and interest in doing the right thing and keeping material out of landfills, but we have to be honest with both them and ourselves regarding the role recycling can play.

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.

Developing Recycling Solutions for Fiberglass

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KWI Polymers, headquartered in Boisbriand, Quebec, recently received $150,000 in funding under the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge to develop a possible solution for recycling fiberglass. The CPIC is funded by the Innovative Solutions Canada program. The end result could potentially turn transformed materials into street furniture, railings, sidewalks and decking.

There are few options for recycling and disposing of boats made of glass fiber-reinforced plastic, commonly referred to as fiberglass. Most of these boats end up in a landfill, or worse, abandoned on land or in the water. To address this issue, Transport Canada issued a challenge to Canadian small and medium-sized businesses to develop innovative solutions for recycling or reusing fiberglass in an energy-efficient way which recovers as much material as possible. KWI Polymers was a Canadian company that took up the challenge.

A 2007 report by the International Council of Marine Industry Associations estimates that a well-kept fiberglass boat easily can last 50 years, during which time it likely will change owners several times. But “even the best-constructed craft someday will have to end its life,” the report notes.

Statistics from 2016 compiled by the National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates there are 8.6 million boats in Canada. Most of the boats are constructed from fiberglass.

KWI polymers is a company that manufactures polymers from from both virgin and recycled materials. This includes thermoset, thermoplastic, elastomer and rubber polymers.

One aspect of the business of KWI polymers is regrinding. Regrind is material that has already undergone a process such as extrusion or molding and then is chopped up to the appropriate size for repurposing. KWI Polymers offers regrind of consistent quality that can be separated by color and reach a purity level of 95%. These purity levels that are rarely, if ever, attained by other companies in North America. The advantage of using regrind is that it generally comes at a lower cost, and reduces stress on the environment because of the reuse of existing material as an alternative to creating new material.

milled plastic goods with color sample plates (Source: KWI Polymers)

The Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge

The Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge is a $12.85-million initiative supporting research projects that aim to address plastic pollution through new and innovative technologies. This initiative is funded by federal departments and agencies, through the Innovative Solutions Canada program, and invites Canadian small and medium-sized businesses to develop innovative solutions in response to specific challenges related to plastic waste.

Innovations Solutions Canada

There are 20 participating federal departments and agencies that will issue challenges through the Innovative Solutions Canada program. These challenges are designed to seek novel solutions and not commercially available products or services. Together, the funding from federal departments and agencies represents a $100-million investment for each of the next three years, to fund innovative challenges focused on various issues across all sectors including pollution from plastics.

Where does my Coffee Pod Go? Emissions Impacts of Pod Recycling

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

I want to preface this article by saying that I do not have any of Nespresso’s actual sales, collection or logistics data. All information used in this modeling is based on publicly available sources – if anybody has access to better data, I would be happy to re-run the analysis.

Coffee pod waste has become a particularly contentious issue as of late. The ubiquity of the coffee pod, coupled with its apparent difficulties being managed at end of life, has forced pod producers to develop packaging that can be readily recycled or composted in existing waste management systems.

Nespresso has proven to be a pioneer in this space, developing a readily recyclable aluminum pod, and investing in a “take back” infrastructure that allows consumers to return used coffee pods back to Nespresso. It is truly a novel solution to a growing problem – aluminum is not only readily recyclable, but offers a significant environmental benefit when comparing recycled vs. virgin sources (According to EcoInvent, recycling one tonne of aluminum using an Ontario energy grid mix abates 10.1 tonnes of carbon).

So all is good with the world, and we should embrace Nespresso as our sustainable pod manufacturer of choice? Not so fast….

Where the university became interested in the issue is when learning about Nespresso’s “take back” program in partnership with Canada Post. As per: https://www.nespresso.com/ca/en/recycling-process-red-bag, households are provided a bag to store used Nespresso capsules. Once they have filled the bag (with approximately 30 capsules), households can return this bag to a Canada Post office, where it will be delivered to 1 of 13 recycling facilities across the country that are equipped to compost used coffee grounds and recycle the aluminum. A separate “take back” program is available for commercial customers who operate in office buildings and retail spaces.

Being the keen researchers that we are, we decided to put this program to the test. After 10 days of coffee consumption (averaging approximately 3 pods per day between two people), we found that the average used capsule (net of coffee grounds) weighed 5.7 grams, and a “full” drop off bag weighed a shade over 280 grams. Once the bag was full, this bag was dropped off at a Canada Post office – it wasn’t readily apparent which facility this bag would be shipped to (which turns out, is the million dollar question).

Based on the materials used in the capsule and the bag (aluminum and LDPE film respectively), we calculated that the emissions credit (attributable to recycling) equaled:

Emissions Credit Single Pod Recycling (Aluminum) 0.00005706 TCO2e Emissions Credit Collection Bag (LDPE Film) 0.000004896 TCO2e Emissions Credit Per Consumer Bag Return 0.001716606 TCO2e

This is actually a pretty compelling finding – for every full bag of capsules returned to Nespresso, the emissions savings attributable to recycling is 0.001716606 TCO2e . When we think about the number of pods sold into the Canadian market – estimated in the hundreds of millions per calendar year – the potential environmental benefit from coffee pod recycling is enormous…… until we factor in the transportation emissions for getting those pods back to Nespresso.

The emissions impacts of waste collection is a significant component when calculating the life cycle impact of a particular waste management option. For curbside recyclable and waste collection, a specially configured truck will go from house to house, and when full, return to the transfer station/depot to empty it’s material before redeploying to the road. The efficiency of this approach is in having a “critical mass” of material (within a specified geographical boundary), that only requires collection when sufficient waste has been generated.

Going back to our Nespresso example, the university shipped a 280g bag back to a recycling facility via Canada Post. Assuming that Canada Post uses a standard parcel delivery vehicle using petrol, 0.00012 TCO2e of carbon are emitted for every kilometer traveled (EcoInvent). Using the above value, if our bag of used pods traveled more than 15km, the emissions impacts of transport supersede the environmental benefit of recycling (0.0018TCO2E transport emissions vs. 0.001716606TCO2e recycling credit)

With that being said, it is not likely that our package of used coffee pods was the only thing in that Canada Post truck (transport emissions need to be distributed across all items shipped), but it raises the questions of “How many shipments of pods are we making?” and “Where are we shipping those pods to?”

While I do not have the sales data for Nespresso, I would safely say that at least 100 million Aluminum pods are sold to Canadian households every year. Given that each of the pre-paid shipping bags can store approximately 30 used pods, that is 3.3 million bags that ultimately need to be shipped back to Nespresso for recycling. That is potentially 3.3 million unique trips, across hundreds (and possibly thousands of kilometers) to recycle something that may be doing more harm to the environment than good. The environmental viability of the approach is entirely contingent on shipping a critical mass of materials, 300 kilometers or less.

I genuinely don’t know if this is the case. Maybe households stock pile their bags and send them back only once a month? Or maybe Canada Post has hundreds of consolidation points, and only ship the bags back to Nespresso once they have sufficient materials? The point of this post is to highlight that we have to “look beyond the headlines” and ask meaningful questions about how the products we use are actually managed at their end of life.

Nespresso should be applauded for finding a recyclable alternative and innovating in a way that moves us away from single use plastic pods. 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).


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

Ambitious Waste Diversion Plans proposed in Ontario’s Oxford County

As reported by the Woodstock Sentinel Review, the southwest Ontario municipality of Oxford County has ambitious plans to build a “waste-diversion facility” that could divert as much as 90 per cent of waste from landfill.

Oxford County is a regional municipality in the Canadian province of Ontario, located in the Southwestern portion of the province.

Oxford County Council were scheduled to review a report in April that outlines the options for location and funding for a Waste Recovery and Reduction Technology (WRRT) facility, which will reduce the amount of material entering landfills.

The goal of the facility is to divert as much as 90 per cent of material and extend the lifespan of the Oxford County landfill by more than 30 years – from 2063 to 2100, in keeping with expected population growth and the resulting increase in waste heading to the dump.

According to a report included in the council agenda, three potential locations have been identified for the facility: the Oxford County Waste Management Facility, the Ingersoll Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Woodstock Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Those sites were evaluated based on their size, the surrounding land use and the transportation capacity.

The goal of a waste recovery and reduction plant is to use more of what would traditionally end up in a landfill. Recoverable recyclables – the usual blue-bin materials – are included but so are items like food wrappers, large articles like sofas, and plastic toys, all of which would normally end up in a landfill. These products would be turned into biofuel at an out-of-county facility. Recyclables and organics would be treated much as they currently are and turned into reusable material.

The report on the Council meetings’ agenda also outlines options for funding and building the facility, which is expected to be designed to handle as much at 50,000 tonnes of waste per year.

Costing for the project depends on council’s directive regarding the capabilities of the facility, but ranges anywhere from $16 to $42 million. Staff presented eight different scenarios for the facility’s location and capabilities, each with different cost implications. The county is examining options for public-private partnerships for the building of the facility.

Council originally gave the directive to go forward with a waste recovery and reduction plan last summer. The facility is part of the county’s Zero Waste Plan, through diverting more material from landfills.

Council is expected to make a decision on the preferred plan at the May 8 meeting before deciding on a procurement option at the June 12 meeting.

Oxford County is known for its out-of-the box thinking when it comes to waste management. The new Oxford County Waste Management & Education Centre is a net-zero energy facility that uses an energy efficient building envelope and solar photovoltaic panels to completely offset the energy use of both the building and the rest of the landfill site. A real-world example of how buildings can be sustainably constructed and operated, the Education Centre includes demonstrations, resources and information to educate and inspire further sustainability initiatives.

The new Oxford County Waste Management & Education Centre is a cutting edge facility generating its own energy

Fun with Waste: A boat made from plastic waste

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The FlipFlopi Project is an ambitious initiative with an aim to inspire positive change to support the global movement against plastic pollution.

In June 2016 the founders of the FlipFlopi Project decided to try and build a boat entirely from plastic collected on beaches and roadsides in Kenya to show the potential of ‘already-used’ plastic. And two years later, using over ten tonnes of plastic waste and 30,000 re-purposed flip flops – they succeeded. 

The world’s first recycled boat gets its name, Flipiflopi, from the 30,000 recycled flip-flops used to make its rainbow-colored hull. The FlipFlopi Project was co-founded by Kenyan tour operator Ben Morrison, and the 9 meters long multi-masted boat was built by master craftsmen Ali Skanda, and a team of volunteers using more than 10,000 tones of recycled plastic. The boat has already sailed 500 km from Lamu to Zanzibar earlier this year and it is continuing to tour around the world.

The goal of the project and is to convince people that single use plastic does not make sense and that it can be given a valuable second life. The boat is currently embarking on a number of expeditions around the Indian Ocean.

Ontario: Use of Excess Funds from Stewardship Programs

The Ontario Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MOECP) recently issued new directions regarding the use of surplus funds remaining from the wind up of Ontario Tire Stewardship and Ontario Electronic Stewardship. The Ontario Resource Productivity & Recovery Authority has extended consultations on the Wind Up Plan for the two stewardship organizations.

Tires

As a result of a ruling by the Canada Revenue Agency, the amount of surplus funds held by Ontario Tire Stewardship (OTS) will be more significant than what was anticipated at the time RPRA approved the Wind-Up Plan.

The Minister issued a letter directing the OTS to amend its Wind-Up Plan to establish a program for the return of the surplus funds they hold to tire consumers. In order to comply with the Minister’s direction, OTS will be holding consultations on options for managing surplus funds.

Electronics

RPRA has been directed by the Minister to conduct additional consultations on Ontario Electronic Stewardship’s (OES) Wind-Up Plan. The additional consultations will seek feedback on options to ensure that OES’s surplus funds be used for the benefit of Ontario consumers; for example, through a consumer rebate program.

As a result of this direction, RPRA incorporated this topic into our remaining consultation sessions on the OES Wind-Up Plan held on April 9 and April 10. All consultation materials, including the presentation and webinar recording, are available on our website. RPRA has extended the deadline to provide feedback on the Wind-Up Plan to Thursday, April 25 to accommodate this new direction. Feedback will be accepted through the online survey or via email to consultations@rpra.ca.