Where will our next diverted tonne come from? Diversion with a purpose

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

Provincial diversion rates have largely stalled in the past five years, and in fact, is trending downwards for the first time in more than two decades. The reason for this stagnation is heavily debated – some point to the proliferation of light weight packaging, while others suggest municipal inefficiency and lack of applicable legislation. Whatever the cause, the reality is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to divert “the marginal tonne”- where will our next diverted tonne come from? What will it cost? And what will be the environmental, economic and social benefit?

What makes this issue particularly salient is that municipalities across Canada continue to set lofty diversion targets as a first step towards achieving a circular, zero waste economy.

The next tonne will not come from printed paper and packaging (Blue Box)

While Ontario’s Blue Box program has been an enormous success and should be heralded as a pioneering initiative with respect to recycling and stewardship, it is unlikely that future increases in recycling and diversion rates will come from Blue Box materials.

Much of this can be attributed to the “evolving tonne” of what we find in the Blue Box – increasingly, packaging producers are moving towards light weight, composite plastics, while generation of printed paper has fallen precipitously since the early 2000s. Infrastructure for the recovery of printed paper and packaging was largely designed around “core materials” -newsprint, OCC/OBB, Metals, Glass and PET/HDPE. As a result, municipalities have struggled to adapt to rapid changes in the packaging mix, resulting in rising operational costs and stagnant recycling rates. As shown in Figure 1, net costs for the program have more than doubled in the past 15 years, while recycling rates peaked in 2012, and have trended flat (or downwards) since. 

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To make a long story short – Ontario has essentially maxed out on what we are able to economically recover. Recycling rates for “core materials” are in excess of 90%, and households are already doing a great job of diverting materials that they readily recognize as being recyclable. While it is possible that future increases in diversion may come from composite/light-weight materials, doing so would have an enormous financial impact on the system. At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves, is recycling these materials worth it?

Organics is the next target waste stream

Given that future increases in diversion are unlikely to come from the Blue Box, the next logical choice would be to target the organics stream. While Green Bin programs have been adopted in several municipalities in both Ontario and across Canada, there is a significant opportunity to increase diversion (and achieve waste reduction) through initiatives that keep organics out of landfills (food waste avoidance, source reduction etc.)

Ontario has already signaled their intention to make organics a top priority moving forward, considering options such as an organics landfill ban, and encouraging the development of organics processing infrastructure. However, developing the requisite collection and processing infrastructure to divert organics is a resource and time intensive pursuit. While the organics stream is likely (and should be) where future diversion is likely to come from in Ontario, it is time for the province to think beyond the Blue and Green Box, and examine how to achieve incremental diversion through non-conventional waste streams

Textiles and Furniture – A Missed Opportunity

Textiles

At present, there are no legislative mandate for municipalities to manage textile waste. As a result, most municipalities across both Ontario and Canada do not include textiles as part of their diversion programs, largely due to a lack of both collection and processing infrastructure.

Textile waste is estimated to make up between 5-10% of the overall waste stream, with more than 1 billion pounds of textile waste going to Ontario landfill sites every year. As a result, it seems prudent that municipalities identify ways to divert this material from landfills, as it represents a significant missed opportunity.

Textiles, unlike most other waste streams, are a high value commodity, with numerous organizations from across the for profit/not for profit sector collecting used textiles. Despite the absence of a legislative mandate, service providers compete to collect textiles due to the potential financial incentive. Given that non municipal actors are willing to manage end of life textiles, what role can municipalities play in facilitating this collection in a way that maximizes both environmental and economic outcomes?

Municipal Branding

Unlike other waste streams, convenience is not the most significant predictor of household participation. This finding is atypical to any other waste stream (such as WEEE, or PP&P), as households have a “value attachment” associated with their used clothing. As such, households indicate a very strong preference for ensuring that their donations go to a cause they personally identify with (charitable, social, environmental etc.).

The primary impediment to household participation results from uncertainty surrounding the “outcome” of their donation. This uncertainty is attributed to the presence of charity masqueraders (for profit textile collectors), who deceptively brand themselves in a way to suggest that they are a charity. Many of these organizations lack transparency with respect to the destination of the material, or what is being done with the proceeds from the donation. This confusion is sufficient to deter households from participating in diversion activity. Stated alternatively, households would rather throw their textiles in the garbage, than donate their items to duplicitous textile collectors.

To specifically address this uncertainty, municipalities should designate preferred textile collectors within the community (using municipal branding on bins, or some other form of official recognition). This branding/recognition clearly communicates to residents that “approved collectors” are adhering to best practices in funding transparency, accessibility and service standards. The intent of this municipal vetting process is to reduce consumer uncertainty regarding both the collector of the material, and the destination of the donation.

Environmental Benefits

Given the sheer quantity of textiles that are ending up in landfills, increasing diversion rates will have a significant environmental benefits. The environmental impact from diverting 10,000T of textiles are shown in figure 2 below: 

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Keep in mind that there is an estimated 250,000T of used textiles available for collection each year in Ontario – diverting even a fraction of this material will help both municipalites and the province achieve carbon reduction and diversion goals.

Economic Benefits

The economic impacts of designating preferred collectors transfers all end of life management costs onto the service provider. Municipalities and retailers do not bare any direct costs – in fact, for every tonne diverted, municipalities save money through avoided landfilling and processing costs. The value of textiles as a commodity results in a self-sustaining collection infrastructure that negates the need for cost recovery schemes such as extended producer responsibility (EPR). This helps minimize the administrative burden of developing an EPR program, and allows for an approach that can be readily replicated in jurisdictions across Canada.

Social Benefits

While numerous textile collectors are presently operating in the space – the social impact of used textile collection is unique to an approach that designates charitable/non-profit as a preferred collector.

Organizations such as Diabetes Canada, Salvation Army etc. utilize the proceeds of textile collection to develop and deliver programs that promote health and well-being for Ontarians.

As an example, in 2018, Diabetes Canada generated more than 10 million dollars from used textile collection, with 100% of those proceeds going into diabetes research and other support programs.

Furniture

Much like textiles, there is no prescriptive legislation for how furniture waste should be managed. In most instances, households bare the physical and financial responsibility for transporting furniture waste to landfills, and will often rely on “junk” collectors to provide this service.

While furniture waste generation is highly variable (depending on locality, season etc.), a review of Ontario waste audits suggests that furniture and white good waste makes up approximately 5% of the overall waste stream, representing approximately 125,000 tonnes of material annually.

However, unlike textiles, end of life furniture does not have a value (or at the very least, it is highly dependent on the item, and site/situation specific factors). As such, collectors have to be financially incented, with the generator (in most cases the household) paying to have items removed and sent to landfill.

Municipalities have traditionally played a limited role in managing these items, but what role can a municipality play in not only supporting keeping these items out of landfills, but maximizing social and environmental outcomes as well?

Charitable Initiatives – The Furniture Bank Case Study

Furniture Bank is a Toronto based charity and social enterprise that helps marginalized and at risk families furnish their homes. Furniture bank accepts gently used furniture and other household items, distributing them to families in need.

This initiative helps divert more than 1500 tonnes of material from Toronto landfills annually, but perhaps more importantly, serves more than 10,000 local clients in need on an annual basis.

In strictly economic terms, the City of Toronto benefits through avoided landfill tipping fee costs (as well as collection costs for large, bulky items), while the province benefits through the provision of a social service to marginalized communities (without incurring a direct cost).

Since 2010, furniture bank has diverted almost 10,000T of furniture/household wares from landfills, which has had an enormous environmental impact for Ontario (shown in figure 3): 

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Given that the vast majority of furniture waste (as noted earlier, in excess of 125,000 tonnes) is ending up in our landfills, there is an enormous opportunity not only to increase diversion rates, but achieve a truly sustainable outcome. 

Leveraging organizations such as Furniture Bank (to serve as a used furniture collector) provides a rare opportunity to address all three pillars of a sustainable waste management program. We are able to increase diversion from landfills (environment), while transferring costs away from local government (economic) and simultaneously support social impact initiatives (social).

As noted earlier, research suggests that Ontarians express a strong desire to support social initiatives and charities through waste donations (used textiles, furniture etc.). In a two year study conducted by York University, households were more than twice as likely to donate their used materials to a designated charitable collector. 

Diversion with a purpose

Waste management (at least in a Canadian context) has historically not been seen through the lens of social sustainability. It is largely seen as a service provided by municipalities, to help keep material out of landfills and promote circularity.

However, as we look to increase diversion rates, we have to ask ourselves two questions: 1) Where will the next diverted tonne come from? And 2) What do I want achieve by diverting more material?

As noted earlier, conventional means and mediums of diversion (i.e. Blue Box) have been exhausted – the next diverted tonne is not likely to come from newsprint or cardboard, but from organics, textiles and furniture.

In addition to finding new opportunities to divert material, what are we trying to achieve by doing so? Is it good enough just to keep material out of landfills, or should we seek to identify ways to maximize economic and social outcomes as well?

This article hopes to highlight that it is possible to “divert with a purpose” – municipalities (and the province) can play a critical role in supporting waste collectors that have a mission beyond “managing waste”, and look to improve the lives and well-being of Ontarians.

The opportunity isn’t just about the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material not currently being diverted, but the thousands people that benefit through strategic prioritization of material streams and waste collectors.

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

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