by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D., Faculty of Environmental StudiesYork University

Note: For those who may not be familiar with the term, the IC&I sector refers to Institutional, Commercial and Industrial waste generators such as factories, hospitals, hotels, manufacturing plants etc. It is estimated that the IC&I sector makes up approximately 3/4th of all waste material generated in Canada

Coming out of the CCME conference last month, stakeholders from across the country are starting to develop coordinated efforts for promoting a plastics circular economy.

As noted during the consultation sessions, there are literally millions of tonnes of plastics going to landfill, and we have reached a crisis point with respect to how we can work towards a zero waste future. There can be no more delay.

However, before these conversations can even begin, let’s start with a simple question? How much plastics waste is being generated in Canada for both the residential and IC&I sector (Institutional, Commercial and Industrial).

Based on the Waste Management Industry Survey and modeling done by Deloitte Canada, it is estimated that approximately 3.8 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually, of which only approximately 12% are diverted. This paints an alarming scenario.

But let’s dig a little bit deeper into how those numbers are estimated, and what data that it is based on. Without going into an excessively long technical explanation, the figures used by both Statistics Canada and Deloitte are modeled estimates. Due to the absence of actual data, stakeholders are required to use data analogs and proxies to provide an “order of magnitude estimate” – this is a perfectly reasonable approach, but it is worth reminding everyone that the data surrounding plastics generation/recovery in the IC&I sector remains extremely poor. There is very little consensus regarding who is generating plastics waste, how much is being generated, and how much is being diverted. The latter is actually an extreme point of contention among IC&I establishments, who claim to divert material using on site material management activities.

While much of the focus surrounding plastics waste has tended to focused on the residential sector, it is estimated that the IC&I sector represents more than 75% of all plastics (and material in general) generated. The reason for this paucity of credible and verifiable data 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 formally tracked – which poses an obvious obstacle to understanding the size/scale of the plastic waste problem. Is the assumption then that most of this material is not being diverted by the IC&I sector?

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 claim to (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.

Understanding what data we have, what can we do with it, and how can it be improved

A critical first step in this process will be deciding what constitutes “Good enough” with respect to the quantity and quality of the data that we will use to inform our decisions. Is it “good enough” to rely on modeled estimates provided by reputable agencies and consultants, or do we need to engage in primary data gathering with both generators and waste service providers (who can provide access to material manifests etc.)?

Access to data (particularly from the IC&I sector), is going to be instrumental with respect to developing effective policy and legislation for a plastics circular economy. However, we must also be weary of “information paralysis”, where a lack of data prevents stakeholders from making any decisions. As a sector, we must recognize these challenges and face them head on, but be prudent with respect to understanding what data we have, where it came from, and what we are able (and willing) to do with it.   

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 .