Two Founders of Waste Management Companies on Top 10 List of Canadian Cleantech Entrepreneurs

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Luna Yu converts waste into game-changing products

According to Second Harvest, a staggering 58 percent of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted, representing 56.6 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions. Luna Yu founded her cleantech company to do something about it. Started at the University of Toronto and accelerated by the Women in Cleantech Challenge, Yu’s Genecis converts food waste into biodegradable plastics and other materials. The startup uses bacteria to break down food waste into short-chain carbons, and then another type of bacteria to eat those carbons and convert them into a polymer called PHA. Unlike other types of compostable goods (like oil-based plastic cups), Genecis’s products can be composted within a month, and degrade within a year should they end up in the ocean.

What’s next: Recently crowned the Extreme Tech Challenge’s global winner in the Cleantech and Energy Category, Genecis is scaling up by courting new clients looking to replace existing product lines. “We used the lockdown as an opportunity to reflect on what matters most and empathize with customers,” says Yu. “I’m really proud of how our team excelled in this period of change.”

Brandon Moffatt transforms trash into energy

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has been taken quite literally by London, Ont.–based StormFisher. Started in 2006 by three founders — Brandon Moffatt, Chris Guillon and Pearce Fallis — StormFisher’s biogas facility now converts more than 100,000 tonnes of organic waste each year into renewable energy, organic fertilizers and feedstock. With a focus on sustainable organics and power-to-gas projects, the company has started on several large-scale developments in Canada and the U.S. They use surplus renewable electricity at off-peak hours and produce low-carbon fuels for natural gas utilities and large corporations that are seeking to lower their carbon intensities or are in pursuit of carbon neutrality.

What’s next: “We are focused on the development of low-carbon energy infrastructure to produce various forms of renewable natural gas,” says Moffatt. StormFisher was also recently awarded a contract for a new green bin program in Stratford in which the organic waste will be used to create renewable gas at their facility.

Ontario: New E-Waste Stewardship Regulations

The Government of Ontario recently released final electronic stewardship regulations for the province. (The Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE) Regulation under the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, 2016, was filed on September 21, 2020.

As a next step, The Ontario Government is making EEE producers fully responsible for managing their products by transitioning the existing Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) program to Ontario Regulation 522/20.

This transition will put in place a new framework that:

  • makes individual EEE producers responsible for the collection and end-of-life management of EEE they supply into Ontario
  • will give EEE producers more control over how they safely manage their EEE and improve environmental outcomes

New requirements for EEE

The EEE regulation requires producers of information technology, telecommunications and audio visual (ITTAV) equipment and lighting to:

  • establish free collection networks for consumers
  • achieve management requirements through reduction, reuse and/or recycling activities
  • provide promotion and education materials until the end of 2022 for ITTAV and the end of 2024 for lighting to increase consumer awareness
  • register, report, keep records, and undertake audits related to management activities

Producers of ITTAV equipment are required to register by November 30, 2020 and their collection and management obligations will begin on January 1, 2021. For lighting, producers are required to register by November 30, 2022 and begin their collection and management obligations on January 1, 2023.

Similar to the batteries regulation, the EEE regulation makes individual producers legally responsible for meeting the requirements. However, to facilitate an efficient delivery model and allow for economies of scale, producers would have the flexibility to meet their obligations individually, or collaboratively with other producers, by retaining service providers.

Most service providers (e.g. producer responsibility organizations, haulers, processors and specified refurbishers) will be required to register, report and keep records. Collectors are only required to keep records.

CCME Contract Opportunity for Waste Consultants

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) is now accepting proposals for the following contract opportunity: Project 651-2021 – Guidance on Recyclability, Labelling and Terms. Proposals will be accepted until October 30, 2020, 12:00 noon CDT.

Ministers approved the Canada-wide Action Plan on Zero Plastic in 2019 (phase 1 action plan) and 2020 (phase 2 action plan). Together the two phases contain concrete actions to implement the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste that ministers approved in principle in 2018. Two of these actions inform the Statement of Work of this request for proposals.

To address these two actions, CCME’s Waste Reduction and Recovery Committee (WRRC) Recyclability and Labelling Project Team seeks to develop guidance and reference materials to:

  • support sustainable designed plastic products and alternatives
  • improve understanding of product labels and terms that inform design, purchasing and end-of- life management of plastic products and
  • support actions by FPT jurisdictions, municipalities, industry (e.g., brand owners, producers, retailers, etc.), institutions, waste managers and the public to improve the consumption, recyclability and end of life management of plastic products in

The CCME is seeking a contractor that will do the following:

  • build on and refine a previously drafted reference compendium of existing guidelines for recyclability and
  • develop guidance on the use of labels and terms such as recyclable, compostable and biodegradable to facilitate common understanding and better inform purchasing, recycling or disposing of plastic products, including compostable plastic,

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) is the primary minister-led intergovernmental forum for collective action on environmental issues of national and international concern. The 14 member governments work as partners in developing consistent environmental standards and practices.

For me information, visit the CCME website.

Scientists develop enzyme capable of breaking down plastic waste in record time

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Researchers from the University of Portsmouth recently published their work on an re-engineered, plastic-eating enzyme capable of digesting plastic six times faster than previous attempts.  The work, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, describes how they created an enzyme cocktail from waste-dwelling bacterium that derive their energy from digesting plastic bottles.

Previous Discovery

The cocktail consists of two separate enzymes from bacteria found in trash.  The first enzyme, PETase had already been discovered.  PETase breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) back into its building blocks, creating an opportunity to recycle plastic infinitely and reduce plastic pollution and the greenhouse gases driving climate change.

PET is the most common thermoplastic, used to make single-use drinks bottles, clothing and carpets and it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment, but PETase can shorten this time to days.

The initial discovery set up the prospect of a revolution in plastic recycling, creating a potential low-energy solution to tackle plastic waste. The team engineered the natural PETase enzyme in the laboratory to be around 20 percent faster at breaking down PET.

Latest Discovery

Now, the same trans-Atlantic team have combined PETase and its ‘partner’, a second enzyme called MHETase, to generate much bigger improvements: simply mixing PETase with MHETase doubled the speed of PET breakdown, and engineering a connection between the two enzymes to create a ‘super-enzyme’, increased this activity by a further three times.

The team was co-led by the scientists who engineered PETase, Professor John McGeehan, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth, and Dr Gregg Beckham, Senior Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US.

PETase and the new combined MHETase-PETase both work by digesting PET plastic, returning it to its original building blocks. This allows for plastics to be made and reused endlessly, reducing our reliance on fossil resources such as oil and gas.

 

When Theory Meets Practice: Lessons from Decades of Packaging EPR Experiences in Europe

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Written by the Continuous Improvement Fund

Ontario is undertaking a transition to full extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging and paper products under the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act (the “RRCEA”). At their core, EPR policies seek to ensure that the pricing of products incorporates their social and environmental life-cycle costs, including end-of-life treatment and disposal. When products accurately incorporate such costs, industry is incentivized to design them in a way that considers their end-of-life environmental effects.

Decades of experience with mature packaging EPR systems in Europe, however, have not brought all the results that EPR intended to bring about. As Ontario undertakes its transition to full EPR under the RRCEA, there are lessons to be learned from Europe’s experiences with EPR.

European Packaging EPR Lessons on the Ground

In the European Union (EU), the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive 94/62/EC (the “PPWD” or the “Directive”) creates the framework for implementing EPR programs in EU Member States. The Directive aims to reduce packaging and sets collection and recycling targets for packaging waste. The Essential Requirements provisions laid out in the PPWD provide criteria for packaging, such as weight and volume minimization requirements, hazardous substances levels and packaging reuse and recovery. It is notable, however, that while the Essential Requirements define the results to be attained, they do not specify or predict technical solutions, giving manufacturers the flexibility to meet the requirements of the Directive.

The PPWD has resulted in certain successes including an impressive increase in recycling rates for all Member States. By 2017, Member States achieved an average 42% recycling rate for plastics, well above the Directive’s requested 22.5%. There have likewise been improvements in individual packaging weight. On the other hand, the Directive has also had its shortcomings.

Vague definitions leave too much room for interpretation

Despite decades of packaging EPR in Member States, the European packaging market demonstrates a trend towards difficult-to-recycle packaging such as flexible multilayer composite packaging. Some trace this trend to a deficiency in the Essential Requirements in requiring design changes for re-use and recyclability and on definitions that leave too much room for interpretation, such as what qualifies as recyclable. Many producers have, as a result, tended to light-weight their packaging at the expense of its recyclability. At the same time, the amount of packaging waste generated in Europe continues to grow reflecting growth of global population and demand.

Enforcement left to Member States with varying resources

The vague and general formulations of the Essential Requirements also create enforcement challenges for Member States. Member States are responsible for reaching the national targets and ensuring good enforcement of the legislation. Authorities in Member States have expressed frustrations with judging which packaging is noncompliant with the Directive’s requirements. The Directive’s formulations are insufficient to enable a clear assessment of violations.

Many Member States do not have formal procedures in place to enforce or implement the requirements of the PPWD. Authorities also cite other priorities such as issues with food safety, or a lack of staff and finances. The few countries that have implemented measures and enforcement procedures for the requirements, including France and the UK, have delayed setting up systems to assess the effectiveness of their enforcement mechanisms.

Municipal costs are not fully covered

It should be noted that, despite producer responsibility for packaging waste, European municipalities generally remain in charge of waste management programs. Yet financial transfers from producers may not be covering the full amount of municipalities’ costs. A study of the cost coverage of packaging EPR programs in a number of European countries found that these programs failed to account for the full costs of the waste management of packaging. When excluding avoided costs (i.e., collection, landfilling, incineration, etc.) and subsidies (i.e., public grants), only 68% of the costs of packaging waste management in Portugal and 56% in France were being supported by industry in 2010. It bears mentioning that industry in France is obligated to cover 80% of local authorities’ “efficient costs” of collection and sorting.

Another study observed that producers’ motivation to improve waste management has also largely depended on the type of collection and management contracts that they establish with municipalities or on their dialogue with municipalities. Producers can tie their financial contributions to the municipalities’ collection or recycling rates, the quality of their collection or recycling, or on meeting requirements on the type of collection and treatment schemes to be implemented. When it comes to the fulsome reimbursement of municipal costs, the choice seems to be with Member States to determine what percentage of local authorities’ costs should be covered by packaging EPR. New amendments to European EPR laws, however, will ensure that industry will have to cover the full “necessary costs” of EPR schemes. Member States that wish to deviate from this requirement will have to justify their choices.

Europe Takes Action

In 2018, the EU reformed EPR rules in the context of its first Circular Economy Action Plan to require higher overall recycling targets for packaging (65% in 2025 and 70% in 2030) and higher material-specific targets (including 55% for plastics by 2030). At the same time, it moved the calculation of recycling targets based on the weight of municipal waste that enters recycling, removing any losses of materials due to sorting or other preliminary operations. The Directive now also requires Member States to establish “adequate” monitoring and enforcement frameworks to ensure that those responsible under the EPR framework carry out their obligations, use financial means properly and report reliable data.

As of June 11, 2020, the European Commission also published its plan for revising the requirements of the PPWD. The proposed changes will address the limited competitiveness of recycled materials relative to virgin feedstock, which is now even more inexpensive given the oil industry crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes will also address the rise in public consumption of packaging driven by a shift from reusable to single-use disposable packaging, growing online sales and the over-packaging for goods.

The Commission has not been clear on whether the targets and measures under these upcoming changes will be general or set at the level of specific material or packaging formats, or whether they’ll be mandatory in nature. It is expected, however, that current and seemingly unenforceable definitions of terms such as “recyclable” or “reusable” will likely be updated.

Despite action at the EU-level, Member States appear to be lagging in their implementation of the 2018 update to the PPWD. Most missed the deadline to implement this Directive by mid-2020, some citing delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, recycling markets were particularly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis brought about safety concerns, employee shortages, manufacturing slow-downs and a historic drop to oil prices making virgin plastics much cheaper than recycled resin. European recyclers are encouraged by Europe’s recent focus on improving access to recycled resin as part of the EU’s Green Deal set of programs. However, they urge concrete actions such as mandatory recycled content rules in key products to ensure steady increases in the demand for recyclates.

Conclusion

It is unclear how many of these lessons will be implemented in the new printed paper and packaging regulation under Ontario’s RRCEA. Europe’s experiences demonstrate, however, the necessity of clear definitions, specific requirements for design changes for re-use and recyclability, adequate coverage of local authorities’ costs, and the allocation of resources to the oversight and enforcement of EPR programs. These practices help EPR programs better achieve their intended aims of ensuring that industry internalizes the life-cycle costs of their products and is incentivized to design products to account for their end-of-life environmental effects.

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This article was first posted by the Continuous Improvement Fund. The Continuous Improvement Fund (CIF) is a partnership between the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the City of TorontoStewardship Ontario (SO) and the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (formerly Waste Diversion Ontario – WDO). The CIF’s mandate is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of Ontario’s municipal blue box Programs.

Study on EPR’s effect on packaging prices: What you can and can’t do with data

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

I’m actually really glad that Jodi Tomchyshyn London found and shared the following study by RRS: Impact of EPR for PPP on Price of Consumer Packaged Goods.

In short, after undertaking a fairly comprehensive examination of jurisdictions across Canada (both with and without EPR legislation), the study concluded that EPR policy has no affect on packaging prices.

The University had an opportunity to review this study as part of some technical advice that we were providing to the state of Oregon (specifically surrounding the impacts of EPR). The RRS study directly contravened our own findings, and as a result, we wanted to better understand why.

I want to preface this by saying that the intent of this post is not to criticize or undermine the work that RRS has done. It was well researched, and I applaud them for wading into such a messy and controversial topic and attempting to provide some clarity. However, the point I do want to make in this post is helping stakeholders understand what they can and cannot do with data. Jodi had made a really good point about understanding the context surrounding data – we need to understand how that information was collected, analyzed, interpreted and presented. I couldn’t agree more…. which is why I sometimes cringe when I see the conclusions that people arrive at, due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what you can do with data.

Going back to the RRS study, regardless of how you feel about EPR and its potential impacts, it is critical that stakeholders understand that the RRS study has some methodological deficiencies, and as a result, leads to erroneous conclusions that cannot be supported by the data. This isn’t a question of opinion – given the way the study was designed, it is not possible for RRS to make any statements regarding the effect of EPR policy on packaging prices. Comparing costs across jurisdictions (even for like products and retailers) is not likely to yield any meaningful inferences with respect to the impact of EPR policies. There are literally hundreds of variables that affect the price of goods across localities (even for the same product and retailer). Demographics, infrastructure, relative purchasing power, proximity to markets, density of competing retailers etc. all effect price. In order for RRS to make the statements they did, they would have to control for all of these factors using statistical techniques such as multivariate regression to specifically isolate the effects of EPR on packaging prices. Given that many of these explanatory variables are collinear, they would also need establish controls for interdependency among explanatory variables.

While the above description may be a tad technical, the best way to look at it is that we are trying to compare identical systems, where the only variable being changed is the presence or absence of EPR programs. All other variables that can potentially impact a product’s price need to be controlled for. As far as I can tell, RRS made no attempts to control for interdependent variables and arrived at a conclusion that cannot be substantiated empirically. The only observation that can be made is that product prices differ from province to province, but provides no insight as to why they differ.

Given that my perspective may be seen as biased given that the university developed an alternative model, I would *strongly* encourage you to have a third party expert with a background in statistics and study design to review the RRS methodology. I am absolutely positive that they would reach an identical conclusion.

This is what is so potentially dangerous about attempting to interpret data without having a sound knowledge of how that data was collected and what you can do with it. In my career, I have countless anecdotes of stakeholders from all walks of life who draw the wrong conclusions, imply causality or infer relationships that simply aren’t there. When a misinterpretation of data leads to policy and legislation, the results can be catastrophic.

In the very first presentation I ever gave on the Waste Wiki, one of the slides says “Data without consideration of context or design does not tell us very much”. That message rings true more than ever today.

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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.

Zero Waste High-Rise Project Starts in Toronto

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The Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) has been working with high-rise buildings to reduce waste, increase recycling, and increase composting. Buildings have cut their waste, created stronger communities, improved their buildings, and saved money.

TEA has studied how leading buildings achieved their results and helped other buildings learn from their success. Now, TEA want to share what we’ve learned with high-rise residents and staff, to help more Toronto high-rises become zero-waste buildings.

The Zero Waste High-Rise Project was launched and consists of a new step-by-step online program that will allow residents or staff to start the process of reducing waste in their building.

Participants can move through the pathway at their own pace: 

  • Complete forms to assess how well your building is doing, identify opportunities to take action.
  • Access resources and tips from TEA on actions you can take.
  • Participate in virtual events and meetings to learn from other high-rise leaders across the city.

There are 4 stages in the Zero Waste High Rise Project pathway:

  1. Stage 1 – Introduction
  2. Stage 2 – Finding Opportunities
  3. Stage 3 – Planning and Taking Action
  4. Stage 4 – Measuring & Celebrating Change

Each stage is paired with forms and activities, success stories, resources and virtual peer-learning events to help you succeed at each stage in the process.

Who can get involved? 

Anyone who lives or works in a high-rise building and wants to learn more is welcome to sign up! You’ll receive resources and invitations to online events.

In September, up to 10 condos and co-op buildings were selected to receive enhanced support, including facilitated meetings and coaching from TEA staff and our research partners.

What is the cost?

This project is no cost for users and is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, an agency of the Government of Ontario. The project also receives research support from researchers at the University of Toronto and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Here are 2 ways to get started: 

1. Sign up for the online program with your name and email address. Sign up here

2. Register for an upcoming information session. Find a list of upcoming sessions here

This project is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, an agency of the Government of Ontario, and receives research support from the University of Toronto, with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

 

How Neighbourhood Food Environments and a Pay-as-You-Throw (PAYT) Waste Program Impact Household Food Waste Disposal

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Researchers from three Canadian universities recently published the results of a study on how pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) waste programs impact household food waste disposal.  The purpose of the study was to gain a better understanding of current household food waste disposal in order to develop and implement more effective interventions to reduce the wasting of food.

The collaborative study from researchers working at Western University (London, Ontario), Simon Fraser University (British Columbia) and the University of Toronto conducted a four season waste characterization study of 200 single-family households across eight neighbourhoods in Toronto.

The City of Toronto provides residents with a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) waste program that includes a choice of four garbage cart sizes ranging from small,  medium, large, and extra large.  Annual user fees range from $18 (small cart) to $411 (extra large cart).  Each household also gets a green cart for organic waste and a blue cart for recycling at no annual cost.

The results of the research show that, on average, each household disposed 4.22 kg/week of total food waste, 69.90% of which was disposed in the green cart, and disposal increased significantly (p = 0.03) by garbage cart size to L but not XL garbage carts. Of this total, 61.78% consisted of avoidable food waste, annually valued at $630.00–$847.00 CAD/household.

Toronto’s PAYT waste program has been effective at diverting food waste into the green cart but not at reducing its generation. Higher median incomes were positively correlated, while higher neighbourhood dwelling and population density were negatively correlated, with total and avoidable food waste disposal. Regression analyses explained 40–67% of the variance in total avoidable food waste disposal.

Higher supermarket density and distance to healthier food outlets were associated with more, while dwelling density was related to less, total and avoidable food waste disposal.

Distance to fast food restaurants and less healthy food outlet density were both negatively associated with avoidable food waste disposal in the garbage and green cart, respectively. Avoidable food waste reduction interventions could include increasing garbage cart fees, weight-based PAYT, or messaging to households on the monetary value of avoidable food waste, and working with food retailers to improve how households shop for their food.

The researchers conclude that the data from the stud can be used to help formulate avoidable food waste reduction interventions. In terms of the PAYT waste program, this could be accomplished by re-visiting and potentially increasing garbage cart fees. Alternately, PAYT could be switched to a weight-based approach which has been shown to be more effective at source reduction of waste.

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink: Re-defining our goals for a waste management system

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Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

For the first time in my career, issues surrounding waste management have now become part of mainstream discussion. Whether it be my neighbors asking me “Can this really be recycled?” to growing concerns surrounding single use plastics, people (both the public and policy makers alike), care now more than ever regarding what is happening to our waste. We as Canadians recognize that issues surrounding waste require our immediate attention, and that our waste disposal behavior (both good and bad) can have significant impacts on the sustainability of our environment.

So with this in mind, I thought it would be prudent to revisit the topic of “What is the goal of our waste management system?” While this is a topic I have written about several times in the past, proposed legislative changes – not only to Ontario’s Blue Box program, but waste management legislation across North America, makes it a timely topic for discussion. Now, more than ever, we need to clearly define what our goals are, and whether our existing approaches are helping move us towards achieving those goals.

So, what is the goal of a waste management system? This seemingly simple question is actually surprisingly difficult to answer, as it depends on who you ask and what is being prioritized. While we may here terms like “Circular Economy” and “Zero waste” banded about, what do they actually mean? Are they intended to be aspirational or achievable goals? What is the time frame and the boundaries we use to define a circular system, and what do we choose to prioritize when different stakeholders have competing objectives? I am reluctant to answer these questions, as I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer other than – “it depends”: On who you ask, what you ask and why you ask. With that in mind, before proceeding with our discussion, I want to remind everyone about the three pillars of sustainability: A sustainable system must consider economic, environmental and social dimensions. By definition, we cannot consider a system sustainable if it does not address these three components. This is a critical consideration when deciding what a goal of a waste management system could (or should) be.

Ontario (and Canada) has a recycling problem

Historically, the emphasis of waste management has been on residential recycling. The Blue Box, a ubiquitous symbol of recycling that has been a fixture in our homes for the better part of four decades in Ontario. In fact, my very first memory as a budding environmentalist was washing out peanut butter jars before putting it in the recycling (less to do with concerns surrounding contamination, and more to do with a fear of attracting insects). For many Ontarians, the Blue Box is symbolic of recycling and sustainability, and it is something that we have been extraordinarily good at – which as it turns out, is actually a really bad thing.

During the summer of 2019, York University conducted a study to gauge what the public thought about various waste management initiatives. Participants were asked to rank, from best to worse, which end of life scenario resulted in the greatest environmental impact (shown in figure 1)

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From the above graph, recycling was seen as the most environmentally preferred option, with reuse second and waste reduction a very distant fourth place. Why does this matter? Because reduce, reuse, recycle isn’t just a catchy phrase – it is the order in which we are supposed to things. Recycling is our third most preferred option.

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Canada has become a victim of its own success – both households and policy makers now conflate recycling with sustainability. If it can’t be recycled, it is characterized as being “bad”. The “waste” problem is often framed as “We aren’t recycling enough”. Just last year, Deloitte made international headlines when they published a report indicating that Canada was only recycling 9% of its plastics. The response from the public was almost visceral – Households and government demanded change, with consumers even going so far as to say that they would be less likely to buy a product if it could not be recycled at the end of its life. Canadians are voting with their dollars and the message is loud and clear “We want recyclable products”.

While the sentiment and intent is in the right place, the approach is not. Not only is recycling not the most preferred outcome, it can actually have adverse economic, environmental and social impacts. Contrary to intuition – not everything that can be recycled, should be recycled. The decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is actually what is compromising the long term sustainability of the system.

Why the next diverted tonne will not (and should not) come from the Blue Box

As noted earlier, the residential recycling system (for printed paper and packaging) has been enormously successful, so much so that policy makers continue to put all of their eggs in one basket, and attempt to drive future diversion from this waste stream. The proposed Blue Box transition in Ontario, which shifts 100% of the physical/financial responsibility of managing the system on to producers, continues to emphasize and prioritize recycling based outcomes. Why this is problematic is threefold:

1)     We are already doing a great job of capturing the “low hanging fruit”. Recycling rates for core Blue Box materials (newsprint/OBB/OCC etc.) are already well in excess of 80%, and future increases in diversion are not likely to come from these materials

2)     The overall packaging mix is increasingly being made up of composite and light-weight materials that are extremely difficult to recycle given existing technology, infrastructure and end markets. If future increases in diversion come from these materials, the cost of recycling is potentially prohibitive.

3)     The environmental benefits associated with recycling many light weight and composite materials are negligible given existing processing technology.

In short, not all recycling is created equal. Figure 3 below summarizes the amount of money you would have to spend on recycling a given material, to abate one tonne of carbon ($/TCO2e).

Figure 3: 

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Using the above example, you would have to spend almost $1500 on recycling to abate one tonne of carbon from plastic film, and only $65 on recycling newsprint to achieve the same result. Let that sink in for a moment – Film is 23 times more expensive than newsprint from a carbon to recycling expenditure ratio.

To further drive home this point, please refer to Figure 4 below:

Figure 4

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Figure 4 shows the change in net system costs that results in a 1% change in the recycling rate, on a material by material basis.

If we wanted to increase the overall recycling rate of the Blue Box program by 1%, and we had to achieve it by increasing recycling of plastic laminates, overall system costs would increase by more than 14%.

Why this matters is that (as noted earlier), future increases in recycling rates are not going to come from core Blue Box materials. As a result of the changing nature of packaging over time (also referred to as the evolving tonne), increasing the Blue Box recycling rate will involve trying to collect and recycle materials such as composite and light weight plastics. To increase Ontario’s Blue Box recycling rate to 70% by recycling composite/light weight plastics (which is about 6% higher than our current recycling rate), we would have to spend in excess of $70 million dollars – and that is assuming that we have capacity within the existing system and end markets to accommodate increased recovery.

This is both prohibitively expensive, and has questionable environmental benefits. Once again, we are forced to ask ourselves, what is the goal of our waste management system? Increasingly, that answer is not going to be about increasing recycling rates, particularly for printed paper and packaging.

This begs two questions: 1) If the next diverted tonne shouldn’t come from the Blue Box, where should it come from? And 2)  If light weight and composite packaging is so terrible, why do we continue to use it?

As for where our next diverted tonne will come from, please refer to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/where-our-next-diverted-tonne-come-from-diversion-calvin-lakhan-ph-d/

The second question is a bit trickier, as there is a subjective element to how you choose to evaluate the merits of a particular packaging type. Why a producer makes the packaging decisions they do is largely a function of economics and safety – some factors include: Does the packaging I use make it safe to transport materials, protect the product, avoid spoilage or contamination, increase shelf life, increase the number of units I can place on the shelf/in the store, allow for easy brand recognition etc.

The increased adoption of light weight packaging can be attributed to the benefits of durability, transport and ease of consumption, while also allowing for a reduction in overall packaging used. Interestingly, when taking a life cycle approach, the environmental impact of light weight and composite packaging can actually result in superior environmental outcomes when compared to conventional packaging. This may seem counter intuitive, given the relatively low recyclability of these materials, but upstream benefits (packaging reduction, logistical efficiencies when transporting materials, avoided food waste/spoilage, discretionary consumption etc.), actually outweigh whatever you lose from not recycling that material.

All things being equal, the recyclability of a package his historically ranked as a relatively low priority for producers.

In a 2017 study conducted by the university examining the relationship between packaging fee rates, and packaging recycling performance, there was no statistically significant correlation between the two. Even for products such as paper laminates and plastic film, where the corresponding fee was significantly higher than all other materials, recycling rates remained largely unchanged, or did so in response to broader macro market conditions. The price signal sent by the fee, was insufficient to change packaging choices.

With that being said, the optics surrounding whether a package can be recycled (and more broadly, diverted) has now become a key issue for producers, and increasingly, you are seeing brand owners talk about solutions for how to recycle their products. The rise in prominence of organizations such as Terracycle speak to just how important “recyclability” has become for consumers. We have spent the better part of 40 years inundating the public with the message “recycling is good for the environment” and attempting to change that narrative is extraordinarily difficult. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the government is continuing to develop policy that prioritizes recycling as a preferred end of life option. Between consumer demand and government legislation, producers face the daunting task of trying to recycle the unrecyclable, and in doing so, incurring a bill that is experiencing double digit percentage increases in recycling system costs year over year.

The importance of a socially sustainable waste management system

Historically, waste management (at least in a Canadian context), has not been seen through the lens of social sustainability – somewhat of a surprise, given how socio-economic inequality manifests itself in the form of impeded access, awareness and exposure to waste. Much of the existing academic research on environmental justice has been on the unequal distribution of environmental hazards and benefits along racialized lines, where there are consistent indications that waste facilities and waste related hazards are disproportionally located in lower income areas (or those predominated by minorities).

In all fairness, the connection between waste management and socio-economic inequality is not something that is top of mind for most policy makers. Generally speaking, there is an idea that a municipality will provide waste management services to a particular area, support that initiative through a combination of promotion and education efforts, and hope for sustained public participation. However, the costs of service delivery, the means and mediums of engagement, service accessibility and affordability vary widely, even within the same city.

Economic Exclusion

Taking a step back for a moment, I want to share with you three brief anecdotes that capture how seemingly oblivious our waste management system is with respect to social sustainability. These are actual conversations I have had with people in my day to day life

1)     “Consumers should purchase fewer packaged goods and opt for things like fresh produce instead of getting something shipped to us from half way across the world”.

2)     “We don’t need to use plastic film anymore, consumers can go out and buy reusable beeswax clingwrap”

3)     “Packaging programs focused on reuse (Loop) are going to be revolutionary and cut back on the amount of packaging waste we generate”

All of these are valid observations… but not necessarily ones that are realistic for many households. What people can and choose to purchase is largely a function of economics –those of us that have the luxury of being conscientious consumers, can shop locally and avoid pre-packaged goods. However, it is important to recognize that the ability to do so is a luxury – in a focus group conducted of more than 1800 consumers in the Greater Toronto earlier this year, more than 80% of respondents indicated that price was the primary determinant for making a purchase. If possible, respondents indicated that they would like to make more sustainable purchases, but budgetary restraints largely impeded them from doing so.

More than 60% of respondents also indicated that they did not have the ability to travel outside of a 5km range to make daily purchases, and often shopped at specific retailers because of a mix of multiple factors such as: convenience, price, familiarity and purchasing agglomeration (one stop shopping). In a 2019 analysis of consumer purchasing preferences in the Greater Toronto Area, households characterized as “low income” (household income less than $40,000 per year) consumed 18.4% more pre-packaged goods (namely grains, produce and frozen meats), when compared to families whose household income exceeded $100,000 a year. There is an inverse, statistically significant correlation between household income and % of prepackaged foodstuff of overall weekly purchases.

The expectation that households have the ability to readily switch between products based on packaging type doesn’t appear to be a realistic one. People might like the idea of Loop or beeswax and want to engage in more sustainable consumption, but at present, they are priced out of “taking part”.

A perhaps more insidious impact on consumers is the potential impacts to their cost of living attributable to increases in recycling system costs. As noted above, the costs of operating our recycling system are rapidly increasing, and these costs are ultimately born by consumers. In both late 2019 and early 2020, York University conducted research to better understand the link between an increase in basket of goods costs and increases in the steward obligation. While I have received many critiques and questions pertaining to how prices for packaged goods change in response to changes in the steward obligation (see post script for explanation), our research showed that consumer basket of goods prices increased by 6-12% (depending on locality). The economic and social impacts of this are potentially enormous, as lower income families are disproportionately affected by increases in packaging costs. As stated earlier, they purchase more prepackaged goods as a proportion of their overall purchases when compared to high income families.

While the ultimate intent of producer responsibility is to have the generator bare the financial costs of end of life management, the magnitude of those impacts is relative to the consumer’s ability to absorb them. As such, when we ask ourselves “What should the goal of a waste management system be?”, it is imperative that we also give thought to “How do we account of social sustainability?”. A focus on recycling/diversion based outcomes paints an incomplete picture of a much more complex and nuanced problem. What good is a circular economy if not everyone can participate or benefit from it?

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink

I will go on record and say that I think if we pursue an approach premised on prioritizing recycling above all else, it will be destined for failure. Shifting financial responsibility onto producers will not magically fix what is broken, and I think it naive to assume the financial incentive will result in fundamental shifts in producer behavior.

To echo a position I have shared in the past, the province needs to embrace a “macro approach” when it comes to sustainable materials management – Viewing end of life waste management as separate from other stages of a products life cycle is too myopic in scope.

Past emphasis on recycling rates and the recyclability of materials is no longer compatible with the changing nature of packaging. Recycling should not be the main objective, but rather, emphasis should be placed on promoting sustainable outcomes.

If a particular packaging type cannot be readily recycled, but abates more carbon at a lower cost (i.e. avoided food waste), should that be discouraged? Will forcing producers to pay 100% of the cost of recycling light weight plastics result in technological innovation and new end use applications? Or will it result in a bill in the hundreds of millions for Ontarians?

At present, the way waste management systems and legislation are designed is “siloed” – Blue Box is a distinct entity from the Green Bin, which is a distinct entity from waste electronics etc. While this may be a necessity from an operational perspective, it is imperative to take a step back and look at the entire waste management system. There is an opportunity cost to whatever decision we make – a dollar spent on one end of life management option is a dollar not spent on another. As such, our priorities should be designed to reflect what we want to achieve in waste management as a whole. Policies and legislation need to enable the province to work towards that goal in an economic, environmental and socially sustainable way. Measuring success in terms of diversion or recycling rates is no longer good enough.

APPENDIX (Calculating increases in consumer basket of goods)

As an example, the proposed increase in the steward obligation in Ontario resulting from the transition to full producer responsibility is $135 million dollars (this is a known number). The university’s methodology uses a six step process:

1) Quantify the potential reduction in the municipal tax base resulting from the transfer of recycling and landfilling costs onto producers (if any)

2) Determine how producers respond to the increased obligation. We operate under the assumption that stewards are not going to internalize any of this $135 million dollars, and that it it will either manifest itself in one of two ways a) costs are transferred to consumers (both directly via the fee allocation model and indirectly via increased pricing, b) contraction of the company resulting in job losses etc. (a less likely scenario, but one that does have a precedent – most of our modeling assuming consumers absorb this cost).

3) Examine the existing basket of good costs across localities (basket of goods costs vary significantly depending on whether it is rural/northern community, urban areas etc.) – part of this analysis is to also to determine the relative price elasticity of the consumer good basket within those communities. We calculate relative price elasticities for a range of consumer goods and household services using measured data in dozens of cities across Canada. Elasticity is very much a function of locality – price elasticity in Northern Ontario is sometimes 200% greater than in Southern Ontario, i.e. you increase the transportation costs for 4 litres of milk by 50 cents, the corresponding price increase in Red Lake is more than $2.00. This also explains why our modeling shows that the increase in the price of consumer goods resulting from producer responsibility is more acute in certain communities.

4) Using a logit-loglinear regression model, we adapt an input-output table that has been regionalized for the Ontario market (or whatever province we are examining). A log-linear analysis is necessary to specifically isolate what percentage of the $135m increase in the steward obligation specifically manifests itself with respect to price changes in the consumer basket of goods.

5) As noted in step 3, we know that certain communities are much more sensitive to changes in the prices of goods based on their relative elasticity measure. Using the output of Step 4, we then apply how price changes manifest in specific communities across Ontario (or a given province). This is how we develop a range of estimates for potential increases in the consumption basket.

6) Once we have determined the potential change in the consumer goods basket, we then backout potential savings resulting from a potential decrease in the municipal taxbase (if any) to arrive at our final estimates.

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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.

Program Launched to Recycle more plastic from Farms in Canada

Cleanfarms, non-profit environmental stewardship organization, with support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, recently announced a three-year 1.3 million project aimed at recovering and recycling more plastic from Canadian farms.
The innovative multi-year initiative will ramp up this fall.  It will provide more Canadian farmers with opportunities to manage plastic waste in environmentally responsible ways.
The project, funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Strategic Priorities Program (CASPP), has been developed and is being executed by Cleanfarms, the national, non-profit industry stewardship organization that has programs in place across Canada to recover and manage non-organic farm waste, most of it plastic, for recycling or environmentally responsible disposal.
Entitled ‘Building a Zero-Plastic Waste Strategy for Agriculture’, the project has three broad-based objectives:
  • to build consensus on the appropriate management of non-organic agricultural waste;
  • to survey farmers to establish current patterns of disposal before and after pilots and education programs; and
  • to demonstrate best practices in ag waste management through pilot programs conducted throughout Canada.

Canadian agriculture currently uses about 40,000 tonnes of plastics annually in the process of growing crops and raising livestock, most of it in plastic containers, grain bags, twine and bale/silage film. Though plastic is essential throughout the farming industry, managing the end of lifecycle of plastics is a big challenge that requires forward-thinking solutions.

Cleanfarms already operates five permanent programs across Canada, the best known of which collects small plastic containers that are 23 litres and under for recycling. In 2019, farmers returned 5.5 million containers bringing the total number returned since the program began 30 years ago to 131.5 million. The containers are recycled into new agricultural products such as tile drainage pipes.

The CASPP/Cleanfarms project links with a recent initiative undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through Environment and Climate Change Canada to quantify the types and volumes of on-farm plastic wastes and identify recycling facilities for agricultural plastics across Canada.