Written by Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, Co-Investigator: “The Waste Wiki” – Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University
Prior to almost every facet of our world being upended by a terrible and unexpected pandemic, stakeholders were working closer and closer to what some may even call a consensus with respect to waste management. Terms like circular economy and zero waste were not just buzz words, but the cornerstone of emerging waste management policy at both local and federal levels. Both brand owners and municipalities alike scrambled to find ways to transition away from single use packaging, promoting sustainable, recyclable and reusable products to help break our addiction to disposable packaging. Plastics in particular was a term often viewed with derision, with the federal government announcing a Zero Plastic Waste initiative. Several large CPG companies followed suit, making lofty declarations of going “Plastic Free”.
It’s funny just how much can change in a matter of months.
COVID has given the entire industry (and world) a moment to pause and really ask ourselves “What it is that we want to achieve? What are the steps we need to get there? Who are the people/organizations/sectors that need to be involved? and What time frame are we operating under?”
Now some of you may be asking, why on earth would our goals change just because of COVID? Isn’t it best to keep working towards the goals and aspirations that we currently have? In short, the answer (in my opinion) is no.
While I don’t intend to come across as arrogant or some sort of authority on the topic, I have held (and voiced) significant concerns regarding existing approaches towards waste management policy and practices, and attempted to highlight that the goals we actually had were more aspirational than pragmatic.
Consider the following statements (all actual goals)
1) Canada will move to divert at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030 (Canada)
2) Canada will move to ban single use plastics by the year 2021
3) Toronto will divert 95% of all waste by the year 2050
4) The Province of Ontario will divert 30% of all wastes by 2020, 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050
5) The Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s goal is to ensure that 100% of all plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable and compostable (waste to energy DOES NOT count)
All of the above goals represent a tremendous amount of work and thought by individuals and organizations far smarter than me – however, when examining these goals through the lens of a sustainable framework, we see some of the practical challenges that arise, particularly in a post COVID world.
Where is the Data?
To me, the biggest challenge facing our waste management sector is a complete lack of data, most of which is necessary information before we can even begin designing policies and systems that are more sustainable in the long term.
As an example, if Toronto would like to divert 95% of all waste by the year 2050, it would seem prudent that we know just how much waste we are talking about. What so few people understand is that the figures we see regarding waste generation, waste recovery, percentage of material recycled/diverted etc. are largely based on best guess estimates.
Sometime last year, I remember coming across a news headline that boldly stated “Canada is only recycling 9% of its plastics”. The idea that a country as “green” as Canada could be doing such a poor job was almost unfathomable – both the public and policy makers alike demanded to know how we could do better. My response was perhaps more muted, and my first question was “How do we even know how much plastic we are generating the first place?”( ? (Please see my previous article https://advancedwastesolutions.ca/separating-fact-from-fiction-are-we-really-only-recycling-9-of-plastics/))
The picture that was painted for the public was heavily sensationalized – plastics are piling up in our landfills, in our waterways, and now, more than ever, consumers needed to stand up and say “NO MORE!” to single use plastics. It was an easy message to get behind, and suddenly, plastics was public enemy number 1.
Digging a little bit deeper into the issue (and the study behind the headline), it was quick to see that the projections surrounding plastic generation, recovery etc. were all modeled, using a set of heavily caveated assumptions. Without delving into an excessively long technical discussion surrounding how those figures were modeled, in short, I can say with confidence that we do not know how much plastics is being recycled – nobody does.
I don’t think many people, both within and outside the waste sector, truly understand just how little data publicly exists when it comes to waste.
As a thought exercise, which of the following information do you think we have?
1) Total quantities of plastics (or any material) generated and sold into Ontario in the last calendar year (both residential and IC&I)?
2) How many tonnes of potentially recovery materials ending up in landfills?
3) The costs of attempting to recycle material at end life? (if recyclable)
4) What quantities of waste are being self-managed on site for commercial generators which discusses on site material management in greater detail)
5) Estimates to determine long term landfilling capacity for both residential and IC&I sources
6) Detailed and methodologically defensible waste auditing strategies to approximate for the waste generation profiles of individual municipalities (both single family and multi-residential),
7) A detailed overview of waste management infrastructure currently available. This includes the number of material recycling facilities, transfer stations, depots, as well as information regarding the operational capabilities of each of these sties (capacity, throughput etc.)
8) A mass balance of where materials that is recycled, goes (what end market? In what application? Etc.)
9) Credible and publicly accessible data pertaining to the waste generation and recovery from the IC&I sector
10) A common data repository managed by an independent body that is responsible for collecting, maintaining and analyzing data pertinent to the waste management sector that can be used to assist in policy formulation and decision making.
For all intents and purposes, we don’t have any of the above. You would be genuinely shocked just how many stakeholders overestimate how much data we have, or what can be done with it. My professional career is full of anecdotes involving stakeholders who would conduct waste audits with no consideration of sample stratification or how to develop a time series. Perhaps the most egregious example was working on a project that modeled future landfilling requirements and lifespans based on a single (and unrelated) variable. While we could probably spend a very long time debating who’s fault that is, and point fingers at one another, it doesn’t change the fact that the state of data in the waste management sector is poor. In many ways, policy planners have actually done a commendable job in doing what they have been able to given the patchwork of reliable information that exists.
However, if COVID-19 has given all of us a reason to pause, we may as well pause and see whether the data that we have, or have access to, is supportive of our ambitious goals. The lack of “good data” poses numerous challenges, namely, how we do we develop *realistic* goals that we can track, measure and work towards. What is of critical importance is that any discussions surrounding waste management policy and programming *must* be rooted in sound data. This is particularly true of any potential legislation that involves the IC&I sector – we cannot develop a potential solution for encouraging diversion in these sectors, without having a sense of the size and scale of the problem.
Vowing to keep all plastics out of landfills is a commendable goal, but only if we could tell you how much there is to actually keep out.
The importance of goal setting
The discussion surrounding data’s role in helping develop goals is a useful segue into the second part of this paper – the importance of goal setting.
As noted above, goal setting is critical for the success of a waste management program, however, goal setting should ideally address the following characteristics:
1) What is the goal, and what am I measuring?
2) Is my goal realistic given access to existing information, resources and infrastructure?
3) Is there consensus about what the goal should be among stakeholders?
4) If different stakeholders have competing goals/objectives, how do we encourage collaborative dialogue to avoid antagonism?
5) Is there quantifiable metrics to track and measure progress towards my goal?
6) Am I able to change my goal in response in new situations or information?
7) How will I know if I have achieved my goal?
8) How can I monitor the results of my goal over time to ensure continued success?
9) How do set new goals once our initial goal has been reached?
What makes goal setting in waste management particularly problematic (beyond the lack of data), is the lack of consensus regarding what it is we are trying to achieve.
As noted earlier, there was a significant amount of momentum across the sector to work towards a circular economy and achieve zero waste – however, despite this seeming consensus, there are multiple paths to achieving a particular outcome, with very different sets of winners and losers depending on what we choose to prioritize.
To use a practical example, let’s revisit the City of Toronto’s 95% diversion target by the year 2050. In this case, our goal is diversion, and we are measuring % of total waste diverted relative to overall quantities of waste generated. As noted prior, we have acknowledged that there are data concerns regarding credibly quantifying total generation, but let’s set that aside for a moment.
In my opinion, while the 95% diversion target is certainly an ambitious and aspirational goal that we should strive for, it is not something that I would characterize as being readily achievable, for two reasons: 1) Weight based key performance indicators, and 2) The definition of diversion.
1) The foremost issue is that diversion is a weight based KPI, in a world where our packaging and products is becoming increasingly lighter and lighter. This phenomenon, which has been characterized as the evolving tonne by the likes of industry experts @Chaz Miller and @Mariah Kelleher, shows that the proliferation of light weight, composite materials results in materials that are volumous, but not heavy. Compared to the average mix of materials found in the Blue Box a decade ago, current materials are anywhere from 15-25% lighter.
Why this maters is that a diversion target (measured against total waste generation), is inherently going to be handicapped by the fact that the total tonnes being managed in our waste management system is decreasing over time. It is also worth noting that the types of materials that will need to be collected to achieve incremental diversion will be difficult to recycle material. These materials are often incompatible with existing collection and processing infrastructure, with limited end market applications. In short, there is very little economic incentive to recover these materials – the economics of diversion, and more specifically, recycling, is often untenable (to be discussed in greater detail later in this paper)
2) While other jurisdictions (i.e. Belgium) have significantly higher diversion rates for their residential recycling programs, the way we choose to define diversion in Ontario differs. In certain jurisdictions, waste to energy (the 4th R), is considered a viable method of keeping materials out of landfills. However, in Ontario, waste to energy is not considered a viable form of diversion. While this short article is not intended to debate the merits or viability of waste to energy, I do want to highlight that the goals that we set should be consistent with the infrastructure and rules we have in place.
In short, it is impossible for Toronto to reach their goal of 95% diversion without considering some form of energy to waste facility. Even if we assume an idealized scenario where all households put their waste in the appropriate Blue and Green bins, residue losses at sortation facilities often range from 8 – 12%.
Balancing goals with our budgets
Returning to the topic of economics, it is impossible to develop sustainable waste management goals without carefully considering the economic impacts of attempting to realize those goals.
As noted in an earlier section of this paper, some of the goals we have defined for the waste management sector include the recyclability of products/packaging. The Ellen MacArthur foundation has even gone so far as to say that ALL products must be made up of materials that can either be recycled, reused or composted.
While this goal is certainly commendable and something that should be worked towards, it is also not realistic given the practical constraints of existing waste management systems. Even prior to the COVID pandemic, the recycling industry for printed paper and packaging was already on extremely unsteady legs as a result of the Chinese National Sword. These effects were only exacerbated by the impact of COVID, which has essentially pulled the rug out on commodity pricing and adversely impacted the flow of markets. In some instances, virgin resin is cheaper than recycled resin, and is threatening to undo years of progress with respect to increasing recycled content in consumer goods.
What industry will do in response to this crisis remains uncertain – there is no guarantee that recycled markets will recover in the immediate future. Policy planners are now facing the very real choice of continuing to pursue a goal of recyclability/compostability/reusability, despite a rapidly changing landscape that is extraordinarily difficult to predict and plan for. In turn, manufacturers must make design decisions today that will have an impact on their operations for months, if not years to come.
Second chances: Plastics, can we try again?
While COVID has provided the waste sector with an opportunity to pause and evaluate both short and long term priorities, perhaps the most interesting (and unintended) impact is how attitudes towards plastics have shifted. Historically, the characterization of single use plastics is that they are terrible and should be discouraged. However, in a post COVID world, both households and retailers are at a heightened state of anxiety with respect to product safety. Suddenly the individually wrapped cucumber and the plastic bag of apples doesn’t seem quite as silly as before, as it minimizes direct food handling and helps mitigate against the risks of contracting or spreading the virus. Increasingly, both consumers and retailers are looking for opportunities to minimize the risk of contamination (largely through direct handling of a particular item), while simultaneously increasing shelf life, both at the store, and in the home. The use of plastic packaging, particularly plastic film, has been shown to act as a barrier to bacteria and viruses, while also promoting product longevity and avoiding food waste/spoilage.
Plastic has also played a critical role with respect to personal protective equipment. While these items are largely characterized as single use (i.e. plastic gloves), the relative scarcity of PPE relative to the overwhelming demand demonstrates that there are no readily available substitutes that can be used in lieu of plastics. Whether we like to admit it or not, plastics plays a vital role in the war against COVID, and decisions to ban or limit the use of plastics can have detrimental and unanticipated impacts. Very rarely are material bans an effective long term waste management strategy – generally speaking, optimal outcomes are born out of giving manufacturers more options, not less.
What the COVID pandemic has demonstrated is that plastics have a role to play in our economy, but we need to recognize that not all plastics are created equal, and by extension, not all goals are going to apply to everything, everywhere. Perhaps one of the biggest failings of the prior framing of the plastics issue, is that the topic was often characterized in binary terms: Good/Bad, For/Against. No issue, particularly one as nuanced as product design for the environment and end of life, can ever be distilled into a clear black and white answer. The same consumers who were calling for plastic bans are now the same ones clamoring for plastic gloves. Of note, the momentum behind reusable and refillable packaging has also come to a grinding halt as a result of COVID. Many retailers have pressed the pause button on implementing reusable packaging at a wide scale, while many of the mediums in which reusable/refillable containers are encouraged (e.g. using a refillable mug for coffee) have been abandoned temporarily until the pandemic begins to abate. In addition to the normal risks associated with cross contamination when allowing used containers into a retail space, consumers have expressed ambivalence about the risks associated with COVID.
I use this aforementioned example to demonstrate that opinions and attitudes are often malleable, while infrastructure and legislation are not. Responding to changes in consumer sentiment or political will, must be weighed against what can reasonably be achieved given resource and time constraints.
While the COVID crisis will ultimately be seen as a black stain in our history, it does present a unique and fairly rare opportunity to take stock of our waste management system, and decide what should come next. This unprecedented situation highlights that we need to crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run. Setting ambitious goals is definitely something that should be encouraged – however, ambition is not the same as hubris. Without data, stakeholder consensus, jurisdictional harmonization and the ability to monitor, evaluate and re-calibrate our goals, we are setting the sector up for failure. Always keep in mind that the goals of today, are not necessarily the goals of tomorrow – as COVID has demonstrated, life can change when we least expect 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.