Battery Industries Prepare For Circular Economy

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Written by Jonathan D. Cocker, Partner at Baker McKenzie

With some important recent developments, the battery industries and their resource recovery partners have taken significant steps in preparing for the coming individual producer responsibility (IPR) circular economy laws.

More specifically, Ontario’s Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act will impose regulated IPR obligations upon makers, brand owners and first importers of a range of small and large size batteries as of June 30, 2020.   Clearly, the time for needed industry-wide structural adjustments to meet this challenge is now.

Single-Use Batteries, But What Else?

There has been some shuffling between the batteries and electronics industries as to when and how the two sectors will transition to IPR.  Critics of the transitions have argued that some or all of the battery categories must be regulated under IPR at the same time as e-waste, December 31st, 2020.

The Batteries Regulation, likely due for release in the coming weeks, will hopefully make clear as to which categories of batteries will be caught by this resource recovery law beyond single use batteries – which will necessarily be regulated by June 30th, 2020.  The draft regulation proposed the following battery categories:

  1. Small single use batteries weighing 5 kilograms or less
  2. Small rechargeable batteries weighing 5 kilograms or less
  3. Large batteries weighing more than 5 kilograms.

It may be that some of these categories, or industry-specific battery types within these proposed categories, have staggered compliance dates.  Either way, Ontario’s batteries are joining tires as North America’s first circular economy-regulated materials.

The Case for Some Exclusions

Perhaps the most contentious products potentially caught under the coming Batteries Regulation are lead acid batteries, commonly used in vehicles.  The Canadian Battery Association has long run a voluntary stewardship program in Ontario, as well as some regulated programs in certain other provinces, for the successful recycling of lead acid batteries.

Used Car Batteries

The value of imposing regulated IPR for lead acid batteries in Ontario has been openly questioned by the CBA, which boasts very high new battery recovery rates already.  Its recovery rate includes other types of lead-acid battery applications:  energy storage, motive power as well as batteries for other applications such as boats, skidoos etc that are not legally considered vehicles. The CBA takes the position that all lead-acid batteries within a circular economy should be exempt. Exempting vehicle batteries under IPR, when their tires and waste oils (and perhaps other components) will be governed by the resource recovery regime, does appear to be a challenge.

Further, there remains the thorny issue of how responsibility is allocated between battery and electronic producers for embedded batteries.  The Batteries Regulation will hopefully resolve this.

No Institutional Incumbent

Unlike tires and the coming transition for e-waste (tech and A/V), where the government-designated industry-funded organization has been positioned to transition to becoming the IPR producer responsibility organization (PRO), the private sector response to batteries will be different.

Call2Recycle, traditionally a voluntary market collector of recyclable batteries in Ontario, does have experience operating programs to meet regulated battery recycling obligations (rechargeable and single use) in some other provinces of Canada.

Call2Recycle has signaled its intention to be a registered PRO for certain categories of batteries.  It would appear likely that the largest brand owners will obtain their recovery services through this battery PRO, but producer choices remain to be finalized once the market fully privatizes.

The CBA also has a Memorandum of Understanding with Call2Recycle, which will serve both parties under IPR in Ontario and elsewhere.

RMC – Call2Recycle Partnership Agreement

Most recently, a partnership agreement for the management of end-of-life single use and rechargeable batteries has been entered into between Call2Recycle and Ontario-based Raw Materials Company (RMC).

RMC has been the only in-province recycler of waste-regulated batteries under the current government-directed program and will likely gain opportunities to enhance its competitive position with both Call2Recycle and other battery producer groups, as this resource recovery market developments.

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While there are only slightly more than 6 months for the battery industries to prepare for the circular economy, there are clear signs that anticipatory market adjustments are already happening to meet the coming demands of the Batteries Regulation, just as the legislation had intended.

This article has been republished with the permission of the author. It was first published in the Environmental Law Insights.


About the Author

Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm’s Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations. Mr. Cocker was recently appointed the first Sustainability Officer of the International Bar Association Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on environmental issues and has authored numerous publications including recent publications in the Environment and Climate Change Law Review, Detritus – the Official Journal of the International Waste Working Group, Chemical Watch, Circular Economy: Global Perspectives published by Springer, and in the upcoming Yale University Journal of Industrial Ecology’s special issue on Material Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation. Mr. Cocker maintains a blog focused upon international resource recovery issues at environmentlawinsights.com.

Too Much Waste, Too Little Investment

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Written by Mark Bernstein, Alicia Marseille, and Rajesh Buch, Arizona State University and co-authored by Kimberley Marumahoko, Venkatesh Kini, and Peter Schelstraete, Ubuntoo

Fifty years ago, a US undersecretary of the Interior told a waste management seminar in Houston that “trash is our only growing resource.” Forty-two years and only a little progress later, the Bureau of International Recycling proclaimed, “the end of the waste era.” In her recent book “Waste,” UC Berkeley Professor Kate O’Neill describes waste as a global resource frontier. She suggests that wastes are no longer unwanted, but instead will help fuel a richer and more sustainable future. Despite these proclamations for the past fifty years and the knowledge that there is ‘value’ in what we throw away, we continue to put most if it into landfills, our waterways and our oceans. And micro-plastics now are showing up in the air as well.

By 2050, the world is expected to generate 3.4 billion tons of waste annually, increasing drastically from today’s 2 billion tons. In the US, municipal waste is expected to grow 20% by 2030. Single use plastics and cardboard are driving most of this growth. Some people say it won’t be too long before there are more plastics in the ocean than fish. Just this week, a beached sperm whale was found with a 210-pound ball of waste — predominantly plastics — ingested in its belly, likely the cause for its death.

It is possible we are finally beginning to see an attitude shift. Urban waste management is getting more expensive and taking larger shares of municipal and corporate budgets. Tipping fees in the U.S. are expected to rise 2–3% per year over the next few years with some regions facing 5% a year increases in costs. For the past two decades, recycling has been a viable solution to keeping waste costs in check, but this was driven mostly by cost effective, low cost end markets existing through shipping materials around the world mostly importantly to China. In 2018, this changed when China stopped importing materials. This combined with an increasingly aware public, may start to change the dynamics.

The future of taking advantage of the value in our waste stream is to invest in innovation. One thing that the easy exporting of waste to China did, was to hinder innovation in the recycling space. When we analyze the investment streams in the waste management industry, we see evidence of this. Only 0.3% of international development financing has gone into solid waste management. The industry has also been lacking substantial investment in innovation. As one entrepreneur half-jokingly told us:

“Innovation in waste management means buying a bigger excavator.”

Ubuntoo, in partnership with the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service at Arizona State University (ASU), researched global data on startup investments between 1995 and 2019. Investments in startups is a great indicator for industry innovation. The investments in these spaces means that entrepreneurs see opportunity to develop new business models and innovation and are willing to dedicate their professional lives to those. And on the other hand, it signals that investors see the market opportunity for value and wealth creation.

Source: Crunchbase, 1995–2019

WeWork funding in 8 years is double that of all recycling startups in the past 24 years

The numbers for recycling are very disappointing. Whereas investments have poured into industries like healthcare, software, energy and transportation, only 0.22% of the total startup investments have found their way towards waste management and recycling startups. WeWork, the struggling “tech” real estate company founded in 2010, raised a total of $12.8 billion in 14 funding rounds. That is double the amount of all recycling startup funding over the last 24 years!

There are many reasons for this investment shortfall:

  1. As noted above, the ease and low cost of sending materials to China meant there was no incentive to innovate;
  2. Fluctuation in material markets over time have hurt overall business predictability. Global markets for secondary materials are subject to policy changes, economic ups and downs and pricing of virgin materials. In the case of plastics for example, crude oil costs have remained at very low levels, effectively out-competing recycled materials. In addition, in many places around the world the low cost of landfilling has hampered the growth of a recycling market;
  3. Many of the benefits of effective recycling and sustainable materials development are not as visible to people and are about “avoidance” of cost. At a macro-level, an effective recycling system can prevent negative impact on human health and climate change. But the benefit of that is hard to calculate and even harder to monetize;
  4. This is a tough business to be in. Unlike Social Media or SaaS (Software as a Service), most startups in the space of recycling and materials are dealing with physical interconnected set-ups, complex supply chains and a much longer incubation period. For a VC looking for an exit in 3–5 years and multiples exceeding 10x, investing in the digital space has been a more attractive proposition;
  5. Until recently, there were no clear policy drivers that created the right environment for investments in this space.

Time to invest in our only rapidly growing resource: waste

Although the past five decades have been disappointing, we are now entering an era of unprecedented opportunity. Over the past few years we have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs and investors, working hand in hand to create material impact. As the graph below shows, there was an increase in investment activity 2018, perhaps in response to the China ban, and early indications show that we are on the same track in 2019.

Source: Crunchbase 2010–2019

We believe that the underlying drivers for new investment in this space can be systemic and long-term, but they will need some help. The following factors can drive this:

  1. Governments around the world are changing policies and legislation related to single-use plastics and waste imports. A flurry of Asian countries has changed their stance on waste imports. Many governments around the world have been stipulating collection targets and guidelines for the inclusion of recycled plastics (eg. European Union guidelines to include 30% recycled plastic in beverage bottles by the year 2030). And, politicians are embracing the idea of new materials. Earlier this year during the VivaTech conference, French president Emmanuel Macron endorsed bioplastics and underlined its potential for job creation. This already is starting to have a tremendous impact on the materials market. Many large and small food and beverage companies are scrambling to assure supply of recycled PET while investing in new innovative materials.
  2. We are witnessing a groundswell of entrepreneurs, innovators and university researchers across the globe in this space. They have access to technologies and innovations that used to be accessible only to large companies before: AI, blockchain, robotics, object recognition technology, bio-technology and materials. It is a tidal wave of opportunity that is here to stay and that will have tremendous impact over time.
  3. The advent of big data is starting to have an impact on the recycling industry. Tech companies and large-scale producers are using consumer behavior data and material tracking to identify new opportunities and markets for recycled materials.
  4. A rapidly growing number of impact investors, family offices and corporate VCs have capitalized on the opportunities. Organizations like The Closed Loop Fund, Circulate Capital and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste are making tangible investments in the space of recycling — not just in infrastructure for the “here and now” but also in innovation for tomorrow. We have seen corporate VC arms of companies stepping up to the plate, mostly driven by economic opportunity, partially also by social responsibility. For example: AB Inbev (100+ Accelerator), Danone (Danone Manifesto Ventures), Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, Suez, Henkel and Unilever– as well as household names in the recycling and plastics industry.
  5. The consumer is voting with their wallet. In 2018, the Stern Center for Sustainable Business has conducted an extensive study on market performance of more than 71,000 products in the United States. They found that 16.6% of products in the US market that have sustainability claims have contributed to more than 50% of the market growth between 2013 and 2018! And although just a portion of those claims were related to recycling and packaging materials, it shows that sustainability buying behavior is not a fringe phenomenon anymore.

In light of this, Arizona State University and Ubuntoo are stepping up our commitments too.

ASU is expanding on their successful regional economic development platform, the Resource Innovation Solutions Network (RISN), to launch the Circular Economy Regional Innovation Hub (CERIH). The RISN platform was a successful partnership between ASU’s Solutions Service and the City of Phoenix that worked with over 16 early stage companies over 2 years to create the following impact: $3.86 million in capital raised, $5.17 million in revenues generated, 7 patents filed, and 22 products launched. CERIH will expand beyond the boundaries of Phoenix and will be an economic driver for developing and accelerating circular solutions and technologies to meet the needs of both public and private sector entities. CERIH will continue working with early stage companies to provide unique access to resources and support from ASU, and it will be the first of its kind to focus on accelerating regional circular economy solutions with unique access to municipal resources, space for pilots and global partnerships.

Ubuntoo is announcing the development of a Funding Marketplace. Of the 700+ innovations that we feature on our platform, more than 70 have indicated that they are currently seeking funding. At the same time, many corporate VCs, family offices and impact VCs are already Ubuntoo members. Given our unique access to the ecosystem and our comprehensive global network, we see ourselves playing an important role in accelerating investments towards innovations that reduce or eliminate plastic waste and pollution.

This article has been a collaboration between Arizona State University Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service and Ubuntoo.


Mark Bernstein, Chair, Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service, Arizona State University. Mark Bernstein has 25 years of experience pioneering energy and sustainability solutions through robust analysis and innovative frameworks across academic, private, public and non-profit sectors. As the Rob and Melani Walton Chair for Sustainability Solutions, Mark leads an effort to make measurable impacts on sustainability and influence decisionmaking by utilizing the deep knowledge and experience resources across Arizona State University and drive collaborations and partnerships that will create global solutions.

Alicia Marseille, Director of Innovation, Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service, Arizona State University. Alicia Marseille serves as the Director of Innovation following her successful directorship of the RISN Incubator, a circular economy accelerator within the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network, or RISN. The RISN Incubator is a collaboration between the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service and Entrepreneurship + Innovation departments at Arizona State University along with the City of Phoenix and is partially funded by a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant.

Rajesh Buch, Director, Sustainability Practice, International Development, Arizona State University. Rajesh Buch drives Arizona State University’s efforts to provide solutions to the complex sustainability challenges facing the developing world by linking ASU’s world-class researchers to international development funding agencies, and by fostering partnerships with NGOs, the public and private sectors, and foundations.

The Role of Chemical Recycling in a Circular Economy and Effective Waste Management

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Written by Zoltan Kish, Ph.D., Quasar Science Tech

The increasing amount of waste is one of the most challenging problems facing the World, which creates enormous environmental problems. According to the World Bank, Canada produces the most waste per capita in the world. Additionally, Canada recycles just 9 percent of its plastics. Banning foreign waste import by China and other counties has not helped to waste recycling business in Canada. In addition, shifting the recycling program to the producer responsibility by the Ontario Government, will reduce further plastic waste recycling and will increase the plastic pollution. A ban of certain single-use plastic products (e.g., straws, bags) may not solve the spread of plastic litter and environmental problems. Without more effective and sustainable ways to manage produced waste, more and more waste will end up in landfills polluting our land, water, and air.

At the same time, we have a tremendous business opportunity to convert waste into usable sustainable products. According to a market study report prepared by Market Insights Reports, the smart waste management market was valued at $1.41 billion (USD) in 2018 and is expected to reach $5.19 billion by 2024, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.68%, during the forecast period of 2019-2024.

Contaminated and mixed waste products (e.g., plastic, paper, industrial waste, medical waste, MSW) are challenging to recycle by mechanical/physical processing. Especially, traditional plastic waste recycling has difficulties and limitations. Mechanical sorting is not effective for mixed plastic waste. Thousands of different types of plastic are manufactured by combinations of different resin types, dyes, and additives. In addition, the plastic material quality is very susceptible to contamination. Even carefully selected plastic materials can only be recycled limited times in similar products since it degrades every time after reheating. Therefore, most plastic products are downcycled into items of reduced value, such as textiles, toys or fibres, and eventually, end up in landfills and water resources creating tremendous environmental problems. Replacing plastics with alternative materials, such as glass and metals would cost more to manufacture due to the higher energy and other resource consumption. The problem is the way of the current waste management operating.

On the other hand, waste plastic can be recycled into high-value products using advanced and cost-effective waste conversion technologies. The circular economy is not only based on simple reusing waste products. The purpose the recycling is to redesign and convert waste into forms retaining as high value as possible in a circular economy. We need sustainable and effective waste management to protect our environment and develop a working circular economy. In a circular economy, chemical recycling can play a pivotal role in waste conversion into usable materials and clean energy.

Chemical Recycling for a Circular Economy

Chemical recycling as waste recycling using effective waste conversion technology is essential for a working circular economy. Illinois and Ohio have become the most recent states to pass laws making it easier to build chemical recycling facilities, regulating them as recycling operations rather than waste processing plants. Canadian Government could also consider that as a tool to develop a new approach – “Chemical Recycling” in waste management. Regrettably, Canada and other G7 countries are planning to use waste-to-energy incineration as part of a plastic pollution solution. However, incineration is a very costly and inefficient way for waste conversion into energy and generating highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants.

The environmental impact of waste can be minimized by proper waste management applying advanced waste conversion technologies. The government should address the demand to solve the incredible waste accumulation problem by developing appropriate tools for waste management challenges and supporting the development of effective waste conversion technologies. We should focus more on waste diversion from landfills and water resources, and the conversion of waste into high-value products. Garbage can be converted into high-value clean energy and sustainable products using advanced and cost-effective waste conversion technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis, gasification, plasma-enhanced gasification, and steam gasification. Therefore, the circular economy should include the use of effective waste conversion technologies to produce high-value usable products. Perspectives of different waste conversion technologies are provided in the article – “Perspectives on Waste-to-Energy Technologies”.

Chemical Recycling should be based on reliable and cost-effective waste conversion technologies. Therefore, it is very important to do technical due diligence before investing and applying new technology to prevent wasting time and money. Regrettably, investors often do not take the time to evaluate the proposed technology and, therefore, the underlying scientific/technological basis of the business is often neglected in the CleanTech sectors. As a result of this, enormous and overpriced facilities were built producing not profitable products. In addition to financial data and management of the company, the underlying scientific/technology base of the applied technology should be considered. Science is supposed to be an essential pillar of a successful and sustainable business. Consequently, it is very important to properly establish the underlying scientific/technology base for applied technologies to build a successful waste conversion plant. The success of waste conversion technology applications depends on the following main factors:

  • The underlying scientific/technological basis of the process
  • Implementation of effective scrubbing systems to remove contaminants
  • Process modelling
  • Mass & Energy balance
  • Proper engineering design
  • Financial data based on mass & energy balance
  • Waste feedstock evaluation, preparation and availability
  • Waste energy conversion efficiency
  • Quantity and quality of the produced products
  • Applications of the products
  • Cost-effectiveness of the project

As a result of many years of development, a unique and cost-effective waste convection technology has been developed and tested at the pre-commercial waste conversion facility.  The developed technology is based on a steam gasification process in combination with a reliable scrubbing/cleaning system. The steam gasification technology represents a potential alternative to the traditional treatments of waste feedstocks (e.g. plastic, biomass, MSW, sewage sludge, industrial by-products) to produce high-quality syngas, which contains no noxious oxides and higher hydrogen concentration than products produced by traditional gasification. The chemistry is different due to the high concentration of steam as a reactant and the total exclusion of air and, therefore, oxygen from the steam reformation process. The proposed technology using an indirectly heated kiln in combination with a reliable and effective scrubbing/cleaning system without a feedstock sorting requirement. The technology uses “off the shelf” commercially proven equipment, which significantly lowers the capital and operating costs compared to other waste conversion technologies.

In a working circular economy, a solution for waste disposal and clean energy and sustainable product regeneration is an effective waste conversion technology application based on thermo-chemical and bio-chemical processes. The produced product type depends on the types of feedstock and reactants, and the applied processing conditions as applied physico-chemical interaction conditions in the system. The applied waste conversion technology type depends on the waste feedstock composition and the market requirement on the produced products from waste. The suitable waste conversion technology can divert waste from landfills and convert waste into usable products and prevent contamination of our environment. The waste steam gasification technology as a cost-effective process is most suitable for contaminated and mixed waste (including plastic waste) conversion into various forms of high-value sustainable products, such as electricity, hydrogen, liquid synthetic fuels, and chemicals. At the current stage, based on market demand, hydrogen production from mixed waste (including contaminated plastic waste) is the most cost-effective solution. Using the steam gasification technology for waste conversion into hydrogen is an opportunity for a profitable business, which can solve the world’s biggest problem – the enormous waste accumulation.

There is a requirement for a new and innovative approach in the development of a solution for waste management challenges, waste recycling, plastic waste pollution reduction and a working circular economy. The used waste conversion technologies should be efficient and combined with a reliable scrubbing/cleaning system to remove contaminants in order to generate clean/ renewable energy and other sustainable products and prevent pollution of the surrounding environment. The application of advanced and effective waste conversion technologies can offer an innovative solution to the waste accumulation problem and making a positive impact on the protection of our environment.

Chemical recycling based on cost-effective waste conversion technologies can provide a fundamental shift in the way of produced waste handling in a circular economy. In the working circular economy, the use of cost-effective waste conversion technologies is an innovative waste management strategy to divert waste from landfills, produce clean energy and sustainable products, reduce depletion of natural resources, protect our environment, save time and money. Chemical recycling is a comprehensive and innovative solution to the complex problem of waste management and moving towards a circular economy.


About the Author

Dr. Zoltan Kish has a Ph.D. in Chemistry with over 25 years of diverse industrial and academic experience and contributed to more than 70 scientific publications. He has developed and managed complex research and development programs related to alternative/renewable energy, clean technologies, effective waste conversion into usable products, sustainability, and advanced materials applications. Dr. Kish was the Director of Research & Development at two Canadian alternative energy companies where he focused on R&D and commercialization of unique waste conversion technologies and reliable scrubbing/cleaning systems to produce clean and sustainable energy products.

Could Renewable Natural Gas Be the Next Big Thing in Green Energy?

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Written by Jonathan Mingle, Freelance Journalist and republished with permission of Yale Environment 360

In the next few weeks, construction crews will begin building an anaerobic digester on the Goodrich Family Farm in western Vermont that will transform cow manure and locally sourced food waste into renewable natural gas (RNG), to be sent via pipeline to nearby Middlebury College and other customers willing to pay a premium for low-carbon energy.

For the developer, Vanguard Renewables, the project represents both a departure and a strategic bet. The firm already owns and operates five farm-based biogas systems in Massachusetts; each generates electricity on site that is sent to the grid and sold under the state’s net-metering law. The Vermont project, however, is Vanguard’s first foray into producing RNG — biogas that is refined, injected into natural gas pipelines as nearly pure methane, and then burned to make electricity, heat homes, or fuel vehicles.

“Producing RNG for pipeline injection and vehicle fueling is the evolution of where everything is going” in the biogas sector, says John Hanselman, Vanguard’s CEO.

Biogas has been around for a long time in the United States, mainly in the form of rudimentary systems that either capture methane from landfills and sewage treatment plants and use it to produce small amounts of electricity, or aging digesters at dairy operations that might power a local farm and send some surplus power to the grid. But those are fast becoming outdated and out-produced by a new wave of large-scale renewable natural gas projects that are springing up around the country. These ventures are tapping into heretofore unexploited sources of energy: some are capturing the vast amounts of methane generated by manure from some of the 2,300 hog farms that dot eastern North Carolina; some are building biodigesters to turn clusters of large California dairy farms into energy hubs; and some are seeking to divert food waste from landfills and transform it into vehicle and heating fuels.

Biogas systems could produce enough renewable energy to power 3 million homes in the U.S.

Renewable natural gas is reaching a tipping point for several reasons: An increasing number of third-party operators like Vanguard are relieving farmers and landfills of the burden of running their own energy systems and are introducing more sophisticated technologies to capture methane and pump it directly into pipelines. Some states, including California, are passing laws requiring the development of renewable natural gas. And utilities across the country are starting to support these new initiatives, as evidenced by the new partnership between Dominion Energy and Smithfield Farms — the world’s largest pork producer — to develop new hog waste biogas projects. For proponents, the ultimate goal is to replace a significant portion of the fossil-derived natural gas streaming through U.S. pipelines with pure methane generated by human garbage and animal and agricultural waste.

“If you can recover energy before sending what remains back to the soil, that’s a great thing,” said Nora Goldstein, the longtime editor of BioCycle Magazine, which has covered the organics recycling and anaerobic digestion industries for decades. “You look at all those benefits and say, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’ The key is you need to do it correctly.”

The untapped potential — especially of the billions of gallons of animal manure and millions of tons of food waste generated each year in the U.S. — is immense. According to a 2014 “Biogas Opportunities Roadmap” report produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy, the U.S. could support at least 13,000 biogas facilities, fed by manure, landfill gas, and biosolids from sewage treatment plants. Those new systems could produce 654 billion cubic feet of biogas per year — enough renewable energy to power 3 million homes. And a study by the World Resources Institute estimated that the 50 million tons of organic waste sent to landfills or incinerated every year in the U.S has the energy content of 6 billion gallons of diesel fuel, 15 percent of all diesel consumed by heavy-duty trucks and buses.

A truck delivers food waste to an anaerobic digester at a Massachusetts farm. VANGUARD RENEWABLES

Experts say that the growing utilization of biogas could help lower greenhouse gas emissions from some of the toughest sectors to decarbonize — transportation, industry, and heating buildings — even as it reduces heat-trapping methane emissions, keeps organic waste out of landfills, and prevents manure runoff into rivers and water supplies. Through anaerobic digestion, biogas can be made from any organic material — food scraps, agricultural residues, even the sludge left over from brewing beer. These materials are fed as a slurry into tanks where microbes feast on them in the absence of oxygen, destroying pathogens, producing methane and other gases, and leaving a nutrient-rich fertilizer as a byproduct.

In the field of renewable natural gas, the U.S. is playing catch up with Europe, which has more than 17,400 biogas plants and accounts for two-thirds of the world’s 15 gigawatts of biogas electricity capacity. Denmark alone, a country of 5.8 million people, has more than 160 biogas systems. For a period last summer, 18 percent of the gas consumed in Denmark came from RNG produced by its anaerobic digesters. Flush with their success, Danish bioenergy firms estimate it will be feasible to fully replace the country’s natural gas with renewable natural gas within 20 years.

The former manager of the EPA’s anaerobic digestion programs, Chris Voell, was so impressed with Denmark’s biogas operations — which are highly engineered to digest a mix of household food scraps, residuals from food processing businesses, and livestock manure — that he now works for the Danish Trade Council to introduce Danish digester technology and business models to the U.S market.

As with most climate initiatives, California is leading biogas efforts in the U.S. The state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) — which provides incentives for fuel producers to increase the amount of low-carbon or renewable fuels they supply and sell — is a key component of the state’s ambitious climate plan and has catalyzed the rapid growth of a new, lucrative market for RNG as a vehicle fuel.

A growing crop of specialized firms builds, owns, and operates anaerobic digesters in the U.S.

Companies like Maas Energy Works and California Bioenergy have responded to these incentives by installing digesters at California’s dairy farms at a rapid clip. Maas has built 17 so far, with 12 more under construction and 32 others in development, according to its website. Both companies are racing to take advantage of valuable LCFS incentives.

And both are among a growing crop of specialized, investor-backed firms that build, own, and operate anaerobic digesters in the U.S. “With every day the industry is gaining more credibility,” Voell says. “We’re seeing more professional third-party companies. And in order to see this scale, it takes those professionals to come in and build 10, 20, 50 projects, and access a lot of equity investors. They want a portfolio of projects to invest in, not just one.”

In North Carolina, the abundant feedstock is hog manure. And the latest entrant in the RNG race is Smithfield, the world’s biggest grower of hogs. North Carolina is the second-largest pork-producing state (after Iowa). Each day, more than 2,000 of its hog farms flush manure from 9 million pigs into vast lagoons, which emit equally vast quantities of methane. Ninety percent of those farms are contract growers for Smithfield.

Late last year, Smithfield launched a joint venture, Align RNG, with a Virginia-based utility, Dominion Energy, to invest $250 million in covering lagoons and installing anaerobic digesters at nearly all of its hog finishing farms in North Carolina, Utah, and Missouri over the next 10 years. Construction is already underway on four projects that will produce enough RNG to power 14,000 homes and businesses.

A covered lagoon manure digester on Van Warmerdam Dairy in Galt, California. MAAS ENERGY WORKS

These systems will all be modeled on Optima KV, a biogas project in Kenansville, North Carolina, in the heart of hog country. Last year, Optima KV became the first project in the state to produce and inject RNG into an existing natural gas pipeline.

The factors that made Optima KV possible — along with the waste from 60,000 pigs on five nearby farms, and a centralized system to clean and upgrade the gas — include a state renewable energy portfolio standard law signed in 2007. That law contained a requirement that utilities source at least 0.2 percent of their electricity from swine and poultry waste by 2020. That mandate helped push Duke Energy, one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., to sign a 15-year agreement to purchase 80,000 million BTUs of RNG from Optima KV. That biogas will directly displace the use of fossil natural gas and generate 11,000 megawatt-hours of power in two of Duke’s power plants.

Vanguard’s new operation in Vermont represents an alternative model for scaling up RNG production. The company’s digesters are more complex and expensive — engineered to produce a consistent output of gas even as feedstocks and other conditions change — than the systems being built in California. The California systems basically cover huge dairy waste lagoons with plastic membranes and then extract, refine, and pipe the gas to customers.

“We take a more high-tech approach primarily because we need to produce a lot more gas from a much smaller footprint,” Hanselman says. “We don’t have the luxury of a 10,000-cow dairy.”

RNG has flourished in Europe because of generous subsidy programs that are lacking in the U.S.

Along with the daily stream of 100 tons of manure from the Goodrich farm’s 900 cows, and 165 tons of food waste, a number of factors have come together to make Vanguard’s Vermont project possible. In Middlebury College, Vanguard found a large customer eager to slash its carbon footprint. A new law about to take effect in Vermont will ban food waste from landfills starting in 2020, forcing grocery stores and food processors to find new places to send their waste.

And Goodrich Farm will get free heat, monthly lease payments for hosting the system, and bedding for its cows from the leftover digested solids — cost savings that can offer a lifeline for dairy farmers in a period of disastrously low milk prices.

Hanselman, Vanguard’s CEO, says that a key element to expanding RNG is taking the burden of running the system off of farmers. Hanselman encountered many irate farmers who had negative experiences with a previous generation of digesters that had been sold to them as a low-maintenance, low-cost solution to their nutrient management problems. In fact, digesters are finicky machines, sensitive to changes in temperature and the variability of organic material in feedstocks. Says Hanselman, “We tell our farmers, ‘Your job is to make milk, healthy cows, and take care of your fields and soils. Let us run these machines.’”

RNG has flourished in Europe in part because of generous subsidy programs; such comprehensive policies are lacking on the federal level in the U.S., which has a chaotic patchwork of regional and state markets, utilities, incentives, and policies. But Hanselman and others foresee that in the next several years, more states will mandate renewable natural gas production, further strengthening the fledgling biogas market.

“It feels extremely similar to solar,” says Hanselman, who used to run a solar company. “We are in the early days of RNG. Everyone will be running from program to program trying to figure out which states are beneficial, and how to best get RNG into the marketplace.”

Market forces alone, however, won’t be enough to usher in a biogas revolution. The single policy that could supercharge the growth of biogas and RNG in the U.S., most industry observers and insiders agree, is a federally legislated price on carbon. But given that a carbon tax or comprehensive climate bill aren’t likely to emerge any time soon under the current administration, Hanselman says the next best thing the federal government could do is reinstate the investment tax credit for digester systems, which lapsed in 2016.

Despite these challenges, Voell thinks there is now enough momentum to see biogas finally gain widespread traction as a renewable energy source in the U.S.

“I’m more encouraged now more than ever, because I’m actually seeing some projects getting built,” he says. “The states are stepping up with policies. And we’re seeing a revolution now where gas utilities are coming on board. Utilities wield a lot of power. If they decide RNG is something they’d like to see more of, then we’ll start to see the needle move more on the policy front.”

This article has been republished with the permission of Yale E360. It was originally published at Yale E360.


About the Author

Jonathan Mingle is a freelance journalist who focuses on the environment, climate, and development issues. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He lives in Vermont

Looping you in on Loop: An evolution in waste management, or a work in progress?

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

Terracycle’s Loop program has turned the world of packaging waste on its head, largely seen as the first major initiative to encourage the reuse of consumer packaging in lieu of recycling. The initiative has been warmly received by both CPG companies and consumers alike, with initial reviews touting it as being an evolution in how packaging is designed and used by households.

For those who may not be familiar with Loop (although that would genuinely surprising given the press it has received), it is premised on developing reusable packaging solutions for common consumer items such as detergent, hand soap, cereal, condiments etc. The program, which is backed by industry giants such as Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola and more, promises to help move consumers away from a consumption-disposal model, to one in which we strive for zero waste.

Participating households are able to place an order online, and receive various durable products (ranging from groceries, general household items and personal care) which is shipped in Loop’s exclusively designed shipping tote. After use, consumers can place the empty containers into their Loop totes, and go online to schedule an in home pickup. These items are then returned to a Loop partner facility where the package is then sanitized, cleaned and refilled, and finally shipped back to the consumer to be reused again.

Why was Loop created?

For much of the past 30 years, the waste management system has tended to fixate on the “recyclability” of packaging. In spite of the waste management hierarchy which prioritizes waste reduction and reuse over recycling, recycling has largely been promoted as the preferred end of life scenario for consumer packaging goods. While this approach has been reasonably successful, the proliferation of difficult to recycle light weight and composite materials, coupled with deteriorating end markets for recycled goods, has forced the waste management industry think of new and innovative ways to promote diversion.

Loop offers a convenient solution to this problem, in that it is premised on a closed loop system where products can be reused again and again, to assist in both minimizing packaging waste and reducing the need to generate new packaging.

Conceptually, this seems like a great idea – encouraging both brand owners and consumers to embrace a reuse model has the potential to radically transform our waste management system. However, is the program successful (and feasible) in practice? Let’s find out.

An issue of efficiency, economics and equity

I want to preface this next section by saying that I am actually supportive of what Loop could represent and achieve in the future. There is certainly a need to pursue new avenues with respect to diversion, and reuse seems like a logical choice with respect to packaging waste.

However, if we begin to examine both the economic and environmental impacts of Loop’s logistics and collection network, the benefits of the program become a lot more murky.

Simply put, it is extremely inefficient to have an individual product shipped to a consumer, and have that product subsequently shipped back at the discretion of the household. This issue is exacerbated in instances where take back facilities are not located in close proximity to markets in which the product is being consumed.

A distance too far: Environmental and economic impacts of transportation

As an intellectual exercise, consider the following scenario. A household that subscribes to Loop’s program decides to purchase reusable cereal and oatmeal containers. Every other week, this household will return these containers back to Loop, where the containers are then cleaned and refilled, and subsequently shipped back to the household. That is 52 unique trips in a calendar year (to both send and receive the reusable package), in which containers are traveling potentially hundreds of kilometers per trip before arriving at its destination.

Now imagine if this same household decides to tell 10 of their family and friends to join the Loop program. Unless all households coordinate when to send and return their packaging, we now have 520 unique trips in which reusable packaging is being transported.

While I do not have any specific data with respect to where Loop take back facilities are located, let’s consider a scenario wherein the take back facility is located 100, 250 and 500km away.

Every year, the reusable containers being used by each household are being transported between 5200km, 13000km and 26000km respectively (depending on the transport scenario). This is for a single household, using a single product that weighs between 150 and 400 grams (weight is contingent on the material being used for the reusable containers).

The carbon footprint of transportation is potentially enormous, sufficiently so that it offsets the environmental savings of using a reusable package. In our above scenario (assuming that the average reusable cereal container weighs approximately 400g), it would take roughly 2500 packages to make up just one tonne of material. That one tonne of material represents more than 13 MILLION kilometers traveled to collect and resend reusable packaging, assuming each package is shipped back individually (using an assumption of every other week, and a default transportation distance of 100km). This translates into roughly 1950 TCO2e of transport emissions per tonne managed. This figure only becomes more astronomical the further away the take back facility is away from the point of generation.

I wish I could say the above represented a worst case scenario, but the reality is that take back programs must find ways to economically consolidate and transport their material, and ensure that receiving facilities are located in close proximity to the market in which the reusable package is being sold.

For curbside recyclable and waste collection, a specially configured truck will go from house to house, and when full, return to the transfer station/depot to empty its material before redeploying to the road. The efficiency of this approach is in having a “critical mass” of material (within a specified geographical boundary), that only requires collection when sufficient waste has been generated.

However, the nature of Loop’s take back program is that households are asked to return their used packaging back to specific facilities to be cleaned and reused. There is no clear guidance regarding how much or how often material should be shipped back, as that is largely left to the discretion of the consumer.

From a convenience perspective, this has been a significant boon for well-intentioned citizens who want to participate in reuse initiatives without disrupting consumption and disposal habits.

The obvious drawback is that such a system is neither environmentally or economically tenable.

In June of 2019, York University published a white paper that specifically examined the merits of decentralized logistics networks, and used coffee pods as a case study to calculate the environmental and economic impacts of take back programs (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rfERnYLOIhPsHcPA7JHf-BxPvErSiezB/view)

This study goes into greater detail surrounding how to quantify environmental and economic impacts, but the key take away is that the cost (both environmental and economic) is prohibitive unless households are able to transport large volumes of material at once. In the absence of achieving that “critical mass” of material, the take back model does not work in the vast majority of instances (a potential exception is when a receiving facility is located in the same market in which the product is being sold).

An issue of equity: Environmentalism for those that can afford it

Setting aside concerns surrounding the practical economic and environmental impacts of Loop, what is of greater interest to me on a personal level is that a subscription service excludes some households from participating on the basis of cost.

Products offered by loop require a mandatory deposit, ranging in value from $0.47 for a Coca Cola bottle to $47 for a Pampers Diaper Bin (https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/loop-reusable-packaging-mission-ahead/index.html).

Households are also required to pay a shipping fee of $15 unless a minimum of $100 worth of product is purchased.

While these sums may not seem like much, by its very nature, it will exclude households who are unable to absorb an increase in costs for their groceries and other household necessities. Waste management suddenly becomes a tiered model – pay to participate in reuse initiatives, or rely on municipal waste collections services who may not offer reuse as an option.

Most recent academic research shows that stated levels of environmental concern is consistent across all income groups. The vast majority of people, irrespective of income, want the opportunity to be good environmental citizens and participate in activities that lead to more sustainable outcomes. However, poor and marginalized groups often have impeded access to waste management services (i.e. lack of clean waste rooms, lack of recycling and green bin programs in multi residential buildings etc.).

Programs such as Loop further reinforce the notion that environmentalism is a luxury for those that can afford it, and it’s not entirely clear to me how such a program can be scaled out without addressing how to be inclusive and ensure participation of vulnerable and low income groups.

In waste management, we often forget that sustainability is made up of more than just environmental and economic considerations. The social dimension of sustainability is equally critical, and in my opinion, it would be in the best interests of both brand owners and service providers to address issues of inclusion.

The road to the landfill is paved with good intentions

Despite the aforementioned criticism, Loop should be applauded for pioneering the field of reuse for consumer packaging. Historically, printed paper and packaging has never been seen as a durable good, and has almost exclusively been characterized as single use. Loop offers the opportunity to think “Beyond the Blue Box”, and get both households and brand owners to think about the importance of reuse as a diversion strategy.

If we are to have any hopes of achieving a zero waste future, reuse will inevitably play a critical role, however, we have to be extremely careful about what systems we have in place to encourage it.

As noted in this piece, there are serious concerns surrounding the economic and environmental tenability of Loop’s current approach. Perhaps more alarmingly, nobody seems to be questioning whether this is a good idea or not (and whether it needs to be re-examined). The uptake by major CPG companies in both supporting and promoting Loop has been unprecedented – companies recognize the utility of attaching themselves to an initiative that seemingly provides a solution to the single use problem. However, in the rush to be seen as an innovator in the reuse space, we may be losing sight of what we are ultimately trying to achieve.

The goal of a waste management system should ideally be to promote optimal environmental, economic and social outcomes. Emphasizing either recycling, or reuse only matters when that particular approach helps us achieve our overarching goals of sustainability. If it doesn’t, we have to be prepared to “throw it away” and try something new. 


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.

Toronto wants to power its trash trucks with food waste

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Written by Charlotte Edmond, World Economic Forum

Toronto residents’ trash will soon be powering the collection of yet more trash. The Canadian city says it wants to become one of the first in North America to convert biogas created from organic waste into fuel to power its refuse collection vehicles, generate electricity and heat homes.

The closed-loop system is set to be operational from March 2020, when the city’s food scraps and biodegradable waste will start being taken to a newly constructed anaerobic digestion facility for processing. The biogas released will be captured and converted to renewable natural gas (RNG) – and then injected into the city’s natural gas grid.

The system will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of Toronto’s waste fleet, with estimates suggesting the facility will be able to produce enough gas each year to power the majority of its collection vehicles.

Since 2010, Toronto has been gradually transitioning away from diesel-powered trucks to quieter, more environmentally friendly ones. The city has also constructed a number of RNG refuelling stations.

Once in the grid, the gas could also be used for electricity or heating.

A circular approach

Both biogas and gas created by waste in landfill can be upgraded to create RNG by removing carbon dioxide and other contaminants. The biogas produced from Toronto’s food waste is currently flared – or burnt off – which the city notes is standard industry practice, but does not take advantage of its potential as a renewable power source.

As part of its ambition to become a circular economy, Toronto hopes to create four RNG processing sites, producing gas from two of its anaerobic digestion facilities for organic waste and two of its landfill sites. Once they are up and running, the city says they will be able to produce the gas equivalent of taking 35,000 cars off the road for a year.

RNG is considered a carbon negative product, because the overall reduction in emissions from not using fossil fuels and sending organic waste to landfill outweighs the emissions from using and creating RNG.

The problem of food waste

Globally, food makes up a huge part of our waste. Around a third of all the food produced globally is never eaten.

Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

If food waste were a country it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. When you take into account the carbon footprint created by growing, harvesting, transporting, processing and storing food, the waste is almost equivalent to global road transport emissions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum. This article has been republished under the permission of the World Economic Forum under their Terms of Use. It was first published on the World Economic Forum website.


Unintended consequences: How Environmentalism is becoming a luxury that poor and marginalized communities cannot afford

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

The title of this article may seem like a bit of “click bait”, but the topic itself is one near and dear to my heart, but is often neglected in conversations surrounding waste. How socio-economic inequality manifests itself in the form of impeded access, or participation in waste management initiatives is a poorly understood topic. 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). Perhaps more alarmingly is the epidemiological link between waste exposure-related health effects and low income areas.

But that isn’t what this article is about – My hope is to begin an uncomfortable conversation about a two tiered waste management system in Ontario (one for affluent “woke” Ontarians, and one for lower income groups making the daily grind), that by all indications is going to get worse, before it gets better.

I want to preface by saying I don’t think this is necessarily the result of deliberate, malicious design (or least I wouldn’t like to think so). Equitable access to a clean and sustainable environment is an issue that has garnered enormous attention, and I would expect this issue to grow in importance moving forward.

I just ask that from the perspective of waste management (diversion, recycling etc.), that we take the time to consider how changes in our industry affect, or are going to affect, the most vulnerable or marginalized groups of our society.

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.

The help provide some boundaries on this wide ranging discussion, I am going to break my comments down into three key areas: Economic Access and 2) Knowledge Access, and 3) Infrastructural Access

Economic Access

I was recently interviewed by the CBC, and almost inevitably, the conversation shifted to the perils of plastic packaging.

Given that I am actually an advocate of some single use plastics, I was trying explain how a cucumber wrapped in plastic isn’t the world’s worst idea, considering that it can help mitigate against spoilage.

That’s when the interviewer said something that surprised me a bit “Don’t you think consumers should be paying a little more to ensure that less waste is being generated?”

I actually didn’t know how to answer that question, largely because it depends on so many different factors. Do I think all consumers should be willing to pay a little bit more to avoid waste? No – absolutely not. I do however I think that consumers who have the discretionary purchasing power to make more sustainable choices should try and do when possible, but I ascribe no right or wrong in doing so.

What people can and choose to purchase is largely a function of economics –those of us that have the luxury of being conscientious consumers that can shop locally and participate in programs such as Terracycle’s Loop should be applauded.

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 70% 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 want to participate in more sustainability initiatives, but at present, they are priced out of “taking part”.

A particularly interesting phenomenon is that more than 30% of respondents indicated that they are increasingly feeling a “shame” factor from friends or family, who were questioning why they continue to make “unsustainable” choices in light of increasing awareness surrounding single use plastics (i.e. using plastic bags, seran wrap etc.). An anecdote provided during one of the focus group sessions included “A co-worker admonished me for purchasing frozen meat products for my children, alluding to the fact that fresh is better… obviously it is, but I can’t afford that every time and I was left feeling guilty”

While the results of these focus groups/surveys are merely a subset of the diverse range of experiences faced by Ontarians, the sample was designed to be statistically significant and stratified to reflect different demographic contributions.

What was not considered in this study is the potential impact on packaged good prices once a 100% producer responsibility model is implemented in Ontario. Given that lower income groups are the greatest consumers of packaged goods (both in absolute terms, and as a relative % of the overall purchasing basket), any upwards pressure in the cost of food stuff could have potentially adverse impacts.

Knowledge Access

Did you know that I could now schedule my used clothing bin pickup with Diabetes Canada? Or that the TOwaste App allows users the ability properly sort more than 2000 materials?

Even the University’s own Waste Wiki site offers users the ability to download thousands of resources related to waste.

While advents in technology that allow us to engage and communicate in new ways with city residents, we have to remember to ask ourselves: Who is my intended audience? And who is my tool designed for? We often erroneously presume that the majority of people are social media savvy and have the ability to navigate and use a smartphone, but research conducted by York University suggest that smartphone ownership among first generation immigrants is as follows:

Figure 1: Smart Phone Ownership

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Amongst the more than 1200 survey respondents, only adults between the ages of 17-44 reported owning and regularly using a smart phone. The average across all age groups was actually less than 50%. A perhaps more salient finding is that the majority of first generation immigrants using smartphones DO NOT have English as their primary system language (in fact, for ages 45 and older, smartphone users almost exclusively navigate using their native language)

Figure 2: Primary System Language

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Now, you may be asking yourself why does this matter? And what does this have to do with socio-economic inequality?

Simply put, these applications have largely been designed and tested with a demographic that assumes a person is: fluent in English, knows where to download and remove applications from the Play Store, possesses the technical proficiency to consent to location tracking, cookies etc. and lastly, cares enough to see out these types of resources.

In a 2016 study conducted by York University examining “Effectiveness of Recycling Promotion and Education Initiatives among First-Generation Ethnic Minorities in Ontario, Canada” (Lakhan, Social Sciences, 2016), focus group participants struggled to navigate online promotion and education materials and resources (such as the Waste Wizard). The following is an excerpt from this study:

48 of 77 focus group participants expressed difficulty in navigating to and within municipal waste websites (commonly coded phrases included “It’s hard to find the information I’m looking for”). Of particular note, The second most frequently coded response for this question was that the municipality’s web pages were often translated incorrectly (coded 33 times), making it difficult to locate the appropriate waste related resource. While the Google translate feature was available on each of the municipal web sites, the translation was often inaccurate (mistranslated words and phrases, grammar, etc.). 24 study participants indicated that this was actually insulting to them—anecdotes recorded during the sessions include “If you’re not going to do it properly, don’t bother doing it at all” and “It shows how much they (the municipality) care about us”. The notion of “us” and “them” was a recurring theme during the focus group sessions. There was a sentiment that municipalities catered to “white” households and ignored (or placed less emphasis on) the needs of ethnic minorities.

Returning to the conversation of equitable access, how do we ensure that all participants within the system are aware of the tools that are available to them, and by extension, how do we ensure those tools are usable and meaningful to communities?

As an anecdote, I am going to pick on my late father again. As I have noted before, he was a brilliant man who was a professor in Environmental Science, (but he wasn’t exactly the best environmentalist). In spring of last year, as he was cleaning his house post retirement, I told him he could now schedule a pick up on his phone for someone to come get all of his clothes for a donation – no need to leave the house. He just scoffed at me as he loaded bag after bag of used clothing in to my car, ordering me to drive to the Salvation Army. The tool that gets a person like my father to participate, someone who wouldn’t have previously participated if not for this app, is what’s going to be the game changer. Tech savvy recyclers are already taking advantage of these services, and it is unlikely that future increases in diversion are going to come from them. 

Infrastructural Access

Infrastructural Access to waste management services is something that is more difficult to readily quantify, but perhaps, is most insidious in that it highlights that services (not just those pertaining to waste management) are two tiered: One for the rich, and one for everyone else.

Having done extensive work in multi residential buildings throughout the Greater Toronto Area, I have been privy to see the unique challenges that building managers face when attempting to promote diversion. While these are not an exhaustive list of observations (ultimately, every building is unique), but based on data collected over a three year period (which included gauging self-reported recycling behavior among building residents), the following was observed.

1)     Very few buildings are equipped with floor level recycling chutes, with most older buildings having a “recycling room” that required residents to drop off their recyclables at a designated location (normally in a room in the basement). Only recently constructed condominiums have floor level tri sorters.

2)     Not all building managers have the same level of commitment in promoting and maintaining waste management services in their building. City Staff are routinely engaged with building managers to provide materials to residents instructing them about various elements of the City’s waste management programs. 

3)     Recycling/Waste rooms located in building basements or parking garages were seen as an inconvenience, and potentially unsafe

4)     Many “waste/recycling” rooms were seen as dirty, poorly lit and heavily contaminated, which significantly deterred participation among residents. As an extension of this, a household’s willingness to use the waste room was directly related to the building manager’s commitment to maintaining the waste room.

5)     Residents wanted to recycle, but found the inconvenience of both storing and transporting waste to the designated room acted as a deterrent

6)     Residents had much lower rates of recycling awareness compared to single family households, as it was a situation of “out of sight, out of mind”. In the absence of weekly/bi-weekly collection, people forgot about it.

The common thread across each of these observations is that the more affluent the building (ownership was a significant predictor of diversion behavior), the more building/site staff were committed to promoting and maintain a safe and accessible recycling room. It should be noted that this was not universally the case, and overall, building residents expressed strong positive attitudes towards recycling, but low levels of perceived behavioral control that ultimately deterred recycling behavior. Generally speaking, these behavioral obstacles were most prevalent in buildings characterized by lower income and/or immigrant families.

Figure 3 below is taken from as an excerpt from a study I had conducted examining the link between public space recycling and neighborhood income levels (2017)

Figure 3: Density of Bin Per Sample Area

1 – # of Recycling Bins Per Transit Stop

2 – # of Recycling Bins Per 1km sampled roadway/sidewalk

3 – # of Recycling Bins per sampled area

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While the scale makes it a bit difficult to follow, what the figure above shows is that the frequency of recycling bins in three public spaces (Transit Stops, Sidewalks and Parkettes/Playgrounds) is in direct correlation with neighborhood income level (greater income = greater density of bins).

It is important to note that incidents of illegal dumping or littering were not necessarily shown to be higher in these areas, but the purpose of this exercise was to merely determine whether “access to recycling” was equitable across all income groups. The answer, at least based on the time this data was collected, was no. Higher income areas have greater opportunities to recycle, at least with respect to the density of public space Blue Bins.

With respect to infrastructural access, it is very much a tail of two cities (although it would be difficult to say that was the result of deliberate design). Higher income households have greater opportunities to participate in diversion programs, experience more regular/predictable service and have access to supplementary tools and resources that are tailored more specifically to an English speaking audience. These experience further reinforce positive attitude attachments towards the environment, and may subsequently lead to recycling habituation. While this is a desired outcome, high income English speaking households already participate in household recycling at rates that exceed 90% – the next diverted tonne is unlikely going to come from these groups.

Stop and Think

I would strongly caution the reader from jumping to any conclusions based on this information – questions surrounding environmental equality is complex and multi-faceted, and I certainly don’t do any justice to them in this short article.

However, what I do want people to think about what our waste management system is going to look like moving forward. Will we all be using reusable ice cream cans and storing our mouth wash in artisanal metal bottles? I say that tongue in cheek, but conversations surrounding sustainability cannot be had without considering equitability and inclusiveness.

Both brand owners and policy makers cannot stop at saying “We found a divertable solution” and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Instead, we need to be thinking about how can we deliver this solutions at scale, across all income groups, so that everyone can participate in creating a circular economy?


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.

Raining on the parade: A critique of packaging “take back”​ programs (Terracycle,Loop, Nespresso etc.)

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

I want to preface this post by saying that I wan’t to be proven wrong – while it may be a peculiar stance to take as a researcher, I want to believe in the environmental benefits of packaging take back programs offered by Terracycle, Recycle Bank etc.

The idea that we are now finding innovative ways to recycle problematic materials and transition towards reusable packaging is a breath of fresh air in an industry that finds itself in a waste crisis.

With that being said, it is important to fully understand what it is we are trying to achieve as we work towards a circular economy. A circular system is our end point, but the path that we ultimately take to get there is where we should focus our attention.

The following is an excerpt from the study (I have attached the full white paper for people to download). Please note that I welcome any and all questions, criticisms and comments – my goal is not to pick on any particular organization, but shed light on the challenges of using a decentralized network for waste collection.

Study Excerpt

In Spring of 2019, York University’s Waste Wiki team was asked to investigate the environmental and economic impact of take back programs involving coffee pods, and other reusable/recyclable items that have de-centralized collection networks (i.e. Terra Cycle programs for shampoo bottles, cigarette butts etc.)

It is a relatively recent phenomenon that consumer packaging goods companies are exploring end of life waste management solutions that exist outside of conventional curbside collection. Increasingly, CPG companies are announcing partnerships with “niche” recyclers (where niche is characterized as a company that specializes in the recovery of problematic/difficult to recover materials), enabling consumers to directly return used packaging to re-processors and have it be diverted from landfill.

However, scant attention has been paid as to whether these types of programs offer legitimate environmental benefits when taking a life cycle approach. While it may seem intuitive that keeping material of a landfill is a good idea, what constitutes recyclability is a much more nuanced question that requires a careful consideration of environmental benefits, costs, accessibility, availability and infrastructural capacity.

In the case of most take back programs offered by companies such as Terracycle, problematic materials are down-cycled into “one off” products. As an example, Terracycle presently has take back programs offered for a range of commonly used household products, including razors and other personal hygiene items, chip bags, multi laminate pouches, sharpies/markers and cigarette waste.

While this initially seems like a good thing, each of the aforementioned items are down-cycled, wherein the end of life secondary product cannot be subsequently recovered, and ultimately is disposed of (i.e. a shampoo bottle is converted into a running shoe, but that running shoe cannot be recycled at its end of life, and will either be landfilled or incinerated).

While Terracycle and their peers should be celebrated for their innovation and commitment to finding new uses for problematic materials, their approach to recycling and reuse creates a dangerous perception among the public about what items can (and should be) recycled/reused.

At present, the processing technology involved in any of the aforementioned take back programs is economically prohibitive, and is really only available in jurisdictions in which the collection program is being offered. Simply put – municipal waste management infrastructure is not designed to either collect or recycle problematic materials.

As an example, the only cost analog that can readily be found in a municipal waste system is for multi-laminate plastic packaging (chip bags, yogurt squeeze containers etc.). In 2018, for the limited number of municipal programs that accepted multi laminate materials as part of their Blue Bin, the cost of recycling exceeded $2000 a tonne.

While comparing Terracycle’s costs (which are not shared) with a public municipal waste management system isn’t a particularly useful comparison, it is done to highlight just how costly it is to achieve, even with established collection, consolidation and sorting systems in place.

Take back programs offered by packaging companies and their partners must find ways to economically consolidate and transport their material to specific facilities, and ensure that those facilities are readily equipped to process that material at scale. The economic and environmental impact of a decentralized logistics network is questionable – take back programs that ask consumers to ship things like coffee pods, chip bags, razors etc. hundreds of kilometers can be both inefficient and costly.

At this time, neither Terracycle nor their partners were willing to share their cost and diversion data with the university, limiting the ability to model our own costing scenarios.

However, as an intellectual exercise, let’s look at a take back program that we have a better understanding of – The “Nespresso” Aluminum Coffee Pod (also managed by Terracycle). 

Results  (See link below)

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rfERnYLOIhPsHcPA7JHf-BxPvErSiezB/view

Closing Comments

For those of you who may not be inclined to read through the entire white paper (although it is a relatively light read at a little under 8 pages – with lots of graphs), the closing comments are as follows:

Nespresso should be applauded for finding a recyclable alternative and innovating in a way that moves us away from single use plastic pods. However, the danger of programs such as Nespresso’s mailer program is that it creates the illusion of being a good environmental citizen (from both the perspective of the packaging producer and the consumer). However, as both consumers and decision makers, we have to perform our due diligence when evaluating whether our actions (in this case, recycling) are achieving our intended objectives (preferable environmental outcomes).

What is perhaps most damning is that Nespresso Aluminum pods is one of the only environmentally friendly packaging types managed by Terracycle that can readily be recycled at a low cost. Table 1 below summarizes the known emissions credits and recycling costs for commonly found Blue Box Materials (managed via curbside).

Table 1: Comparison of Emissions Credits and Recycling Costs

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Please note that the costs per tonne DO NOT include collection costs – these are just the costs of sorting and processing materials at a material recycling facility, net of any revenue received from marketed materials. Curbside collection costs for Blue Box materials typically range from $150-$300 a tonne (as different municipalities have different collection infrastructure, housing densities, labor rates etc.).

While Terracycle did not provide a breakdown of their collection costs for any of their take back programs, the purpose of this study is to highlight that voluntary take back programs, particularly involving those using a mailer system, can only work when there is a critical mass of consolidated material, and that material is being collected at designated intervals. A take back program that leaves it to consumer discretion for how and when they will return end of life materials is in all likelihood significantly more costly from a transportation perspective due to the number of unique trips required. The only way for material to be efficiently transported is when there is a critical mass of material to transport.

As a secondary concern, important questions surrounding the accessibility and affordability of take back groups needs to be considered. Many of the programs offered by Terracycle and their partners exist largely in urban areas – the reason for this is fairly obvious, as it is simply not economically feasible to offer recycling programs to everyone, everywhere. As a tangent to this statement, the introduction of reusable packaging such as Loop has placed upwards pressures on the price of packaged goods – once again, a novel and unique design, but one that is not readily affordable or accessible to a significant percentage of Canadians.

A recent study from York University estimated that lower income marginalized households are those most likely affected by increases in packaging prices, as a greater proportion of their purchases are made up of pre-packaged items.

The findings from this study should be interpreted with a degree of caution – in the absence of having Terracycle’s data, we can only make best guess estimates based on the existing cost of managing a municipal waste system in Ontario. We welcome critics of these findings to share their data, such that we can all have a better understanding of what it is we would like to achieve from our waste management systems moving forward.  

Simply “recycling” is not enough, and we need to be both ready and willing to explore packaging alternatives that “think outside the Blue Box”.

Lithium Batteries – Rethink, Recycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lithium-based Batteries

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

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

Lithium Mining Operation

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

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

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

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

The importance of battery recycling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Li-Cycle Corporation

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

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

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

Concluding remarks

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

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


About the Author

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

Making the Case for a Zero Plastic Waste Economy: Canada Moves to Ban Single-Use Plastics in an Effort to Reduce Plastic Pollution

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Written by Selina Lee-Andersen, McCarthy Tetrault

There is no doubt that plastics provide unparalleled functionality and durability across a range of products in our everyday lives. The production and use of plastics is growing faster than any other material due to their many practical uses. However, certain characteristics that make plastics so valuable can also create challenges for their end-of-life waste management. In particular, the low costs of producing and disposing of plastics have increased the amount of disposable plastic products and packaging entering the consumer market. According to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME), over half of these disposable plastic products and packaging are designed to be used once and thrown away. CCME reports that an estimated 95% of the material value of plastic packaging (or between $100 and $150 billion dollars annually) is lost to the global economy after only a single use.

In recent years, plastic pollution has emerged as a critical environmental issue, one that must be addressed globally. To reduce plastic waste in Canada, the federal government announced in June 2019 that it will ban single-use plastics as early as 2021. The ban is expected to include items such as plastic bags, straws, cutlery, plates and stir sticks. The federal government will also work together with the provinces and territories to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs, which would seek to establish standards and targets for companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging.

The federal government has indicated that these measures will align with similar actions being taken in the European Union and other countries. In addition, these initiatives complement Canada’s adoption of the Ocean Plastics Charter in June 2018, which lays the groundwork for ensuring that plastics are designed for reuse and recycling. In addition, the federal government’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution includes ongoing work through the CCME to develop an action plan to implement the Canada-wide 2018 Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste.

Policy Initiatives to Reduce Plastic Pollution

The specific policy initiatives announced by the federal government include:

  • Banning harmful single-use plastics as early as 2021 under theCanadian Environmental Protection Act and taking other steps to reduce plastic waste, where supported by scientific evidence and when warranted – and taking other steps to reduce plastic waste. The ban would cover single-use plastic products and packaging (e.g. shopping bags, straws, cutlery, plates, and stir sticks); the specific products and measures included in the ban will be determined once a State of the Science assessment on plastic pollution in the environment has been completed. The assessment will include a peer review, public consultations, and socio-economic considerations. Additional regulatory actions could include requiring products to contain a set amount of recycled content, or be capable of being recycled or repaired.
  • Ensuring that companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging are responsible for managing the collection and recycling of their plastic waste. EPR programs are recognized as an effective mechanism to support the creation of a circular economy. Under an EPR program, companies making products are responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging. Through the CCME, the federal government will work with provinces and territories to support the development of consistent EPR programs across the country. This will include setting targets for plastics collection, recycling, and recycled content requirements.
  • Working with industry to prevent and retrieve abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear, known as ghost fishing gear – a major contributor to marine plastic debris. The federal government will work with stakeholders through a new Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program. In particular, the federal government will support fish harvesters to acquire new gear technologies to reduce gear loss, and take actions to support ghost gear retrieval and responsible disposal. In addition, the federal government will seek to reduce the impacts of ghost fishing gear in Canadian aquatic ecosystems. It is important to note that a significant amount of plastic in the oceans is comprised of fishing nets. In a study by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation that was published in 2018, scientists found that at least 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from fishing nets, while miscellaneous discarded fishing gear makes up the majority of the rest.
  • Investing in new Canadian technologies. Through the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, the federal government is helping small businesses across the country find new ways to reduce plastic waste and turn waste into valuable resources supporting a circular economy. Seven challenges have been launched so far, providing over $10 million dollars to 18 Canadian small- and medium-sized enterprises. These businesses are working to reduce plastic waste from food packaging, construction waste, marine vessels, and fishing gear. They are also improving plastic recycling through artificial intelligence and refining technologies for bioplastics.
  • Mobilizing international support to address plastic pollution. At the 2018 G7 meeting in Charlevoix, Canada launched the Ocean Plastics Charter, which outlines actions to eradicate plastic pollution in order to address the impacts of marine litter on the health and sustainability of the oceans, coastal communities, and ecosystems. As of July 2019, the Charter has been endorsed by 21 governments and 63 businesses and organizations. To assist developing countries in reducing marine litter, the federal government is contributing $100 million to help developing countries prevent plastic waste from entering the oceans, address plastic waste on shorelines, and better manage existing plastic resources. This includes $65 million through the World Bank, $6 million to strengthen innovative private-public partnerships through the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, and $20 million to help implement the G7 Innovation Challenge to Address Marine Plastic Litter.
  • Reducing plastic waste from federal operations. The federal government is strengthening policies, requirements, and guidelines that promote sustainable procurement practices, and has committed to divert at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030.
  • Reducing plastic microbeads in freshwater marine ecosystems. To reduce the amount of plastic microbeads entering Canadian freshwater and marine ecosystems, Canada prohibited the manufacture and import of all toiletries that contain plastic microbeads (such as bath and body products) as of July 1, 2018. A complete ban came into force July 1, 2019.
  • Supporting community-led action and citizen-science activities. The federal government has committed $1.5 million in 2019 for organizations to start new plastics projects that mobilize and engage citizens. This funding is designed to support community-led action through education, outreach, and citizen science, and support concrete actions through community cleanups and demonstrations to reduce plastic waste.
  • Launching Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda. The federal government will accelerate research into the life cycle of plastics and on the impacts of plastics pollution on humans, wildlife, and the environment. This agenda is aimed at supporting evidence-based decision-making and innovative approaches to sustainable plastics production, recycling, and recovery. Canada’s Plastics Science Agenda will also identify priority areas for multi-sector research partnerships to help achieve Canada’s zero plastic waste goals.

Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste

In July 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) commissioned a study to provide insights into the entire plastics value chain in Canada, from raw material production and products manufacturing to use and end-of-life. In June 2019, Deloitte and Cheminfo Services Inc. delivered its report to ECCC – the Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste (the Report).  Highlights of the Report are set out below.

The scope of the Report encompasses most plastics types used across all key sectors. The Report’s authors found that with total sales of approximately $35 billion, plastic resin and plastic product manufacturing in Canada accounts for more than 5% of sales in the Canadian manufacturing sector. The sector employs approximately 93,000 people across 1,932 establishments. In Canada, plastic products are in demand in most sectors of the economy, with approximately 4,667 kilotonnes (kt) of plastics introduced into the domestic market on an annual basis. The packaging, construction and automotive sectors account for 69% of plastic end-use.

In terms of the life cycle of plastics in Canada, the Report notes that it is mostly linear in nature, with an estimated 9% of plastic waste recycled, 4% incinerated with energy recovery, 86% landfilled, and 1% leaked into the environment in 2016. The main generators of plastic waste in Canada are:

  • packaging (43%);
  • automotive (9%);
  • textiles (7%);
  • electrical and electronic equipment (7%); and
  • construction (5%).

The Report found that plastics materials that were not recovered (i.e. 2,824 kt of resins sent to landfill or leaked into the environment) represented a lost opportunity of $7.8 billion for Canada in 2016, based on the value of virgin resin material. By 2030, the Report estimates that Canada’s lost opportunity in respect of unrecovered plastics could rise to $11.1 billion based on a business-as-usual scenario. Given forecasted trends in waste streams and economic drivers, the Report indicates that the linear profile of the Canadian plastics economy will not improve under a business-as-usual situation. The Report concluded that:

  • Given current market prices, structures, business models and the low cost of disposal, there is limited direct economic incentive for plastics recycling and value recovery in Canada. Primary (i.e. virgin resin production) and secondary (i.e. recycled) plastics compete against each other in the same market, based on price and quality of the resins. This competition is difficult for the recycling industry, which has to deal not only with prices, but also with quality issues as a result of uneven feedstock composition. While secondary plastics producers enjoy lower upfront investment than their counterparts in the primary market, they face greater financial exposure during periods of low oil prices (which bring down the price for virgin resins) because their cost structure is more labour intensive. Key barriers to the recovery of plastics include a combination of factors including low diversion rates (only 25% of all plastics discarded are collected for diversion), process losses in the sorting (e.g. shredded residues containing plastic are sent to landfill) and reprocessing stages, and the near absence of high volume recovery options for hard-to-recycle plastics (such as plastics waste coming from the automotive sector).
  • A zero plastic economy would deliver significant benefits to Canada. The Report’s authors modeled a 2030 scenario to examine the potential costs and benefits of achieving zero plastics waste. This scenario used a 90% landfill diversion rate as a proxy for zero plastic waste and assumed that: (i) plastics production and end use applications increased, but followed the same patterns as in 2016; (ii) mechanical recycling was quadrupled from its business-as-usual level; (iii) chemical recycling was significantly scaled up, taking into account readiness levels and associated learning curves; and (iv) energy from waste was leveraged to deal with the remaining volumes and hard-to-recycle plastics. An analysis by the authors demonstrated that the 2030 scenario would result in benefits including $500 million of annual costs avoided, 42,000 direct and indirect jobs created, and annual greenhouse gas emission savings of 1.8 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent.  
  • The analysis indicates that zero plastic waste cannot be achieved without concurrent, strategic interventions by government, industry stakeholders and the public across each stage of the plastic lifecycle and targeted at sectors. According to the Report, achieving 90% plastic waste recovery will require significant investment to diversify and expand the capacity of current value recovery options including mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, and waste-to-energy. The Report also notes that significant improvements to current plastic waste diversion rates will be required. In particular, a systematic approach across sectors will be needed because no single public or private sector action can shift the system.
  • The Report identifies the following five sets of interventions (including policies, measures and calls-to-action) to achieve zero plastic waste in Canada:
    1. Creating viable, domestic, secondary end-markets. This includes:
      • Creating stable, predictable demand for recycled plastics that is separate from virgin markets (e.g. requirements for recycled content, taxes/fees on virgin resins).
      • Improving the quality of recovered plastics at both the point of collection and in materials processing.
      • Improving access to domestic supply of recycled content.
      • Supporting innovation in product designs and uses for secondary plastics.
    2. Getting everybody onboard to collect all plastics. This includes:
      • Creating sector-specific requirements for collection (e.g. extended producer responsibility, performance agreements).
      • Restricting disposal (e.g. landfill taxes or bans).
      • Requiring/incentivizing collection (e.g. industry targets, deposit refund).
      • Developing more consistent requirements and rules across Canada (e.g. common curbside recycling).
      • Improving public information on collection and recyclability.
    3. Supporting and expanding all value-recovery options. This includes:
      • Supporting development of innovative value-recovery options, such as advanced mechanical and chemical recycling.
      • Focusing primarily on improving mechanical recycling.
      • Increasing the ease and speed at which new value recovery facilities can be developed by removing policy barriers and investing in innovation.
    4. Increasing efficiency throughout the value chain. This includes:
      • Facilitating collection and value-recovery by creating requirements for the reusability and recyclability of product design (e.g. standards and public procurement).
      • Improving performance by investing in sorting and separation.
      • Educating and engaging actors and consumers throughout the value chain.
    5. Extending plastics lifetime to reduce and delay waste generation. This includes leveraging opportunities to extend the lifetime of durable goods, which account for approximately 51% of total plastics waste, but have a very low recycling rate (2%) compared to that of non-durable goods (15%). In addition, the Report recommends introducing measures that contribute to increased reuse, repair and remanufacturing such as standard requirements for reparability or reusability, and tax exemptions to reduce and delay waste generation from durable goods in Canada.

In order to achieve zero plastic waste, radical changes will be required across the life cycle of plastic products. This includes not only changes in consumer behaviour, but also a significant increase in the number of recycling facilities in Canada, investments in recycling technology and the need for innovative government policies such as landfill taxes or product standards. As noted above, there is no single public or private sector action that can shift the system. Taking into consideration international benchmarks from ten European jurisdictions as well as US and Australian case studies, the Report’s authors note that a systemic approach is needed that is supp

This article has been republished with the permission of the author. It was originally posted on the McCarthy Tertrault Canadian Environmental Perspectives Blog.


About the Author

Selina Lee-Andersen is a partner in our Vancouver office and a member of the firm’s Environmental, Regulatory and Aboriginal Group, Energy & Mining Group, Retail and Consumer Markets Group, Defence Initiative and Asia Group. Recognized for her in-depth knowledge and range of experience, her practice focuses primarily in the areas of environmental law, corporate/commercial law, regulatory law, compliance, and Aboriginal issues in the energy and natural resource sectors.