Industry 4.0 and the Circular Economy: Towards a Wasteless Future or a Wasteful Planet?

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Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy: Towards a Wasteless Future or a Wasteful Planet?
by Antonis Mavropoulos and Anders Waage Nilsen
Publishing September 2020

HOW THE MARRIAGE OF INDUSTRY 4.0 AND THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY CAN RADICALLY TRANSFORM WASTE MANAGEMENT—AND OUR WORLD

Do we really have to make a choice between a wasteless and nonproductive world or a wasteful and ultimately self-destructive one? Futurist and world-renowned waste management scientist Antonis Mavropoulos and sustainable business developer and digital strategist Anders Waage Nilsen respond with a ringing and optimistic “No!” They explore the Earth-changing potential of a happy (and wasteless) marriage between Industry 4.0 and a Circular Economy that could—with properly reshaped waste management practices—deliver transformative environmental, health, and societal benefits. This book is about the possibility of a brand-new world and the challenges to achieve it.

The fourth industrial revolution has given us innovations including robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D-printing, and biotech. By using these technologies to advance the Circular Economy—where industry produces more durable materials and runs on its own byproducts—the waste management industry will become a central element of a more sustainable world and can ensure its own, but well beyond business as usual, future. Mavropoulos and Nilsen look at how this can be achieved—a wasteless world will require more waste management—and examine obstacles and opportunities such as demographics, urbanization, global warming, and the environmental strain caused by the rise of the global middle class.

  • Explore the new prevention, reduction, and elimination methods transforming waste management
  • Comprehend and capitalize on the business implications for the sector
  • Understand the theory via practical examples and case studies
  • Appreciate the social benefits of the new approach

Waste-management has always been vital for the protection of health and the environment. Now it can become a crucial role model in showing how Industry 4.0 and the Circular Economy can converge to ensure flourishing, sustainable—and much brighter—future.

Source: Wiley Publishers

Lessons Learned on Collection Policies in Ottawa

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Written by the Continuous Improvement Fund

In anticipation of the curbside collection contracts renewal, pending regulatory/policy change and the development of a 30-year Solid Waste Master Plan, the City of Ottawa retained Dillon Consulting Limited (Dillon) to complete a study and develop a curbside collection model. The model assisted the City in identifying the most cost-effective curbside waste collection system to help support increased waste diversion and reduce residential garbage, while also considering greenhouse gas impact, and cost of implementation.

The Microsoft Excel model was designed as a tool to assist staff in developing curbside collection options and/or new policies. It is based in Microsoft Excel.

The different waste diversion policies that were considered in the model were:

  • Bag/container limits for garbage
  • Pay As You Throw
  • Clear bag program for garbage
  • Containerized garbage program
  • Mandatory participation in diversion programs
  • Material bans e.g., grass clippings, organics and recyclables in garbage

The collection options considered in the model were:

  • Status quo
  • Weekly co-collection of blue/black box
  • Status quo level of service with a 4-day collection week
  • 4 day collection week
  • Status quo with separate weekly leaf/yard waste collection
  • Separate bi-weekly leaf/yard waste collection
  • Weekly collection of recyclables and leaf/yard waste

The model requires input of household information, collection seasons/periods, materials collected, truck compartment and utilization parameters, collection factors, collection costs and waste tonnage breakdown by material type to establish a baseline scenario, which is then used to compare against several different collection and policy options. It can compare new collection and policy options against status quo parameters including costs, vehicles required for servicing, diversion rates, and greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts.

Modeling required resources and system performance

Designed for adaptability, the model will allow other Ontario municipalities to analyze their integrated waste collection system by revising the inputs to the model and waste collection program policy customizations. The model produces several estimated outputs, including:

  • Number of trucks required (per season, per collection stream);
  • Number of hours required to collect materials (per season, per collection stream);
  • Annual cost per household and per person ($);
  • Capture rate (kg/person);
  • Diversion rate (%); and
  • GHG impacts (tonnes CO2 equivalents per year).

Note that this study only looks at residential households that receive curbside collection and does not include bulk material collection.

Lessons learned in Ottawa

Key outcomes of the modelling exercise for Ottawa were:

  • Higher curbside collection costs are attributed to weekly co-collection of dual stream recyclables and leaf/yard waste over a four-day collection week due to the number of vehicles required.

  • The lowest collection costs are for the status quo, and separate weekly or bi-weekly leaf/yard waste collection due to a lower number of vehicles being required than the other scenarios. Separate bi-weekly leaf/yard waste collection may produce less CO2 equivalents per year than status quo for all policy scenarios modeled.

  • Weekly co-collection of blue/black box under a four-day collection week is likely to produce the most CO2 equivalents per year due to the number of vehicles required and hours collecting waste materials.

  • There appears to be a correlation between cost effectiveness and greenhouse gas emissions; higher costs are attributed to model runs that have the higher number of CO2 equivalents per year.

  • Enforcement is key.

Universal Truths: Is Landfilling always a bad thing?

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

It’s not every day that an article about garbage is inspired by the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant. While I wish I could tell you that I am a philosophy scholar in my spare time who makes a regular habit of contemplating topics such as moral relativism and deontology, the truth is, I decided to Google a quote I read on an Instagram meme.

With that being said, I am glad I did, because it got me thinking about whether environmentalism, and by proxy, waste, has a set of universal truths that we could all agree upon. To be honest, not many readily come to mind – even for something as insidious as anthropogenic climate change, there are still a significant number of people who either downplay its impacts, or don’t believe in at all. However, one topic my mind kept on going back to was landfilling – When it comes to managing waste, is landfilling is always a “bad” thing?

Intuitively, this seems to make sense – the waste management hierarchy characterizes landfilling as an absolute last resort for managing waste, and many of my earliest memories of environmental issues revolved around the landfilling problem “We are throwing too much stuff away, and we are running out of places to put it”. Even our policies seem centered around keeping waste out of landfills, with system performance being measured in terms of “tonnes recycled and waste diverted”. Jurisdictions across the world are now championing the zero waste mantra, looking to maximize both the economic and environmental impacts of materials by keeping it out of the landfill.

With the above in mind, have we found the illusive universal truth for waste? Can we reach consensus that our goal should be keeping materials out of landfills, and that landfilling as a waste management strategy, is bad? Much like most other waste issues, the answer isn’t as black and white as it may first appear, and landfilling may not be as bad as you think (depending on how you choose to look at the problem).

Before delving into that discussion, let’s briefly remind ourselves about why landfilling is generally seen as bad:

1) There is a paucity of available landfill space – based on existing depletion rates, it’s estimated that Ontario will run out of landfill capacity within the next 15 years (with some even predicting less than 10)

2) If we consider waste a resource, landfilling fails to capture the full economic value of that material, as we do not exhaust all other potential use values prior to disposal.

3) The environmental impacts of sending a material to a landfill aren’t fully quantified or understood. Landfills are sometimes seen as a source of contamination for when waste enters both terrestrial and aquatic environments. Poorly designed landfills also pose acute risks with respect to leachate contamination, which could compromise soil and water health.

4) Landfilling sends the wrong message to the public – as noted above, the bulk of our environmental programming for the past 30 years has centered on recycling and reducing the amount of waste we send to landfills. Landfilling indirectly incents and rationalizes unnecessary waste generation.

5) One of the goals of a waste management system should be to prioritize other end of life applications, such as waste reduction, reuse and recycling. Landfilling runs the risk of undermining the benefits and importance of the 3Rs.

If the above statements are true, how on earth could landfilling not always be the worst option? The answer (as it often is), is tied to how we choose to define the goals of a system and measure success. If we measure success exclusively in terms of diversion rates, then yes, landfilling is probably always going to be a bad thing. However, if we take a step back and look what makes a waste management system sustainable, we must consider economic and social factors as well. The decision to reduce, reuse, recycle, incinerate or dispose of a material does not exist in isolation. There is always an “opportunity cost” to any decisions we make, and the decision to landfill or not to landfill a material must be evaluated relative to other options that we may have available.

The Cling Wrap Case Study

To better illustrate this point, let’s consider cling wrap, a plastic film made from LLDPE that is most commonly used by households to wrap and store food. If you were to ask most waste management operators, they would tell you that cling wrap is bad for the environment and extraordinarily problematic to manage – it’s difficult to screen and sort plastic film at a material recycling facility, and even when that is possible, there are virtually no end markets for the material. When it is recycled, it costs in excess of $2000 a tonne and that material is almost inevitably downcycled into a good that is still destined for landfill. In this scenario, our desire to keep cling wrap out of landfills via recycling results in an a massive bill – if 5000T of cling wrap are collected every year, and we attempt to recycle that material to avoid landfilling, it would cost approximately $10 million dollars to do so. To provide context, 5000T would represent less than half of a percent of all Blue Box materials recycled in Ontario, while the $10 million dollars would make up almost 4% of all costs. In this scenario, we are allocating an inordinate amount of resources to a material that for intents and purposes doesn’t net much in terms of environmental benefits.

The latter point is something worth highlighting, as not only does cling wrap have negligible environmental benefits in the event you are able to recycle it, but even if it does end up in a landfill, both acute and indirect harm to the environment from landfilling is negligible. For all intents and purposes, cling wrap is a relatively innocuous product that represents a tiny fraction of all material sent to a landfill (a drop in the bucket of overall capacity). It is inert and will not break down into the surrounding environment in any meaningful time frame (unless exposed to a catalyst of some type). Beyond the negative optics of discarding cling wrap in landfills, there is negligible measured harm.

While some may point to these issues as a reason for why we need to abandon cling wrap all together, it is important that we don’t myopically focus on an end of life problem, and consider the product’s entire life cycle when evaluating its environmental impact. As noted in the very first sentence of this section, cling wrap is most commonly used as a form of food storage.

In a 2019 study conducted by York University examining the life cycle impacts of various food storage products, the use of cling wrap by households was able to achieve both avoided food waste (less edible material being discarded) and food source reduction (reducing the need to go out and buy more food).

The carbon savings attributable to this change in consumption and storage habits for food resulted in a net carbon savings exceeding 10 T/CO2e for every 1 tonne of product manufactured. This modeling also assumed a worst case scenario, and assumed that cling wrap (and packaging) was comprised of 100% virgin materials, and that all materials would be landfilled at end of life. The recyclability (or lack thereof) of cling wrap had no bearing on the environmental benefits resulting from avoided food waste, even if every tonne of cling wrap was sent to landfill.

In short, cling wrap, a product that is often characterized as being environmentally harmful due to low levels of recyclability, abates more carbon than the average Blue Box material. Once again, when we take a step back and look at the life cycle of the products that we use, in addition to the economic costs of our various end of life options, the decision to recycle or landfill becomes less clear.

No such thing as a universal truth (in waste)

While I would like to think that there is at least one issue that we can all agree on, the complexity and nuances of a topic such as landfilling makes it all but impossible to achieve consensus. At first glance, landfilling does indeed seem like a very bad thing that should be avoided. When evaluating that statement in isolation, that is probably true. However, the moment we begin to think outside of the narrow scope of recycling/diversion rates and begin to include variables such as cost, capacity, available technology, perceived environmental harm, measured environmental harm, life cycle impacts, economic and environmental risks by disposal method etc., our answer may change. In fact, depending on who is asking the question and how they choose to weight certain factors, two people may have very different “truths” – neither one being right, or wrong.

From a personal perspective, when I think about the landfilling problem, my mind keeps on returning to the concept of opportunity cost. For every dollar I spend to keep something out of a landfill, that is one less dollar that I have to spend on something else. The flip side of that is that for every one tonne of material that I send to a landfill, means one tonne less tonne to store future waste. Does it make sense to spend thousands of dollars a tonne to ensure that materials such as composite and light-weight plastics are recycled instead of landfilled? From my perspective, no. The decision to spend millions of dollars on keeping a material out of landfill can only be rationalized if: a) the environmental benefit from recycling/diverting is significant b) the material poses an acute risk to the environment, and must be managed in a controlled way, and c) there is no remaining landfill/disposal capacity, necessitating that the material be diverted.

With that being said, I still think that we tend to lose sight of what we should be trying to achieve in the pursuit of aspirational goals such as zero waste and circularity. Our interpretation of those goals can be quite literal at times, with people ardently saying that landfilling has no place in a circular economy or zero waste future. But circularity and zero waste are subset of broader sustainability objectives – prohibiting disposal of materials in a landfill only makes sense if it is satisfying environmental, economic and social goals.

Can landfilling be bad? Absolutely. Can landfilling make sense given certain conditions? Of course. The most important thing is that we don’t treat all materials and circumstances the same way, incorporating life cycle thinking that can better inform whether we should landfill or divert a material. What to do with a material at end of life doesn’t start when you throw it in the garbage – it starts from the moment that a product is made.

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About the Author

Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

 

New study in the publication Nature finds compostable coffee pods a superior alternative to plastic pods

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

Recently, the esteemed academic journal Nature, published a study by University of Tennessee – Knoxville, which undertook a Life Cycle Assessment of compostable coffee pods. This study specifically examined the economic and environmental viability of compostable pods, relative to more conventional alternatives made from plastics.

The study found that compostable coffee pods readily broke down when included as part of the organics stream, resulting in both a cost savings of 21% relative to disposal, in addition to *improving* the quality and value of the compost.

These findings largely echo what was observed in a York University study conducted in the fall of 2018, which found that compostable coffee pods readily broke down in existing composting facilities in Ontario, and resulted in superior economic and environmental outcomes when compared to plastic and aluminum pods.

Why these findings are of particular importance in an Ontario context, is that detractors of compostable pods (which include the City of Toronto, Environmental Defense etc), continue to question the viability of compostable pods in existing composting facilities, and have even gone so far as to claim that the majority of compostable pods are being landfilled. Not only is this not true, but it adds further confusion to the conversation surrounding what materials are suitable for the green bin program.

The University of Tennessee study adds further credence to our initial findings, and adds some much needed clarity to a topic that is increasingly becoming politicized.

For any questions, comments or concerns regarding the York University study, please contact [email protected].

Goal Setting in a post Covid waste world: How have our priorities changed? What comes next?

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

Prior to almost every facet of our world being upended by a terrible and unexpected pandemic, stakeholders were working closer and closer to what some may even call a consensus with respect to waste management. Terms like circular economy and zero waste were not just buzz words, but the cornerstone of emerging waste management policy at both local and federal levels. Both brand owners and municipalities alike scrambled to find ways to transition away from single use packaging, promoting sustainable, recyclable and reusable products to help break our addiction to disposable packaging. Plastics in particular was a term often viewed with derision, with the federal government announcing a Zero Plastic Waste initiative. Several large CPG companies followed suit, making lofty declarations of going “Plastic Free”.

It’s funny just how much can change in a matter of months.

COVID has given the entire industry (and world) a moment to pause and really ask ourselves “What it is that we want to achieve? What are the steps we need to get there? Who are the people/organizations/sectors that need to be involved? and What time frame are we operating under?”

Now some of you may be asking, why on earth would our goals change just because of COVID? Isn’t it best to keep working towards the goals and aspirations that we currently have? In short, the answer (in my opinion) is no.

While I don’t intend to come across as arrogant or some sort of authority on the topic, I have held (and voiced) significant concerns regarding existing approaches towards waste management policy and practices,  and attempted to highlight that the goals we actually had were more aspirational than pragmatic.

Consider the following statements (all actual goals)

1)    Canada will move to divert at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030 (Canada)

2)    Canada will move to ban single use plastics by the year 2021

3)    Toronto will divert 95% of all waste by the year 2050

4)    The Province of Ontario will divert 30% of all wastes by 2020, 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050

5)    The Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s goal is to ensure that 100% of all plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable and compostable (waste to energy DOES NOT count)

All of the above goals represent a tremendous amount of work and thought by individuals and organizations far smarter than me – however, when examining these goals through the lens of a sustainable framework, we see some of the practical challenges that arise, particularly in a post COVID world.

Where is the Data?

To me, the biggest challenge facing our waste management sector is a complete lack of data, most of which is necessary information before we can even begin designing policies and systems that are more sustainable in the long term.

As an example, if Toronto would like to divert 95% of all waste by the year 2050, it would seem prudent that we know just how much waste we are talking about. What so few people understand is that the figures we see regarding waste generation, waste recovery, percentage of material recycled/diverted etc. are largely based on best guess estimates.

Sometime last year, I remember coming across a news headline that boldly stated “Canada is only recycling 9% of its plastics”. The idea that a country as “green” as Canada could be doing such a poor job was almost unfathomable – both the public and policy makers alike demanded to know how we could do better. My response was perhaps more muted, and my first question was “How do we even know how much plastic we are generating the first place?”( ? (Please see my previous article https://advancedwastesolutions.ca/separating-fact-from-fiction-are-we-really-only-recycling-9-of-plastics/))

The picture that was painted for the public was heavily sensationalized – plastics are piling up in our landfills, in our waterways, and now, more than ever, consumers needed to stand up and say “NO MORE!” to single use plastics. It was an easy message to get behind, and suddenly, plastics was public enemy number 1.

Digging a little bit deeper into the issue (and the study behind the headline), it was quick to see that the projections surrounding plastic generation, recovery etc. were all modeled, using a set of heavily caveated assumptions. Without delving into an excessively long technical discussion surrounding how those figures were modeled, in short, I can say with confidence that we do not know how much plastics is being recycled – nobody does.

I don’t think many people, both within and outside the waste sector, truly understand just how little data publicly exists when it comes to waste.

As a thought exercise, which of the following information do you think we have?

1)    Total quantities of plastics (or any material) generated and sold into Ontario in the last calendar year (both residential and IC&I)?

2)    How many tonnes of potentially recovery materials ending up in landfills?

3)    The costs of attempting to recycle material at end life? (if recyclable)

4)    What quantities of waste are being self-managed on site for commercial generators which discusses on site material management in greater detail)

5)    Estimates to determine long term landfilling capacity for both residential and IC&I sources

6)    Detailed and methodologically defensible waste auditing strategies to approximate for the waste generation profiles of individual municipalities (both single family and multi-residential),

7)    A detailed overview of waste management infrastructure currently available. This includes the number of material recycling facilities, transfer stations, depots, as well as information regarding the operational capabilities of each of these sties (capacity, throughput etc.)

8)    A mass balance of where materials that is recycled, goes (what end market? In what application? Etc.)

9)    Credible and publicly accessible data pertaining to the waste generation and recovery from the IC&I sector

10) A common data repository managed by an independent body that is responsible for collecting, maintaining and analyzing data pertinent to the waste management sector that can be used to assist in policy formulation and decision making.

For all intents and purposes, we don’t have any of the above. You would be genuinely shocked just how many stakeholders overestimate how much data we have, or what can be done with it. My professional career is full of anecdotes involving stakeholders who would conduct waste audits with no consideration of sample stratification or how to develop a time series. Perhaps the most egregious example was working on a project that modeled future landfilling requirements and lifespans based on a single (and unrelated) variable. While we could probably spend a very long time debating who’s fault that is, and point fingers at one another, it doesn’t change the fact that the state of data in the waste management sector is poor. In many ways, policy planners have actually done a commendable job in doing what they have been able to given the patchwork of reliable information that exists.

However, if COVID-19 has given all of us a reason to pause, we may as well pause and see whether the data that we have, or have access to, is supportive of our ambitious goals. The lack of “good data” poses numerous challenges, namely, how we do we develop *realistic* goals that we can track, measure and work towards. What is of critical importance is that any discussions surrounding waste management policy and programming *must* be rooted in sound data. This is particularly true of any potential legislation that involves the IC&I sector – we cannot develop a potential solution for encouraging diversion in these sectors, without having a sense of the size and scale of the problem.

Vowing to keep all plastics out of landfills is a commendable goal, but only if we could tell you how much there is to actually keep out.

The importance of goal setting

The discussion surrounding data’s role in helping develop goals is a useful segue into the second part of this paper – the importance of goal setting.

As noted above, goal setting is critical for the success of a waste management program, however, goal setting should ideally address the following characteristics:

1)    What is the goal, and what am I measuring?

2)    Is my goal realistic given access to existing information, resources and infrastructure?

3)    Is there consensus about what the goal should be among stakeholders?

4)    If different stakeholders have competing goals/objectives, how do we encourage collaborative dialogue to avoid antagonism?

5)    Is there quantifiable metrics to track and measure progress towards my goal?

6)    Am I able to change my goal in response in new situations or information?

7)    How will I know if I have achieved my goal?

8)    How can I monitor the results of my goal over time to ensure continued success?

9)    How do set new goals once our initial goal has been reached?

What makes goal setting in waste management particularly problematic (beyond the lack of data), is the lack of consensus regarding what it is we are trying to achieve.

As noted earlier, there was a significant amount of momentum across the sector to work towards a circular economy and achieve zero waste – however, despite this seeming consensus, there are multiple paths to achieving a particular outcome, with very different sets of winners and losers depending on what we choose to prioritize.

To use a practical example, let’s revisit the City of Toronto’s 95% diversion target by the year 2050. In this case, our goal is diversion, and we are measuring % of total waste diverted relative to overall quantities of waste generated. As noted prior, we have acknowledged that there are data concerns regarding credibly quantifying total generation, but let’s set that aside for a moment.

In my opinion, while the 95% diversion target is certainly an ambitious and aspirational goal that we should strive for, it is not something that I would characterize as being readily achievable, for two reasons: 1) Weight based key performance indicators, and 2) The definition of diversion.

1)    The foremost issue is that diversion is a weight based KPI, in a world where our packaging and products is becoming increasingly lighter and lighter. This phenomenon, which has been characterized as the evolving tonne by the likes of industry experts @Chaz Miller and @Mariah Kelleher, shows that the proliferation of light weight, composite materials results in materials that are volumous, but not heavy. Compared to the average mix of materials found in the Blue Box a decade ago, current materials are anywhere from 15-25% lighter.

Why this maters is that a diversion target (measured against total waste generation), is inherently going to be handicapped by the fact that the total tonnes being managed in our waste management system is decreasing over time. It is also worth noting that the types of materials that will need to be collected to achieve incremental diversion will be difficult to recycle material. These materials are often incompatible with existing collection and processing infrastructure, with limited end market applications. In short, there is very little economic incentive to recover these materials – the economics of diversion, and more specifically, recycling, is often untenable (to be discussed in greater detail later in this paper)

2)    While other jurisdictions (i.e. Belgium) have significantly higher diversion rates for their residential recycling programs, the way we choose to define diversion in Ontario differs. In certain jurisdictions, waste to energy (the 4th R), is considered a viable method of keeping materials out of landfills. However, in Ontario, waste to energy is not considered a viable form of diversion. While this short article is not intended to debate the merits or viability of waste to energy, I do want to highlight that the goals that we set should be consistent with the infrastructure and rules we have in place.

In short, it is impossible for Toronto to reach their goal of 95% diversion without considering some form of energy to waste facility. Even if we assume an idealized scenario where all households put their waste in the appropriate Blue and Green bins, residue losses at sortation facilities often range from 8 – 12%.

Balancing goals with our budgets

Returning to the topic of economics, it is impossible to develop sustainable waste management goals without carefully considering the economic impacts of attempting to realize those goals.

As noted in an earlier section of this paper, some of the goals we have defined for the waste management sector include the recyclability of products/packaging. The Ellen MacArthur foundation has even gone so far as to say that ALL products must be made up of materials that can either be recycled, reused or composted.

While this goal is certainly commendable and something that should be worked towards, it is also not realistic given the practical constraints of existing waste management systems. Even prior to the COVID pandemic, the recycling industry for printed paper and packaging was already on extremely unsteady legs as a result of the Chinese National Sword. These effects were only exacerbated by the impact of COVID, which has essentially pulled the rug out on commodity pricing and adversely impacted the flow of markets. In some instances, virgin resin is cheaper than recycled resin, and is threatening to undo years of progress with respect to increasing recycled content in consumer goods.

What industry will do in response to this crisis remains uncertain – there is no guarantee that recycled markets will recover in the immediate future. Policy planners are now facing the very real choice of continuing to pursue a goal of recyclability/compostability/reusability, despite a rapidly changing landscape that is extraordinarily difficult to predict and plan for. In turn, manufacturers must make design decisions today that will have an impact on their operations for months, if not years to come.

Second chances: Plastics, can we try again?

While COVID has provided the waste sector with an opportunity to pause and evaluate both short and long term priorities, perhaps the most interesting (and unintended) impact is how attitudes towards plastics have shifted.  Historically, the characterization of single use plastics is that they are terrible and should be discouraged. However, in a post COVID world, both households and retailers are at a heightened state of anxiety with respect to product safety. Suddenly the individually wrapped cucumber and the plastic bag of apples doesn’t seem quite as silly as before, as it minimizes direct food handling and helps mitigate against the risks of contracting or spreading the virus. Increasingly, both consumers and retailers are looking for opportunities to minimize the risk of contamination (largely through direct handling of a particular item), while simultaneously increasing shelf life, both at the store, and in the home. The use of plastic packaging, particularly plastic film, has been shown to act as a barrier to bacteria and viruses, while also promoting product longevity and avoiding food waste/spoilage.

Plastic has also played a critical role with respect to personal protective equipment. While these items are largely characterized as single use (i.e. plastic gloves), the relative scarcity of PPE relative to the overwhelming demand demonstrates that there are no readily available substitutes that can be used in lieu of plastics. Whether we like to admit it or not, plastics plays a vital role in the war against COVID, and decisions to ban or limit the use of plastics can have detrimental and unanticipated impacts. Very rarely are material bans an effective long term waste management strategy – generally speaking, optimal outcomes are born out of giving manufacturers more options, not less.

What the COVID pandemic has demonstrated is that plastics have a role to play in our economy, but we need to recognize that not all plastics are created equal, and by extension, not all goals are going to apply to everything, everywhere. Perhaps one of the biggest failings of the prior framing of the plastics issue, is that the topic was often characterized in binary terms: Good/Bad, For/Against. No issue, particularly one as nuanced as product design for the environment and end of life, can ever be distilled into a clear black and white answer. The same consumers who were calling for plastic bans are now the same ones clamoring for plastic gloves. Of note, the momentum behind reusable and refillable packaging has also come to a grinding halt as a result of COVID. Many retailers have pressed the pause button on implementing reusable packaging at a wide scale, while many of the mediums in which reusable/refillable containers are encouraged (e.g. using a refillable mug for coffee) have been abandoned temporarily until the pandemic begins to abate. In addition to the normal risks associated with cross contamination when allowing used containers into a retail space, consumers have expressed ambivalence about the risks associated with COVID.

I use this aforementioned example to demonstrate that opinions and attitudes are often malleable, while infrastructure and legislation are not. Responding to changes in consumer sentiment or political will, must be weighed against what can reasonably be achieved given resource and time constraints.

While the COVID crisis will ultimately be seen as a black stain in our history, it does present a unique and fairly rare opportunity to take stock of our waste management system, and decide what should come next.  This unprecedented situation highlights that we need to crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run. Setting ambitious goals is definitely something that should be encouraged – however, ambition is not the same as hubris. Without data, stakeholder consensus, jurisdictional harmonization and the ability to monitor, evaluate and re-calibrate our goals, we are setting the sector up for failure. Always keep in mind that the goals of today, are not necessarily the goals of tomorrow – as COVID has demonstrated, life can change when we least expect it.

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About the Author

Calvin Lakhan, Ph.D, is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. He holds a Ph.D from the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University joint Geography program, and degrees in economics (BA) and environmental economics (MEs) from York University. His research interests and expertise center around evaluating the efficacy of municipal recycling initiatives and identifying determinants of consumer recycling behavior.

 

Free Webinar on True Zero Waste and the Circular Economy

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This webinar is a complimentary event open to the United States Green Building Coalition – Los Angeles (USGBC-LA) community members and the general public.  It is scheduled for May 13th at 11 am Pacific Daylight Time.

Topics of discussion on the TRUE Zero Waste and Circular Economy Overview – Webinar on May 13th (11 am PDT) include:

  • What is Circular Economy?
  • What’s the difference between Circular Economy and a really good recycling program?
  • Introduction to the basic concepts:
    • Waste = Food
    • Build Resilience Through Diversity
    • Energy from Renewable Resources
    • Think in Systems
    • True Zero Waste Certification overview

Without urgent action, global waste will increase by 70 percent on current levels by 2050, according to the World Bank’s new report. The make-take-waste way of doing things is coming to an end and if we do it right, we’ll create massive new economical and social opportunities!

During the webinar there will be a discussion on how businesses can create value by striving for zero waste, seeing products and materials as cycles, the role of creative solutions, and how you can contribute to make the transition to a Circular Economy.

SPEAKERS

 Denise Braun, CEO All About Waste

Denise has over seventeen years of experience in the sustainability field, starting in Brazil and then moving to the United States. She is the founder and principal of All About Waste – a woman and minority-owned sustainability and zero waste consulting firm based in Los Angeles, CA. Denise and her team provide a diverse range of services including solid waste data collection and analysis, circular strategic frameworks, green building certifications, zero waste programs and certification, training/educational workshops, and community outreach. She has worked in various capacities on over 150 LEED-certified projects, many of which have achieved the highest level of certification with no clarifications. Denise is currently working on several zero-waste and wellness projects. She worked on the first TRUE-certified zero waste high-rise commercial building in the world. Denise has been responsible for over 30 million square feet of waste audits and has developed and analyzed technical waste management solutions for a large variety of building types. Denise has presented at numerous lectures, workshops, and conferences, including the annual Municipal Green Building Conference and Expo, Net Zero Conference, the Living Building Collaborative Zero Waste Forum and the GreenBuild Conference & Expo. She currently has several accreditation and expertise such as: LEED AP,  WELL AP, ENV SP, TRUE Advisor, Fitwel Ambassador and sustainable supply chain. She also is sitting as a Board of Director at USGBC-LA.

 Ryan McMullan, CEO Lean Green Way

Over his career Ryan McMullan has led several Sustainability programs including in Toyota’s Corporate Responsibility department and Rice University’s Facilities & Engineering department.  These have included strategically developing and deploying environmental targets across a wide variety of functional groups, reporting on environmental progress, greenhouse gas inventories, and developing programs for zero waste, zero carbon, and zero water.  He now consults with companies like Lockheed-Martin, Walmart and Mattress Recycling Council (MRC) to help them establish leading sustainability strategies. He is an advisor to TRUE Zero Waste Certification at GBCI and the Environmental Leader Conference. He earned his Masters from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara and his Bachelor’s from Rice University.  At home he keeps busy improving the sustainability of his home in Long Beach, California, teaching his 10-year-old son to conserve resources and design games, and writing on his experiences.

British Columbia Landfill to convert LFG to RNG and sell it to FortisBC

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The Capital Regional District (CRD) recently  announced approval in principle of an agreement where FortisBC will purchase Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) produced from the landfill gas (LFG) that is generated from the Hartland Landfill.  The RNG will be used by FortisBC for beneficial use in its natural gas distribution system.

The CRD is a regional government for 13 municipalities and three electoral areas on southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, serving more than 413,000 people. FortisBC Energy Inc. owns and operates approximately 49,000 kilometres of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines. FortisBC Energy Inc. is a subsidiary of Fortis Inc., a major company in the North American regulated electric and gas utility industry.

The project is expected to reduce the region’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by approximately 264,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the 25-year project life, the equivalent of removing 2,240 cars from the road for 25 years. The agreement would allow for FortisBC to purchase between 140,000 gigajoules to 280,000 gigajoules each year for 25 years, starting in late 2021.

“Climate action and environmental stewardship are embedded in the CRD’s strategic priorities, committing the CRD to take a leadership role pursuing carbon neutrality,” said CRD Board Chair Colin Plant. “This Earth Day, we are sharing this significant move forward in our commitment to this goal — working alongside local governments to further reduce emissions and explore new resource recovery opportunities are key initiatives associated with this priority. The GHG analysis clearly points to upgrading landfill gas to Renewable Natural Gas as the best decision for the climate.”

RNG is a carbon-neutral energy made from capturing and upgrading the biogas released from decomposing organic waste in the landfill. RNG blends seamlessly with conventional natural gas in the existing natural gas system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Ongoing commitment towards a lower carbon future remains a key focus at FortisBC,” said Doug Stout, vice-president of market development and external relations with FortisBC. “I’d like to thank the teams at FortisBC and the Capital Regional District for their collaboration in completing this important application and another positive step forward in achieving provincial GHG reductions.”

Increasing the amount of renewable gases in FortisBC’s system is a vital step towards their 30BY30 target, an ambitious goal to reduce customers’ GHG emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

In 2004, Hartland’s landfill gas-to-electricity plant began using landfill gas for green power generation and currently supplies electricity to approximately 1,600 homes in the region. The volume of biogas being produced at the landfill has exceeded the capacity of this current system, and the existing infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life. Two options were evaluated: expanding the existing power generation equipment to sell more electricity to BC Hydro or installing a biogas upgrading facility at Hartland Landfill to upgrade this biogas to RNG. This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the displacement of conventional natural gas in alignment with the CRD Board’s climate emergency declaration.

A lifecycle greenhouse gas assessment of the two alternatives found that upgrading landfill gas to RNG will reduce the region’s GHG emissions by approximately 264,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the 25-year project life, a significant improvement over the electricity scenario, which would result in an approximate 2,800 tonne reduction.

The CRD and FortisBC are currently working together on a supply contract that will be submitted to the British Columbia Utilities Commission for approval. If approved by the commission, the CRD will continue to be responsible for the ownership and operation of the Hartland Landfill, the landfill gas collection system and the upgrade facility. FortisBC will pay a fixed price per gigajoule for the RNG and will be responsible for the costs associated with injecting the RNG in to the natural gas distribution system.

 

Australian City Looking at Smarter Approach to Waste Management

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The City of Canterbury Bankston in Australia recently received $2 million in funding under Australia’s Smart Cities and Suburbs Program to work on a project called Closing the Loop on Waste.  Under the project, the city will investigate how it can deliver superior waste management customer service to residents using technology.

These City’s waste management team face several challenges in their quest to manage city waste effectively and efficiently. Other city officials may also relate to the following challenges:

Manual Process: The process of picking up and inspecting waste bins is very manual with little automation, which makes it quite time-consuming.

Real-Time Issues: The process is not well equipped to deal with real-time operations. For example, if an urgent job comes in, it requires phone calls to find someone who can handle it. There is also not a very good view of where all the trucks are in real-time throughout the day.

Data Accuracy: The city knows how many properties they service, but not exactly how many bins are picked up. Bins are also inspected manually, which can result in data errors.

Communication with the Community: The system currently doesn’t allow for proactive communication with citizens to let them know what is happening; instead, they react to citizen requests after they come in, which have to come in by phone call because online/mobile reporting is not set up.

The overall focus of the project is to improve waste management by using things like GPS for trucks, cameras, sensors, and artificial intelligence. Thinking big picture, the Waste Management Team for the City is also looking into how the data they gather in this project can improve other aspects of the City. Although the project is about waste management and sustainability, the main goal is always to improve the overall operations and quality of life in the city. Specific results that Closing the Loop on Waste will hope to achieve include the following:

  • Use advanced analytics to detect bin contamination, identify when waste bins have been missed, and investigate illegal dumping

  • Upgrade residents’ access to information regarding bin collections days and other programmed services

  • Use GPS data and live traffic information, to minimize potential delays on collection routes

  • Enable residents to request services or report incidents, via a real-time and customized format, that takes into account the diversity of the local community

  • Provide residents with notifications, when jobs they’ve requested are completed

  • Enable residents and organisations to upload images of dumped rubbish, which can be assessed before removal

Smart Cities group

Six Things To Consider Before The Coronavirus Impacts Environmental Compliance

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Written by Patrick Traylor, Conrad Bolston, and Misty M. Howell, Vinson & Elkins LLP

Companies with environmental compliance obligations should think carefully about and plan ahead for how the coronavirus outbreak might affect their ability to comply. Depending on the severity of the outbreak, companies may run out of the supplies they need to operate pollution controls, or their environmental compliance departments might become short-staffed, which could result in missed monitoring, recordkeeping, or reporting. Here are six things to keep in mind.

Enforcement discretion. Think about developing a strong argument for why federal and state environmental enforcement agencies should exercise their enforcement discretion not to pursue noncompliance caused by an emergency. The EPA has a long-standing policy that allows for “no action” assurances to be issued to excuse noncompliance during emergencies. The prerequisites for an assurance are stringent, and a requestor must demonstrate that the public interest in excusing noncompliance outweighs the public impacts from the noncompliance. These assurances may only be issued by the Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, so the work of obtaining them must be conducted at EPA Headquarters.

Malfunctions and upset defenses. Think about how malfunction and upset provisions in federal and state regulations and many permits can provide protection against enforcement, but only if the company complies with the prerequisites for these provisions. Each state (and some federal regulations) has different malfunction and upset rules, so it will be important to meet the stringent conditions of these rules before noncompliance will be excused.

Force majeure. Think about whether the company is subject to federal or state settlements that might have a force majeure clause that could excuse noncompliance. Most federal judicial consent decrees have force majeure clauses that could excuse noncompliance, but require that companies use “best efforts” to avoid noncompliance. Companies should carefully review their settlements to see how to comply with their force majeure provisions. And some states have “act of God” statutes under which the inevitable consequences of such events (which may include “other catastrophes”) are deemed to not constitute violations at all.

Impact of staffing challenges. Think about how staffing challenges might affect the company’s ability to comply. With companies beginning to shut down operations, it is possible that environmental compliance staff might not be able to work, and the company might miss monitoring, recordkeeping, and reporting obligations. A company will want to very clearly justify decisions to excuse environmental compliance staff from work, especially if a “no action” assurance is sought or a malfunction/upset/force majeure claim is made.

Don’t forget your supply contracts. Think about the terms and conditions of supply contracts that are critical for environmental compliance and consider taking steps now to make sure suppliers comply with their contracts. If they cannot, think about whether a supply failure could qualify as a malfunction, upset, or force majeure event.

After the storm has passed. Think ahead to when the crisis has passed, and governmental and non-governmental organizations evaluate whether the emergency justified any noncompliance.


About the Authors

Patrick Traylor is a partner in Vinson & Elkin’s Environment and Natural Resources practice and was most recently the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in Washington, D.C., where he helped oversee the EPA’s enforcement response during natural disasters.

Conrad Bolston is a senior associate in Vinson & Elkin’s Environment and Natural Resources practice. He has assisted clients with a variety of federal and state environmental enforcement matters, environmental due diligence efforts, regulatory guidance, internal investigations, and litigation.

Misty M. Howell is an associate in Vinson & Elkin’s Environment and Natural Resources practice. She has assisted clients with a variety of federal environmental enforcement matters, due diligence efforts, government investigations, and litigation. 

COVID 19 Disrupts Cross-Border Waste and Recyclables Flow

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Written by Jonathan D. Cocker, Baker McKenzie and Peter Hargreave, Policy Integrity Inc.

COVID 19 Disrupts Cross-Border Waste and Recyclables Flow

In light of all the actions being taken by all levels of government to address the spread of the coronavirus, it is worth considering its impact on the waste management sector in Canada.  For most, how waste is collected and where it is taken, is not a daily consideration.  And yet, it is one of the most important public health and safety considerations.

Canadian Waste Industry Vulnerable to US Shutdown

In Ontario for instance, roughly one-third of the Province’s waste disposal needs are met by landfills in the United States.  That equates to 3.2 million tonnes of waste a year or roughly 9,000 tonnes per day. While other Canadian provinces do not have the same reliance on out-of-country disposal, many are reliant on a degree of waste materials being shipped across the border.

The free movement of these materials across the US border is an important element of the current Canadian waste management system.  In the last two decades, we have dealt with a few potential disruptions to this flow of materials.

  • The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 provided a first indication of the potential vulnerability when US border access was constrained.  The immediate closure and proceeding long lines at the border lasted for several days afterward. The Ontario Ministry of Environment, for instance, had to facilitate emergency measures to ensure waste could be managed in the interim period.
  • After a number of waste truck rollovers in Michigan in the early 2000s, local Senators threatened legislative action to restrict waste crossing the border. This led to an agreement between the state of Michigan and Ontario municipalities in 2006, to end the export of municipal waste (specifically from the GTA) to Michigan by 2010. The province helped facilitate the agreement, and as a result, the state of Michigan dropped all legislative initiatives to stop waste imports. The agreement did not include non-residential waste. By 2010, Ontario municipalities had stopped sending residential waste to Michigan. For a time, overall waste shipments to the U.S. declined, but since 2010, non-residential waste export to the U.S. has steadily increased.
  • Concerns were also raised again as part of the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 2018 that there could be potential for restrictions on the movement of goods.

Any impact on the movement of waste as a result of a closure to the border, would necessitate the management of this roughly 9,000 tonnes of additional waste domestically.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures?

As in 2001, the inability to transfer waste to the United States would likely necessitate potential changes to environmental permits (such as Environmental Compliance Approvals in Ontario) or governmental emergency declarations / measures to allow for waste receiving sites to increase their annual daily maximum limits. Provincial regulators have been prepared in the past in granting the necessary permissions, and are likely doing similar work  now to ensure the waste industry is not at risk of willful non-compliance.

It may also be the case that some of these waste volumes don’t easily find an alternate receiving site, putting the collectors and/or haulers in the difficult position of potentially operating an unlicensed waste storage facility.  Provincial governments will need to think through these situations including requiring certain sites to accept materials.  In short, there are no simple solutions, but proper planning across the country can at least reduce risks.

Hazardous Recyclables and Hazardous Waste Movement Compliance

In the case of hazardous materials for which no clear alternate home is available in Canada, the situation is even more precarious.   Internationally, no less than 99% of all (lawful) hazardous recyclables (and hazardous waste) exported from, or imported to, Canada are with the United States.  International wastes are still regulated in Canada under the Export and Import of Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Recyclable Material Regulations, which has yet to be replaced by the long-proposed and more business-friendly Cross-border Movement of Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Recyclable Material Regulations.  

The Export and Import law currently requires certifications from the holder that any recyclable or waste which is not successfully transferred across the border will be lawfully disposed of in Canada consistent with the approved recycling or waste activity under which the materials were to be transited to the United States.  

A closed border will, in at least some circumstances, put that certification to the test as not all materials exported to the United States have an alternate recycling or disposal facility in Canada.  This is increasingly so with the growth of more specialized and regionally-servicing facilities in US states which capture both Canadian and American materials.  

Some Canadian Recyclers Dependent Upon US Material 

The reverse also creates challenges for the waste industry as some Canadian recyclers are economically dependent on US material.   The disruption of the needed supply of US-originating materials into specialized recycling and disposal facilities in Canada can quickly create a situation where insufficient material volumes makes the facilities no longer viable, leaving the Canadian materials also without a home.

In other words, the growth of integration, particularly in respect of hazardous recyclables and discrete hazardous wastes makes a border shutdown acutely challenging for the Canadian recycling and waste industry.

Contingency Planning to be Developed?

It is likely an overreaction to anticipate that US-Canada integration in resource recovery and waste disposal will come to an end with the current closure of the border.   The economies of scale and lower cost disposal capacity in the United States will presumably reinvigorate this international trade once the worst of COVID-19 has passed.

There may, however, be a growth in contingency planning in respect of Canadian waste and recycling capacity, recognizing a myriad of events may give rise to future US border closures and the Canadian waste industry needs to be prepared.


About the Authors

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. 

Peter Hargreave, President of Policy Integrity Inc., has over 15 years’ experience in providing strategic advice in the development, implementation and oversight of public policy. Over his professional career, he has developed a strong network of relationships with regulators, public and private organizations, and other key stakeholders involved in environmental issues across Canada, the United States and abroad.