Canada invests in waste-to-fuel study for Indigenous and Northern Communities

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The Government of Canada recently announced it was providing $95,000 in financial support to the Aurora Research Institute, in association with Delta Enterprises, a Gwitch’in owned company, to study the potential of converting waste cardboard into pellets as biomass feedstock for heating homes and businesses throughout Inuvik.

Northern communities are looking at ways to reduce their reliance on diesel for heating and electricity by increasing the use of local renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency.  The goal of the project is to eventually build a facility that will take up to 60 per cent of the community’s cardboard bound for the landfill and instead, recycle it into heating pellets, thereby supplementing Inuvik’s biomass pellet supply and reducing reliance on fossil fuels used for heating.

Converting the cardboard to pellets and then burning the pellets to generate heat and electricity results in lower greenhouse gas emissions than disposing of the cardboard in landfill.

By supporting an emerging northern biomass industry, the Government wants to create local jobs, transition to clean energy and keep investments in the North by using local resources and building a regional economy. This will support healthier, more sustainable communities, across the North.

The funding for the study is through the Northern Responsible Energy Approach for Community Heat and Electricity program (Northern REACHE).  This investment is part of Canada’s nearly $700 million commitment to help rural and remote communities get off diesel, through programs delivered by Natural Resources Canada and Infrastructure Canada.

Manitoba Launches Organics Green Impact Bond

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The Manitoba government is launching a unique $1-million Green Impact Bond that will support projects that help divert organic waste from landfills, create green jobs and reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.

The Green Impact Bond is a finance tool to fund impact-driven projects, enabling the government to rapidly innovate and implement new solutions for organic waste and GHG emissions while sharing risks with the private sector. This tool brings the public, private, non-profit and charitable sectors together to develop innovative solutions to complex problems that have not been solved by one sector alone. Through the Green Impact Bond, a service provider is to meet agreed-upon outcomes for organic waste diversion, job creation and GHG reduction. Investors will provide up-front funding to the service provider. A third-party evaluator will determine whether the outcomes have been met and the return on investment to be paid by the province.

Waste and landfills account for 3.3 per cent of Manitoba’s annual GHG emissions. Manitoba’s landfills are approaching capacity and by some estimates, approximately 40 per cent of their waste is organic material. Organic waste produces methane, a harmful GHG, so diverting organic waste from landfills will reduce emissions, contributing to the Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan and Carbon Savings Account.

Innovative NRG, a Manitoba waste-to-energy company, has been chosen as the Green Impact Bond service provider. The company will use its patented and proprietary innovative technology, branded as Rapid Organic Conversion (ROC), to process organic waste such as animal byproducts and waste-water sludge through a gasification process. The ROC technology is a made-in-Manitoba innovative, clean-tech solution that vaporizes carbon-based waste material. Thermal energy released in the process is captured and can heat buildings or water for industrial uses, thereby reducing the use of fossil fuels. Waste-to-energy can be appropriate for materials that do not have landfill diversion options such as recycling. Innovative NRG’s waste diversion units will be installed in the rural municipalities of Cartier and Rossburn, as well as in the town of Carman.

“We need to take steps to prolong the lifespan of our landfills and this Green Impact Bond provides a great opportunity to reduce organic waste while growing Manitoba’s green economy,” said Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah  Guillemard. “By reducing organics in our landfills, we lower the production of methane and create new, clean-growth job opportunities.”

The concept of impact investment is growing globally. The Green Impact Bond creates a unique investment opportunity for those committed to driving environmental change. Organizations can now support transformational work while investing at competitive rates in Manitoba, Families Minister Rochelle Squires noted.  The Manitoba Department of Families includes the Social Innovation Office.

“Our ROC innovation represents a leap forward in reducing GHG emissions and costs, disrupting the existing centralized waste landfill disposal system by locating ROC plants at commercial operations sites to recover their waste energy profitably,” said Del Dunford, CEO, Innovative NRG. “By eliminating the need to transport waste to landfills, we eliminate the cost and GHG emissions from transportation and landfilling, and take advantage of a renewable energy resource for economic development in remote and northern Manitoba communities.”

Investors with an interest in supporting leading-edge environmental projects are invited to learn more by emailing [email protected]  and visiting www.manitoba.ca/sio.

 

Can more recycling be a bad thing? Why including more materials in the recycling bin will do more harm economically, environmentally and socially

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

In a recent review of New York State’s proposed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, I was taken aback by the sheer number of materials that were included (more than 30 individual materials in all) – it included everything from the conventional (newsprint, magazines, corrugated cardboard, aluminum cans) to the obscure (Multi-layered and flexible packaging made out multi resin products like LLDPE, PCV and PS), and even things we know not to be recyclable (BPA, Compostable Plastics, Polycarbonate and Lexan).

While surprising, I can’t say that it was entirely unexpected. New York State is merely following the lead of jurisdictions such as Ontario, which have decided to adopt the “Kitchen Sink” model towards printed paper and packaging recycling, and attempt to recycle everything, everywhere, in order to make recycling simpler for households.

It’s an extremely easy story to sell to the public, more recycling is obviously good, and the companies who produce the packaging will need to figure out a way to recycle it effectively. While the latter comment touches on the topic of extended producer responsibility, which is not what this article is about. Rather, I want to remind readers that not all recycling is created equal, and the “Kitchen Sink” approach being proposed by New York State (and other jurisdictions), is not sustainable, and unequivocally does more harm than good – economically, environmentally and even socially.

The endogeneity hypothesis  

Whenever I refer to the “endogeneity hypothesis”, I am often met with blank stares. In its simplest terms, endogeneity (in this specific context) refers to when variables within a system are interrelated – the existence of variable A, impacts variable B, which in turn, affects variable C. This is a gross oversimplification of a rather complex issue, but I do so to illustrate a broader point: What we decide to accept in our recycling bin will not only influence our ability to recovery these materials economically, but also affect the recycling performance of individual materials that make up the recycling program.

What policy makers and advocates of the “Kitchen Sink” approach fail to recognize is that waste management infrastructure (including the development of downstream processing and end use applications) was largely designed around “core materials” – These materials, which are characterized by high levels of recyclability, stable revenue, strong end market demand and are accepted in most municipal recycling programs: Newsprint, Other Paper (Magazines, Office Paper etc.), Corrugated Cardboard, Boxboard, Gable Top Cartons, PET bottles, HDPE bottles, Aluminum Cans, Steel Cans, and Glass* (glass cullet is generally not considered a core material due to poor end market demand). While the proliferation of light weight and composite packaging has spurred innovation in the waste management sector, it would be a gross overstatement to say that these materials are readily recyclable. Recycling of flexible plastic and composite plastic packaging in particular are still in its most nascent form – research for this article could only find a handful of pilot projects (across North America) where recyclers are accepting composite and flexible packaging to be tested for chemical recycling and waste to fuel.

But what does any of that have to do with the “endogeneity hypothesis”? For every additional “non-core” material added to the recycling program, not only do the costs of the entire program go up, the costs of managing individual materials within the program go up. Materials that are difficult to sort and/or recycle have an adverse impact on all other materials being managed within the same system – this is particularly true of single stream recycling systems. The more materials accepted by a program, the greater the number of types of materials inbound into a material recycling facility. If a MRF is not configured or cannot be readily retrofitted to efficiently sort materials that fall outside of the “core material” categories, it increases both the sort time and cost of managing *all* materials, irrespective of whether it is newsprint or a multi-laminate plastic.

In essence, the decision to attempt to recycle everything not only radically increases the costs of a recycling system that was never intended to capture these materials, but it poses an externality on the materials that were already being recycled. It makes the cost for all participants within the system more expensive, a somewhat perverse outcome given that we are trying to encourage producers who use readily recyclable packaging.

What are we trying to achieve again?

When writing these articles, this is a question that I often return to – largely because I don’t think a clear answer has emerged. Based on what I am seeing in the latest legislative developments in both Canada and the United States, it appears as though increasing recycling rates may be the end goal. It’s a “Do good, feel good” activity that people can readily get behind – I agree with half of that statement.

It certainly is a feel good activity, but whether it “does good” is highly questionable. I have repeated time and time again that not all recycling is created equal – decision makers are not oblivious to this, as there was a time when certain municipalities were considering *contracting*the list of accepted materials due to the issues that it posed within the recycling system.

So why the sudden 180 degree turn – in fairness, one part of that is consumer driven. Telling households not to recycle is walking back on years of environmental messaging, and can serve as a significant source of confusion/contradiction. The second part has to do with “who pays for the system”. Municipalities were very interested in booting materials out of the Blue Box when they paid for half of the cost. However, under a 100% EPR system, the same people who wanted me to find out how to get LDPE film and Polystyrene out of the program, are now calling for producers to pay their fair share for keeping materials out of landfill.

Not all recycling is created equal

While I obviously have very strong feelings about the appropriateness of EPR for PP&P, and the efficacy of recycling in general, I want to leave you with the following. One is a tool that I had developed several years ago that allowed users to enter in either a goal recycling rate, or a goal carbon abatement target, and the model would automatically find the lowest cost way to achieve it by prioritizing the recovery of specific materials. The data is a bit outdated (2018), but the overall finding remains unchanged – it isn’t how much we recycle that matters, it’s what we recycle. The “optimized” scenario actually found that maximum carbon abatement was achieved by recycling *less* (in absolute tonnes) than what we do today, and at a lower cost. There is a decoupling of recycling rate performance and environmental impacts – no longer is recycling directly correlated with carbon abatement.

Beyond this tool, I also want to provide a material evaluation matrix that looks at the characteristics of each material being considered in the New York State EPR program. Please note that I have grouped all the sub-categories (i.e. flexible PET, flexible PP, Flexible PS) into one container category (flexible packaging). As best I could, I tried to mirror the proposed list to the ones we use in Ontario – the reason for that is that I wanted to give actual data for what the quantities and costs of recycling are in a program that has already implemented EPR.

The criteria I used to evaluate materials are based on:

·        recovery rate,

·        revenue received (using Ontario price sheet)

·        cost of recycling, (using the SO Pay in Model)

·        Is the material accepted in most programs?

·        Is there available recycling infrastructure?

·        Is there end market demand?

·        Carbon abated per tonne recycled (by material) (EcoInvent)

·        Carbon impacts per tonne landfilled (by material) and  (EcoInvent)

·        Money spent on recycling to abate one tonne of carbon (by material).

I have always felt that the last metric is the most important – how much would you have to spend recycling something in order to abate one tonne of carbon? If you refer to the second worksheet (“Cost of Carbon”) it quickly becomes apparent that some materials make virtually no sense to recover given how much you have to spend to achieve a given environmental goal, i.e. $1856.14/TCO2e for plastic laminates.

It is critical that decision makers use data and evidence to guide their decisions, and not rely on emotionally or politically driven narratives. Jurisdictions are tripping over each other trying to push forward with EPR legislation for packaging waste, but it is of paramount importance that we proceed with caution and question the approach we are taking and explore potential alternatives. Producers also need to understand that EPR systems prioritizing recycling based outcomes is likely to have many adverse impacts that need to be better understood. Now more than ever, producers cannot resign themselves to playing a passive role in legislative discussions.

Recycling is a wonderful thing, but it is not the only tool in our tool box. In fact, it should be one of our last resorts when we cannot find ways to achieve waste reduction (i.e. package light weighting) or adopting systems that make reuse easier.

There will be many people that disagree, but I encourage you all to look at the data, and see what conclusions you reach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An examination of household waste behavior: What drives us to do what we do, and has COVID affected our attitudes towards waste?

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

Over the past 8 months, the university has been conducting a series of studies examining household waste management behavior in Ontario. This includes:

  1. An examination of household attitudes and self-reported behaviors regarding illegal dumping
  2. An examination of whether household waste management behaviors have changed over the past decade
  3. Identifying the primary antecedents and obstacles to desired household waste management behavior, including measures of attitudes, awareness, normative/social influences and perceived behavioral control.
  4. Evaluating the efficacy of promotion and education initiatives on diversion behavior across multiple mediums
  5. Examining how, (if at all) COVID has affected waste disposal/diversion habits among households

In many ways, this can be seen as the conceptual follow up to the series of studies I conducted in between 2014 and 2018, with the goal of better understanding how household attitudes and behaviors towards waste have changed over time. The emergence of the COVID pandemic last year has added an additional dimension to this research, as the way we work, interact, consume and behave has changed radically – including for waste.

While each of these studies will be released as formal papers over the next 6 months, I thought I would provide a “sneak peek” into some of the results. This includes both a high level summary of the impacts of COVID on waste behavior, as well as more general results that provide insights into the aforementioned study topics.

Has COVID affected our attitudes towards waste?

COVID has resulted in several undesirable outcomes with respect to household waste behavior, largely as a result of the considerable increase in the consumption and disposal of packaging. This stems from the significant rise in e-commerce purchases, prepackaged foodstuff and food takeout as a result of pandemic restrictions.

Attitudes towards plastic packaging and plastic products have also improved considerably when compared to even as little as two years ago. Households recognize the role that plastics play with respect to PPE, and food safety. Survey results showed that support for a single use plastics ban among households was less than 35% – a precipitous drop when compared to prior year results. Attitudes towards plastics in general have also become more favorable among households, but to a lesser degree relative to single use plastics.  While it is unclear as to whether this change in attitudes will persist as the pandemic abates over time, it does demonstrate that the narrative surrounding plastics is no longer binary (good vs. bad).

What is perhaps of greater interest is that COVID has not only affected consumption habits, but  a household’s desire to better understand what is happening to their waste, and the resulting impacts.

More than 66% of survey respondents disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statement “I know what happens to my waste once I dispose of it” (Note: this question was asked for both waste in general, as well as specific waste streams, i.e. packaging, organics, MSHW, textiles etc. – for brevity, only general waste results are discussed.

This finding in and of itself is not surprising, historically, households have reported poor levels of awareness regarding what happens to waste after disposal. What has changed significantly is that more than 61% of respondents agreed, or strongly agreed with the statement “I care about what happens to my waste once I dispose of it”. By comparison, only 21% of respondents from our 2016 study reported caring about what happens to their waste.

The Social Impacts of Waste – Diverting with a purpose

Historically, waste management has been seen through the lens of environmental impacts, i.e. reduced landfill utilization, increased recycling, less litter etc. However, households are increasingly wanting to know about the social impacts of waste disposal/diversion. What’s particularly interesting is that the economic uncertainty resulting from the pandemic has placed greater emphasis on households wanting to divert with a socially beneficial purpose. Using textile waste as an example, Figures 1 and 2 summarize results from one of the studies:

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The results above show that not only has COVID encouraged households to divert more textile materials, but that households specifically wanted their donations to make a difference. During the open ended component of the survey, respondents indicated that they wanted their donation to help other families and/or charities during a time of economic uncertainty. While these results echo the findings from previous studies that have examined household textile diversion behavior, COVID has considerably increased altruistic intentions and the desire to “make a difference” among households.

While textiles (and furniture) more readily lend themselves to an examination of the social impacts of waste, households in general are wanting to ensure that waste is being managed in an environmentally and socially responsible way. During the open ended section of the surveys, more than 30% of respondents indicated that they were concerned about Canada “exporting waste to other countries” (i.e. Canada Philippines waste disputes), and that Canada is “dumping waste in poor countries”.

Lack of trust between households, municipalities and producers

A particularly interesting result from the surveys is that more than 41% percent of respondents expressed doubt that waste was actually being diverted (recycled/composted/reused etc.). There was a distinct lack of trust on the part of respondents, who did not believe that the municipality (or service provider) was telling the truth with respect to what they say is happening to their waste. While the survey examined specific waste streams, commonly occurring concerns that were coded during the open ended questions include:  “We aren’t really recycling” “It all goes to the landfill” “It is getting shipped off to the 3rd world”.

While it is difficult to specifically isolate what is driving these concerns and the general lack of trust, it appears that incidents that are highly visible and garner a lot of media attention, i.e. “60 shipping containers of household waste rejected and sent back to Canada”, “National news story on exporting textile waste to developing economies” generate considerable uncertainty and skepticism among the public. These incidents often become the focal point for public ire and undermine trust between waste service providers and the public. Further compounding the problem is that how waste is managed and by whom varies radically across jurisdictions, making it difficult to address/dispute by any one waste service provider (municipal or private).

A lack of trust was also exhibited with respect to recycling/diversion claims made by companies. 54% of respondents disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statement “I believe the manufacturer when a product is listed as recyclable” (note: the wording of this question originally included divertable in lieu of recyclable. However, a significant percentage of respondents were unclear as to what was meant by divertable. For our purposes, we use the term recyclable as a proxy for diversion).

Once again, news/reports that question or find fraudulent environmental claims made by manufacturers resulted in increased doubt/skepticism among households – in many ways, we have a situation of “One bad apple spoils the bunch”. When one manufacturer is caught making dubious claims, other manufacturers are punished for it in the court of public opinion. Households seemingly have difficulty differentiating between different types of products in a certain category, i.e. plastic vs. aluminum and compostable coffee pods. As an example, when Keurig was sued for making false recyclability claims, all coffee pods (regardless of type) were stigmatized and assumed to end up in the trash.

Issues in Terminology and how we communicate success

As alluded to in the previous section, respondents have difficulty understanding sector specific terminology, i.e. “divertable” etc. Less than one quarter of respondents agreed (or strongly agreed) with the statement “I know what a circular economy is”. Similar results were also observed when respondents were asked about the terms “Zero Waste – 32%” “Carbon Neutral – 11%” “Life cycle impacts – 15%”, “Green House Gases – 31%”, “Carbon Footprint – 24%” “Producer Responsibility – 17%”and “Diversion – 38%”. This finding highlights that the way we communicate with the public regarding waste, including how we choose to define and communicate success, needs to be re-evaluated. A theme that emerged during the open ended component of the surveys was that people lack context with respect to what certain metrics mean, i.e. “Is recycling 40% of waste good or bad?”, “Is a carbon reduction of 1000 T/CO2e good or bad?” “Does zero waste really mean that we won’t throw anything away?” etc.

Of note, these studies echoed the findings from our earlier work, which found that the public doesn’t fully understand or appreciate the environmental impacts of waste management outcomes that are not recycling. Reuse/refurbish, waste reduction, waste minimization, composting and incineration were waste management strategies that were not associated with desirable environmental outcomes. In short, households understand and appreciate the role that recycling can play in promoting sustainability, but the same cannot be said of other strategies on the waste management hierarchy. Respondents did recognize that certain materials/products must be safely managed and kept out of the environment as a harm reduction strategy (health and contamination hazards from household hazardous waste). However, respondents did not  consider harm reduction as a component of promoting environmental sustainability.

Convenience and accessibility is what matters most    

While the obstacles to desired waste management behavior (recycling, composting etc.) include a range of factors such as a lack of knowledge and awareness, negative attitudes, inconsistent service and enforcement etc., the primary obstacle remains a lack of convenience and accessibility.

Generally speaking, respondents expressed very positive attitudes towards the environment and a strong desire to “do the right thing” with respect to waste. However, respondents, particularly those living in multi-residential homes and in rural communities, indicated that they often faced barriers to access, which ultimately impeded their ability to participate.

This finding has been observed in numerous other studies, but the most important learning from our recent work is that a lack of perceived behavioral control (the ability to actually carry out a desired behavior) will largely negate any efforts to increase awareness, cultivate favorable attitudes, or normative pressures from the community/municipality. In fact, when measures of attitudes and awareness are high, but perceived behavioral control is low, it results in something called cognitive dissonance. In the simplest terms, cognitive dissonance (as it pertains to waste) refers to negative attitudes that arise from wanting to do the right thing, understanding the importance of performing the action, but being unable to do so because of an infrastructural or accessibility barrier. If cognitive dissonance persists over time, there is a risk of people becoming resentful of the desired behavior, as formerly positive attitudes now become negative.

Lack of convenience and accessibility are also seen as a manifestation of socio-economic inequality – in the broader literature, there is an extremely strong correlation between income levels and access to environmental amenities and infrastructure. While examining this topic is beyond the scope of this post, we need to ask ourselves the question “Is access to adequate waste management infrastructure and municipal diversion programs a right, or a privilege?”

Who should be responsible for educating households about what to do with waste?

Our most recent research confirmed an earlier observation from work we had done in 2018, in that households have very different expectations about who should be responsible for education and awareness with respect to waste. Intuitively, I would have guessed that households look to the municipality to provide guidance regarding what to do with waste at its end of life (as is the case in most cities across Ontario). However, when respondents were asked to identify who should be responsible for educating consumers about waste management outcomes, more than 42% said retail outlets, or at the point of purchase. This compares to 29% for municipalities, 21% for producer/manufacturers and 8% for the consumer themselves.

During the open ended section of the survey, respondents indicated that it would be easier to make an environmentally informed purchase if that information was provided at the retail level. Respondents also said that it would allow for comparison shopping among similar products, allowing them to choose items that they know can be recycled or safely managed at end of life. It is important to note that while consumers often list “recyclability” as influencing purchasing decisions, this historically has not been the case during actual observational research. Price, quality, brand loyalty etc. all play a greater role in influencing purchasing decisions when compared to the recyclability/divertability of a product (a phenomenon that is explained by the value action gap).

However, this finding about the role of the retailer in communicating what happens to a product at its end of life opens up a potentially new medium for engaging with consumers and increasing awareness, directly at the point of purchase. In fact, based on comments that were made during the open ended component of the survey, respondents would like to see additional environmental metrics communicated at the retail level. This finding is actually not as surprising as one would initially think, as there has been a marked increase in environmentally conscionable consumers who want their purchasing decisions to reflect their personal values.

Promotion and Education does not work….sort of

While I am being a tad disingenuous with the header, our most recent research reinforces our earlier findings that conventional methods and mediums of promotion and education are no longer effective. There are a number of caveats to that statement, the most important of which is that the efficacy of P&E is very much contingent on the maturity of the recycling system. All of our research was conducted in Ontario, which is seen as having a mature waste management system (characterized by high levels of accessibility and infrastructure, diversion programs for multiple waste streams, and high rates of household participation).

To make a very long story short, appeals to environmental altruism (i.e. recycling is good for the environment, helps conserve resources, helps combat climate change etc.) have already been received by the vast majority of households. Participation rates in recycling and other diversion programs among single family households is in excess of 90% – in short, the target audience for conventional P&E campaigns rooted in environmental altruism and conscionability are already doing what we want them to do, and they have been doing it for years.

Where things become more complicated is that the demography of Ontario is rapidly changing – Ethnic first generation Ontarians born outside of the country make up an increasingly larger share of overall households, particularly in the multi-residential sector. The issue with respect to increasing diversion is that many of these households do not speak English as their primary language and come from countries which lack mature waste management infrastructure and formal recycling/diversion programs. Many of these households also do not readily associate recycling/diversion with positive environmental outcomes, and do not understand or respond to promotion and education initiatives asking them to recycle. Further complicating matters is that these households are not behaviorally homogeneous, as the drivers of desired waste management behavior varies significantly across ethnic groups (South Asian households will recycle for very different reasons than African households etc.). There simply is no one size fits all approach to P&E that will be effective.

My previous study “The Garbage Gospel” explored methods and mediums to engage with different cultural groups to increase levels of awareness and recycling participation (https://naaee.org/eepro/research/library/garbage-gospel-using-theory-planned?term_node_tid_depth_join_1%5B0%5D=2428) However, our most recent work wanted to better understand how to make desired behavior habitual (where in the desired behavior is performed in the absence of any direct intervention).

While our study will discuss this topic in greater length, habituation will be difficult to achieve unless there are significant changes made to ensure equitable access to waste management services and programs. As noted above, there is a strong correlation between community income levels and access to waste management infrastructure. On average, new Ontarians who immigrate to the province make up a significant share of these communities (in multi-res). Not only do these households have lower levels of access and face greater barriers to participation, but habituation is reinforced by performing a behavior consistently, and observing those in your community also participate consistently. Multi-residential buildings in particular lack the normative influences of being seen (and observing others) participating in a desired behavior. Residents can go to the waste room (or use a waste chute) at their convenience, and there is no way of knowing whether people are actually recycling/composting or not.

Our study also found that levels of skepticism and distrust surrounding what happens to waste was more than double among first generation ethnic minorities when compared to respondents who were born in Canada. Almost 65% of respondents who were classified as a first generation ethnic minority expressed doubt regarding whether waste is actually being recycled/diverted. Additional work needs to be done in this area to better understand whether this result was an anomaly, or part of a larger pattern of distrust among immigrants living in Ontario.

Conclusion

The above are very high level summaries of some of the salient findings from our most recent survey work that I thought would be interesting to share. The university was uniquely positioned to include a temporal dimension to our analysis, as many of these studies were conducted in prior years and within the same communities.

While the intent of this survey work is to ultimately produce published academic articles, I will make a concerted effort to share the overall results with the LinkedIn community. My goal is to write one post per week that goes into greater detail surrounding a study’s methodology and findings and I welcome feedback/questions/critiques etc.

PS: I’m also attaching the raw data from our illegal dumping survey results, to give you a better sense of how we organized questions and results.

Illegal Dumping Survey Raw

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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.

Expansion Plans for Twin Creeks Landfill in Southwestern Ontario

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Waste Management Canada is planning on seeking the approval of the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) to expand its landfill operation in southwestern Ontario.  The existing landfill, which opened in 1972 is expected to reach capacity in 2032.  If the MECP grants the company the right to expand, it will be possible to keep the landfill in operation until 2044.

As reported in the Sarnia Observer, the Mayor Jackie Rombouts of Watford Township (the municipality in which the landfill is located) stated the announcement of the expansion plans by Waste Management Canada was not welcome news.  “Obviously, it’s not something that our community wants,” she said in an interview with the Sarnia Observer. “We were looking forward to the end of this.”

The township receives landfill royalties, based on the amount of waste entering the site, that totalled about $4.4 million in 2019.  The initial concerns expressed by the municipality was the potential of 12 more years of truck traffic in the area and nuisance issues (i.e., odour and noise).

The company has started the long process of getting approval for the expansion by initiating an environmental assessment (EA).  An EA sets out a planning and decision-making process so that potential environmental effects are considered before a project begins.  It requires that the company seek input in the planning process from a variety of stakeholders including the local government, neighbours, indigenous groups, and others.

As reported in the the Sarnia Observer, Wayne Jenken, area landfill manager for Waste Management, said the environment assessment process is expected to take about five years and cost more than $35 million.  The typical timeline for an EA landfill expansion, from start to finish, is typically between three to five years.

The Notice of Commencement for the Terms of Reference was published on November 17, 2020. It seeks input from interested parties.

The proposed expansion will not involve an expansion in the existing landfill’s footprint.  Instead, the proposal calls for modifying the side slopes of the landfill as well as increasing its existing height.  Currently, the landfill site takes up approximately 300 hectares.  Of that, about 100 hectares are currently approved for landfilling.  If the expansion is granted, the maximum increase in the final height of the landfill could be 40 metres.

The remaining capacity of the existing landfill is Approximately 15 Million cubic metres.  The proposed expansion would provide additional airspace of up to approximately 14M m³.

One of the factors working in favour of the proposal getting approved is that fact that it is very difficult to get EA approval for a new landfill in the province, especially with new requirements that allows municipalities more say in the approval of a new landfill in their boundaries.  Also, study after study has shown that there is a dearth of landfill capacity in the province.

 

 

 

Ontario’s Proposed Blue Box Transition Legislation: Progress, or doubling down on a broken system?

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

For much of this past week, I have been asked by a range of stakeholders and media outlets to provide my thoughts on Ontario’s proposed Blue Box transition plan. Generally speaking, the headlines surrounding the province’s announcement have been positive: “Ontario is developing a stronger, more effective Blue Box Program”, and that the proposed changes will be “Good for the environment, good for the economy, encourage investment, job creation and spur innovation in the recycling and resource recovery sector”.

Before I offer my opinion, let us first touch on what changes are being made to the Blue Box program, and what the perceived benefits are supposed to be:

What is being proposed:

  • Standardize and increase the list of materials accepted in the Blue Box, including paper and plastic cups, wraps, foils, trays, bags, and other single use items such as stir sticks, straws, cutlery and plates.
  • Transition the costs of the program away from municipal taxpayers by making the producers of products and packaging fully responsible for costs, resulting in an estimated savings of $135 million annually for municipalities.
  • Expand blue box services to more communities, such as smaller, rural and remote communities, including those under 5,000 people.
  • Set the highest diversion targets in North America for the various categories of waste producers are expected to recycle such as paper, glass, beverage containers and rigid and flexible plastic, encouraging innovation such as better product design and the use of new technologies for better environmental outcomes.
  • Expand the steward obligation to include three additional IC&I sectors (long term care/retirement homes, elementary/secondary schools, and private multi-residential buildings)
  • Provide bin “twinning” in all public spaces (increasing density of both garbage and recycling collection points in public spaces and other high foot traffic areas)

What are the (purported) benefits:

  • The transition to 100% producer responsibility will reduce municipal costs by approximately $135 million dollars annually
  • Municipalities will pass this savings on to households, in the form of reduced property taxes or levy-rates.
  • Standardizing the list of materials accepted in the Blue Box makes it easier for Ontarians to understand “what goes in the bin”
  • Expanding the list of materials accepted in the Blue Box makes it easier for Ontarians to participate “Put it in the bin, and we will figure it out”
  • Increasing service coverage to ensure that smaller communities, particularly in the provinces rural and northern areas, are able to receive Blue Box collection
  • A producer lead system is believed to have better control at containing costs, realizing operational efficiencies, and designing more sustainable packaging
  • A producer lead system will be able to invest in sorting/processing infrastructure and develop robust end markets for difficult to recycle light weight and composite materials
  • Investments in recycling infrastructure will lead to job creation and spur the development of new secondary industries.

For all intents and purposes, the province has doubled down on their approach to try and recycle “everything” and “everywhere” – after all, more recycling can’t be a bad thing, can it? This is the question that I find myself grappling with as I consider the scope and potential impact of these changes – telling people that recycling can actually be a bad thing has made me a relatively unpopular figure in Canada’s waste world.

While I have written on this subject extensively in the past, I think the easiest way to start this conversation is: “How much are willing to spend to recycle something?”. Now, the answer to this will depend on the material in question, perceived risks to the environment, available infrastructure and the attitudes/opinions/awareness of the person answering the question, but the purpose behind the question is to gauge at what point is it no longer beneficial (economically or environmentally) to recycle a product? In an ideal world, we would want to recycle everything, but our reality (particularly in Ontario), is that we operate in a resource constrained system. There is an opportunity cost to every decision that we make – a dollar spent on one activity, is one less dollar spent on something else. Which is what makes the government’s announcement so perplexing…. The costs of operating our existing Blue Box program have grown exponentially in the past decade, as waste management infrastructure has become increasingly incompatible with the types of packages that are being used today. This is actually one of the primary concerns expressed by municipalities in Ontario – our households want to recycle and put everything in the Blue Bin, but much of these materials are either not recyclable, or are virtually worthless as a commodity.

I have personally been part of conversations advising municipalities about what does and does not belong in the Blue Bin – overwhelmingly, the sentiment was that many composite and light-weight materials shouldn’t be collected, and the challenge was educating households (and city councils) that some things are better off not being recycled -a daunting task given Canadians love affair with recycling)

Catalyst for change

So, what has changed? Why do we suddenly want to expand the list of materials accepted in the program, including materials we know cannot be readily recycled in our current system? The answer as it turns out, is who pays the bill. In the transition to full producer responsibility, packaging producers (often referred to as stewards in Canada), will be financially and physically responsible for end of life packaging waste. The transition to 100% EPR has been a long time coming, but the decision to expand the list of approved materials and include three additional IC&I (Industrial, Commercial, and Institutional) sectors came as a surprise to many. The province has repeatedly said that the costs associated with these changes are relatively minor ($15 million dollars in their original estimates) – however, when faced with push back on these estimates and questions were raised regarding the methodology used to calculate them, the province acquiesced and revised their estimates to $115 million dollars (please see attached regarding the university’s cost model critique that served as the basis for the revised numbers). This is in addition to the $135 million that producers will now have to pay because of the transition to 100% EPR.

Regardless of these cost increases, the sentiment shared by many advocates of the transition plan is that if a producer makes it, they should pay for it. Even if it cannot be recycled now, then producers will have to find ways to develop the necessary infrastructure and end markets to make their packaging recyclable in the future. It is these investments in the recycling system that will not only lead to increased diversion but spur economic growth in the sector. This is a very easy message to get behind and sell to the public – multi-billion dollar CPG companies have shirked their responsibilities for too long, and they must pick up the tab for keeping packaging waste out of landfill. But let us dig a little deeper into the implications behind transitioning the costs to producers, as well as what it means to expand the scope and scale of the Blue Box program.

Right off the bat, we know that the minimum bill that producers will face is $250 million dollars annually, as estimated by the MOECP. But this paints an incomplete picture of the broader situation – We must consider the costs of developing the collection and sorting infrastructure to effectively capture new materials (something that has yet to be modeled). If Ontarians are now able include plastic cutlery, foil trays, wrap and bags etc. in their Blue Box, our waste management system will require a massive overhaul.

As of today, most of the items listed above are treated as contamination, screened out at material recycling facilities, and ultimately landfilled. Municipalities don’t want to collect these materials due to the difficulty (and cost) associated with recycling. End markets do not want them either as they have little to no value, and limited end use applications. If anything, the presence of these materials in the recycling system increases the costs of managing all other materials – something that the university has attempted to explain using the endogeneity hypothesis: “the “endogeneity hypothesis” refers to a situation where the cost of one material is dependent on the presence of other materials being managed in the system.  As a crude example, a hypothetical material mix of just newsprint and cardboard may take minutes to sort one tonne, but a mix of newsprint, cardboard and film would take substantially longer to process the same amount. There is a collinearity in the impact on costs that materials have on one another that are virtually impossible to predict.

While there have been no formal attempts to model the marginal costs associated with infrastructural investment, it is a fair assumption to say that it will not be $0 – the $250 million dollar estimate made by the MOECP fails to capture the financial impact of developing, operating and maintaining new infrastructure. These are costs that will not be absorbed by industry, as (in my opinion) costs will be transferred to consumers and ultimately manifest in the form of higher prices for packaged goods. While many have vehemently disagreed with this assertion, arguing that EPR will save households money as a result of a decrease in municipal taxes, the math says otherwise.

Impact to industry and households

In a previous post, I mentioned that York University had conducted a study examining the impact of the Blue Box transition plan on packaging prices (and subsequent effect on households). This study found that depending on locality, the increase in “basket of goods” prices resulting from the proposed legislation would range between 6% and 12% (a number that has been criticized by transition advocates). However, even if we are to set aside assumptions surrounding the direct, indirect and induced effects resulting from the proposed legislation; and assume that municipalities reduce property taxes/levies in direct proportion to the $135 million dollars resulting from the transition to 100% EPR; we are still adding (at minimum) an additional $115 million dollars in annual program costs as a result of service expansion. If we begin to add in the costs associated with building additional infrastructure, end market development, P&E and administrative expenses, it quickly becomes apparent that producers will be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars over and above what they pay today. Even if people disagree with whether these costs will be downloaded onto the consumer, costs internalized by industry can result in numerous unintended and unwelcome outcomes. Perhaps it is best to think of the issue as reducing investment in the province by $115 million dollars – can these costs be readily borne by industry, and if not, what will the outcomes be? (job loss, operational contraction etc.).

These proposed changes would be much more palatable if it resulted in superior environmental, economic, and social outcomes for Ontarians. However, the benefits of trying to recycle many of the materials that are being added to the Blue Box are highly questionable. In addition to the technical difficulties associated with trying to recycle these materials, the costs to do so are enormous. To make matters worse, the carbon savings resulting from recycling are nominal relative to the benefits of high impact materials like aluminum, OCC/OBB etc. As a result, producers are going to be paying a huge bill for the Blue Box, but to what end?

What are we trying to achieve?

Returning to the topic of opportunity cost, the primary issue is trying to determine what we want to achieve with the Blue Box. Based on what the province has put forward under the transition plan, it appears as though Ontario’s goal is to recycle more, expanding the list of accepted materials and setting the highest material specific diversion targets in North America. The Blue Box transition plan is trying to eliminate the barriers to recycling, making it simpler, easier to understand, accessible and convenient to all households. But there in lies the problem – despite Ontario’s fixation on recycling, it is not, nor has it ever been, the preferred end of life scenario. It seems a touch ironic that the Blue Box transition was announced during waste reduction week. We continue to conflate recycling with sustainability, reinforcing the narrative to households that recycling is our primary goal.

In many ways, the proposed legislation can do more harm than good – even if we are to set aside the costs of operating the system – what is it are we asking Ontarians to do? Based on the government’s announcement, we are making it as easy as possible for households to participate. While this can certainly encourage participation, it can also lead to complacency and confusion. Households (as much as possible) need to understand that not all recycling is created equal, and that waste reduction, reuse and composting are additional strategies that may be more appropriate depending on the waste in question. Our goal should not be to trying to maximize the quantity of material being put in the bin – it should be about achieving the best environmental outcome at the lowest possible cost. What good is it to have households put plastic wrap and foil trays in the Blue Bin, only for it to get tossed as residue, or downcycled at an exorbitant cost.

Proponents of a “recycling first” approach will make an argument that recycling will help maximize the full use value of a material, and ultimately help keep these materials out of landfills and our environment. I don’t disagree – however, I do think that we need to remember “what did I have to give up doing it?”.  Over the past 10 years, Ontario has spent almost 3 billion dollars on the gross costs operating the Blue Box program. During this same period, recycling rates have stalled and are trending downwards, year over year increases in operating costs are in the double digits and changes in the packaging mix have rendered existing infrastructure dated and incompatible. Was this money well spent? Could it have been better utilized on other sustainability initiatives? Could we have used that money to invest in end of life technologies that do not rely on recycling to divert material? Despite my criticism of the program, I do not have an answer for this. In hindsight, the province could have done things differently, but nobody could have predicted package light weighting, the Chinese sword and collapses in commodity prices etc. Considering these unexpected challenges, Ontario should be commended for what it has accomplished with the Blue Box. However, now is the time that we should be moving away from our reliance on recycling, not  doubling down on it.

Moving forward

When reviewing the proposed changes to the Blue Box program, I am reminded of the quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

For almost 20 years, we have seen the growth, maturation and success of the Blue Box, as well as the more recent challenges that have called into question its long-term viability. The current narrative surrounding Blue Box legislation is that the transition to 100% EPR producer run system will somehow be able to overcome these issues. According to the government, the Blue Box transition will usher in an era of reduced taxes, more sustainable packaging choices, new processing technology, increased accessibility, and improved diversion. Based on research done to date and experiences from other jurisdictions, it is questionable as to whether any of these things will happen.

What I find truly perplexing is the insistence that packaging producers will somehow be able to operate the system more effectively than municipalities and find solutions to the problems that plague our existing system. How exactly will producers be able to sort, process and market materials that currently have no end markets (film, multi-resin plastic, coated fiber etc.)? How will producers be able to effectively provide service to rural and northern municipalities under 5000 residents? How do we expand the steward obligation to include certain IC&I sectors, when we do not know how much waste is being generated and who is managing it? If municipalities have historically struggled to address these issues, why would producers be able to?

Handing producers the keys to the system and saying, “You figure it out”, is absolving the province of the responsibility to develop legislation that is effective, economic and equitable. It will also negatively effect Ontarians, as they will be the ones left having to pay the tab for any costs borne by industry. There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars at stake annually, so it is prudent that we make informed and reasoned decisions.

It has taken Ontario the better part of a decade to adopt a 100% EPR model for packaging waste, and now the province wants to introduce a slew of additional changes, without fully understanding the potential impacts. This was aptly highlighted when the MOECP revised their estimates surrounding the cost of the proposed changes, as they were an order of magnitude off (factor of 10). As we move forward with the new legislation, I think it is critical that the province approach any proposed change with caution, evaluating the full range of impacts to all affected stakeholders.

At a more general level though, I think it is time we re-evaluate the role of recycling in both our society and in promoting sustainability. For the better part of 30 years, we have been inundated with the message to recycle – it has been a fixture in many of our lives, and my earliest memories as a budding environmentalist was putting kraft paper in the Blue Bins in elementary school. The act of recycling makes us feels good, because we think it does good (for the environment and the economy). But that does not mean that we can’t be doing better. I do not want people to misconstrue this post or my opinion as being anti-recycling or anti-EPR – I think both can play a significant role in helping achieve our diversion and carbon abatement goals. What I do want to emphasize is that recycling will not always yield the best outcome – it is merely one tool in our tool box, and the decision to recycle something will depend on a multitude of factors that are site and situation specific. Waste reduction, reuse, composting, energy from waste and even landfilling may be preferred to recycling depending on the circumstance.

In my opinion, the Blue Box transition plan is a new coat of paint on a dated strategy – while it does move the province towards a 100% producer responsibility model, it is premised on a prescriptive “recycling first” approach. It is time for the province to start thinking “outside of the Blue Box” and identify new end of life strategies to help Ontario achieve its sustainability goals in the long run.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Ontario (and Canada) has a recycling problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3: 

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

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

Figure 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of a socially sustainable waste management system

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

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

Economic Exclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink

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

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

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

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

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

APPENDIX (Calculating increases in consumer basket of goods)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

The Benefits of Regulatory Convergence on Sustainable Plastics Management within the Pacific Alliance

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Written by Maria Vizeu-Pinheiro, German Sturzenegger, Denisa Mertiri, and Jonathan D.Cocker

Plastic pollution, including through single-use plastics (SUPs), continues to plague natural environments around the world, including in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The region produces around 28 million tons of plastic waste every year (12% of total municipal waste), of which around 36% is SUP. It is estimated that about 4 million tons of plastic waste could enter the ocean in 2020 due to inadequate solid waste management in coastal cities, where a significant portion of the population lives.

In LAC, there is growing interest in combating the shared problem of marine plastics. The countries of the Pacific Alliance (PA) -Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru- have launched an Environmental and Climate Change action plan, including a Presidential Declaration on Sustainable Use of Plastics[1] focused upon:

  • an analysis of plastic bag regulation and recommendations for the reduction of their use;
  • a targeted single-use plastic ban;
  • research and support for new productive models for plastic alternatives;
  • action on the reduction of plastic contamination in water, including marine environments;
  • strengthening the culture of responsible use of plastics and recycling;
  • circular economy model advancement;
  • promotion of re-use of plastic; and
  • the setting of a Road Map implementing these commitments.

In addition, individual PA countries, have each been active in promoting domestic strategies on plastic products and packaging, setting targets and developing regulations such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), innovative recycling mechanisms such as “e-Coins”, and Circular Economy programs.

These initiatives, however, may not be enough in light of the proliferation of plastic pollution and the limited domestic waste management infrastructure. This shared understanding within the PA must now give rise to a coordinated regional action on plastics for which greater regulatory convergence is pivotal to its success.

10 Reasons for Adoption of a Regional Plastics Strategy

While the work on regulatory convergence around plastics, including SUPs, will not be easy, there are compelling reasons to do so:

1. Facilitation of Materials Flows

  • the wide variety of plastics material has left local governments and industry to unnecessarily dispose materials as “scrap” domestically. These materials could be valorized in other PA countries if barriers to transfer were lifted, an issue particularly pressing in light of the Basel Convention Ban.

2. Regional Scale Needed for Plastics Recycling Markets

  • addressing both the leakage of plastics and their value loss in less productive uses requires sufficient economies of scale that regional, and not domestic-only recycling infrastructure resources.

3. Innovation and Specialization:

  • with economies of scale will also come the conditions for investment in innovative products and resource recovery specialized solutions, potentially serving the entire region. These solutions will be imported into PA countries (based upon the regional needs and goals of others) if its members don’t otherwise develop their own;

4. Commercialization Through EPR Favours Regional Consistency

  • as EPR may well be part of the solution for plastics resource recovery, the formation of effective Producer Responsibility Organizations (PROs) is enhanced through regional PRO models, servicing discrete industry segments and able to administer programs consistency, with lower transactions costs across multiple countries;

5. Product Standards Development Suitable for PA

  • outside of the PA countries, there is current growth of plastics content standards (such as bioplastics) with corresponding resource recovery process requirements and specifications. These standards will be implemented in PA countries absent a regional alternative – even though these standards are based upon socio-economic and environmental conditions dissimilar to those of LAC;

6. Material Bans Feasible Regionally

  • critical issues remain as to which types of plastics, for which uses and of what plastic material (and its potentially hazardous content) should be permitted by PA countries. Only through a regional strategy will the PA be able to ensure their domestic choices are implementable;

7. Regional Market Data Will Attract Investment

  • the early adoption of regional terminology and methodologies will generate PA-wide data necessary to better attract investment;

8. Ensuring Safety

  • food and other safety and quality measures must be imposed upon any plastics packaging or SUPs introduced within the PA. A regional strategy allows for commonly adoptable tracking and tracing technology, as well as labelling, to ensure the providence of the plastics introduced in the region’s markets;

9. Near-term Financial Recovery Opportunity

  • plastics represent a resource for which there are clear near-term recovery solutions, such as energy production and valuable products made with recovered plastics, which will result in tangible economic gains for local communities across the PA; and

10. International Stakeholder Funding Available

  • along with the push for plastics pollution solutions has come significant funding from international stakeholders, which will be acutely needed during the challenging post-COVID-19 economic fallout;

In summary, there are both immediate and long-term benefits to a PA-focused plastics strategy.  Plastics offers PA countries a relatively easy entry point for the types of economic and environmental joint efforts envisioned in the region’s action plan.

The opportunities for plastics within the region are, however, time-limited. International pressure for conformity with policies most suitable elsewhere will intensify in the absence of demonstrable success.

Further, delays in moving towards convergence will make harmonization more difficult. With individual PA countries developing disparate programs, for which investments and long-term commitments will be based, a move to harmonize internally will be more difficult over time.

The PA countries should move to engage stakeholders, including regional private sector parties, in developing a critical pathway towards achieving these ambitious goals.


[1] This declaration was signed during the 2019 Pacific Alliance summit in Peru

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About the Authors

Maria Vizeu Pinheiro is a lawyer specializing in environmental and natural resources issues at the Environment, Rural Development and Disaster Risk Management Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Maria works on the analysis of environmental policies, governance and regulatory frameworks for the Bank’s operations.

Germán Sturzenegger is a Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. He has participated in the design and implementation of water and sanitation projects throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Germán leads the recycling and green infrastructure agenda for the Water and Sanitation Division of the IDB, working on the implementation of river conservation and inclusive recycling projects.

Denisa Mertiri, J.D. (Green Earth Strategy) provides legal and policy advice to clients on waste management, single-use reduction, circular economy and extended producer responsibility laws. Denisa has worked with the City of Toronto and other municipalities in Ontario, Canada, on Ontario’s transition to EPR and on single-use reduction and circular economy policies.

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.

EPR FAQ: Answers to commonly asked questions and claims

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

Oh goodness gracious, I appear to have really stepped in it this time (although I do suppose I have a history of doing that). My last article about EPR really rankled some feathers and resulted in some heated exchanges with people that disagree.

A little birdie even told me that the word on the collection route is that I am in cahoots with producers and that I am trying to derail the Blue Box transition. If I’m on the take, can someone please let my bank know? I apparently am not receiving any of the money they are paying me to speak out against EPR.

My response to criticism has always been more or less the same – show me the data. My last article asking for any information that supported the efficacy of EPR for packaging waste was met with radio silence. I did have one individual tell me I was wrong, but when I asked them to provide evidence, they responded that I should pay them for their time…. that was a bit of a head scratcher.

In any event, I thought I would share a document I recently put together for the Ontario Environment Ministry outlining some of York University’s responses to commonly asked questions or claims regarding EPR for packaging waste. I also want to re-iterate that I have no issues with EPR as a concept, nor do I think producers should be absolved of their physical and financial responsibility at end of life. My issue has to do with the way EPR is currently implemented, and the challenges that arise when our goal is increasing recycling.

Please note that some of these comments are Ontario specific and refer to proposed changes in the Blue Box legislation. I still think it is of value to those outside of the province to better understand the issues we face as we transition to 100% EPR.

Questions surrounding Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility subscribes to the “Polluter Pays” Principle (transferring the responsibility of managing end of life waste to the polluter.

While the polluter pays principle is certainly the spirit of EPR, people often erroneously conflate “polluter pays” with the inability to recycle a material. The most sustainable outcome is not necessarily the one that recycles the most material – from a life cycle perspective, package light weighting has far greater environmental benefits, even in instances where the package cannot be recycled. Instead of encouraging or incenting producers to develop the most sustainable solution, we are telling them to develop recyclable solutions, which in many instances, results in inferior economic and environmental outcomes. Our fixation on using recycling rates and recyclability as the measuring stick for success is why program costs are increasing by double digits year over year, while diversion is actually decreasing.

EPR is not intended to create cost containment; it purely a funding mechanism to shift the burden from the taxpayer to the consumer

A system that does not contain costs is not tenable or sustainable. This is the fundamental issue with existing approaches to EPR. Proponents will say costs are now born by the right party, but what that cost is has significant implications to all stakeholders. Further to that point, while the intended purpose of EPR is intended to make consumers responsible for end of life costs, existing and proposed approaches to legislation are obliging consumers to pay for the costs of operating the recycling system. Recycling is not and should not be the only end of life option that we consider for how printed paper and packaging is managed. Not all materials are created or recycled equally – thus, it seems prudent that we explore options that maximize environmental and economic outcomes by differentiating how and where certain materials should be managed. The decision to recycle everything, everywhere, is the foremost issue facing the long term tenability of the Blue Box program.

The proposed Blue Box transition will save Ontario taxpayers money

A common refrain made by advocates of the transition to 100% producer responsibility is that transitioning program costs to stewards will result in taxpayer savings. Under the proposed legislation, stewards will be responsible for an additional $135 million dollars in program costs (exclusive of proposed changes to what sectors are obligated). The underlying intuition behind the tax savings hypothesis is that municipalities will pass this $135 million in savings onto households, either through a reduction in property tax or utility rates.

While this would be an optimal solution, there is no evidence to suggest that this will be the case. Municipalities (particularly in a post COVID world), grapple with significant budgetary shortfalls and are in all likelihood going to take the funds “saved” from transitioning the Blue Box program and re-allocating those funds to other programs and services. In British Columbia, there is no data to suggest the transition to 100% EPR has resulted in a tax savings for households.

While there is an argument to be made that the reallocation of funds to support other municipal programs and services benefits households, the benefits that are accrued are indirect and do not offset the increase in packaging costs that are attributable to EPR.

EPR does not increase cost of living

As a tangent to the previous point, advocates of EPR often contend that there is no appreciable impact in the cost of living attributable to the transition to full producer responsibility.

An examination of how the fee model works and how producers respond to a corresponding increase in fee rates demonstrates that this is not true. In fact, the transition to a 100% EPR system has been modeled to increase “basket of goods” costs for consumers by anywhere from 6-12%.

While a supplementary document that accompanies this FAQ explains the relationship between EPR and the cost of packaged goods in greater detail, in short, the costs to consumers are both “direct” (an increase in fees directly translates into a proportional increase in packaging costs) and “indirect”(cost escalation resulting from producers passing costs onto the consumer resulting from an increase in their funding obligation).

A direct increase in costs are shown in how the fee model works. Any increase in recycling system costs are re-distributed to obligated materials in direct proportion to that materials share of overall costs. In Ontario’s case, the additional $135 million dollars in program costs that stewards are now obligated for are immediately translated into an increase in fee rates, which in turn, are built into the price of packaged goods.

Indirect costs are slightly more difficult to quantify, but are based on a log linear adaptation of an input/output model used to quantify the economic and labor impacts of waste management activities. Our adapted model attempts to isolate the specific impacts of increases in waste management costs on consumption baskets.

While the materials in the accompanying document describe this model in greater detail, increases in costs borne by producers can manifest in the following ways: 1) costs being passed directly onto the consumer in the form of increased prices or a reduction in product size 2) costs are internalized, but results in reduced investment, job losses, company contraction etc. 3) some combination thereof (most realistic outcome).

What few people seem to recognize is that the potential increase in costs borne by the consumer are multiples higher than the direct increase in the steward obligation. As an example, if producers collectively reduced their investment in the province by $135 million dollars, the overall impact on the economy is north of half a billion dollars in both direct and indirect costs (as per the input/output multiplier).

A steward lead EPR program will inherently contain costs

An argument this is made in favor of steward lead EPR programs (where producers assume responsibility for the entire system), is that they have a greater ability to control costs relative to muncipalities, as they are not bound by geographical boundaries.

This is a logical fallacy for a number of reasons. The foremost issue is that there is no evidence to suggest that stewards are more efficient at operating a recycling program or containing costs. Recycle BC, which is often touted as a best practice model of steward lead EPR, has experienced the highest increase in year over year recycling system costs of any province in the country. In the past 3 years, recycling system costs have increased by more than 45%. The purported benefits of cost containment by stewards can only be achieved if there is a coordinated effort that represents the collective interests of all obligated stewards. However, due to the sheer number of participants (that vary in size, sector and locality), most stewards are largely passive participants in the Recycle BC program.

A comment made by ministry staff that “Private industry has always claimed to be more efficient than government” is a bit of a half-truth. Private companies who operate in the same space/sector as a government equivalent is often claimed to be more efficient. However, handing producers the reigns to the Blue Box is not the same thing – this isn’t a situation where the Waste Managements, Emterras and GFLs of the world are being compared to municipal waste management operators. This is a situation where we are asking major CPG companies to take control of the waste management system. By their own admission (and feel free to ask – they aren’t shy in telling you), most packaging companies have no clue how to operate an efficient waste management system. They will in all likelihood have to engage in individual contracts with waste service operators (both private and municipal) who are managing the programs now…. Except, we have the added administrative costs of having to coordinate multiple companies with multiple contractors.

There is a term in economics that we refer to as “communication externalities”. Efficiency of communication and coordination becomes more difficult as a greater number of participants enter the system, particularly if participants are of unequal size, power or do not have access to the same information. Communication externalities are often sufficient to completely deter cooperation all together. This is a very real risk as producers take over the system, particularly because they lack a common voice or entity that represents their collective interests.

A steward lead EPR program will lead to new end use applications and end markets for difficult to recycle materials

There have yet to be any examples in Canada where stewards have been able to develop new end markets or viable end use applications for composite and light-weight materials. While there have been “one off” situations where producers have worked collaboratively with the waste service providers to capture and recycle a specific materials (i.e. Green Mountain and Recycle BC partnering to recycle the K-Cup), those solutions were neither scalable (only available in one locality) or economical.

The above example highlights the issue with this line of reasoning – in the absence of a relationship that is site and situation specific, stewards do not and should not have the ability to disrupt commodity markets. If a material inherently has value, the market will signal that this material should be captured, and that there will be an end market willing to purchase that material. If commodity markets dictate that a material has nominal or no value, then attempting to collect and recycle that material will result in a significant cost, with virtually no benefit. Unless there is prescriptive recycled content legislation that mandates the use of that material in new products (which may or may not have technical barriers), then the only use for that material will be in bespoke recycling solutions that are more novel than practical.

At present, recycling markets for composite and light weight plastics remains virtually non-existent, and it is unlikely that stewards will be able to change that in the near term.

A steward lead EPR program will incent producers to design more sustainable packaging

Referring to the principles of the waste management hierarchy – reduction is preferred to reuse, and reuse is preferred to recycling, then through that lens, many producers are already developing more sustainable packaging. Once again, the issue is that most people (both policy planners and the public) conflate recycling with sustainability – if it can’t be recycled, it must be bad.

While package light weighting has often been characterized as a negative due to low levels of recyclability, most life cycle analysis studies demonstrate that the “upstream” environmental savings (resulting from a reduction in material used, efficiencies in transportation and logisitics and increased shelf life) significantly offsets the environmental impact of being unable to recycle those materials.

Existing and proposed legislation incents recycling (and in some instances, takes punitive measures towards materials that have low levels of recyclability), but offers no credit for the waste reduction that is achieved. In many ways, the existing approach may result in an environmentally and economically perverse outcome, where producers “switch back” into heavier, but more recyclable packaging.

Issues Surrounding Proposed Impacts of the Blue Box Expansion into the IC&I Sector

We have no data

EPR is fundamentally premised on being able to allocate end of life management costs to the correct obligated party. In doing so, the following information is required:

1)     Who are the generators?

2)     What is the total quantity of material being generated/recovered (by sector and by generator)

3)     What types of material (composition) are being generated/recovered (by sector and by generator)

4)     How is waste currently being managed? (who is collecting it, where does it go, where does it end up etc.)

5)     How much does it cost to manage? (Including costs by activity type – collection/sorting/baling)

At present, there is no reliable data regarding the aforementioned data points with respect to the IC&I sector. We know neither the size nor scale of the issue, and have no ability to track how waste is managed throughout the system.

In the absence of having this data, is it is virtually impossible to determine what the steward obligation should be, or how to allocate those costs to individual stewards.

We don’t have the administrative infrastructure

Collecting the necessary data (including who is responsible for gathering this information, who owns it, and how this data is verified/vetted) is something that needs to be figured out before we can even begin to have conversations surrounding expanding the Blue Box into the IC&I sector.

Further to that point, the province also needs to be able to know the roles and responsibilities of affected stakeholders regarding quantifying and allocating costs to the appropriate steward.

Given the sheer # of producers who operate in the IC&I sector, the administrative externalities associated with the above activities are enormous, and are costs that have yet to be quantified when estimating what the increase in the steward obligation may be.

We don’t know if we have the infrastructural capacity

At present, the province has no way of knowing whether there is sufficient capacity within the existing system to accommodate for increases in diversion attributable to any legislative changes. With respect to material recycling facilities for printed paper and packaging, we do not even have a list of all the private and public facilities in the province, nor do we have any estimates surrounding their approved and existing capacity.

It seems entirely plausible that capturing more PP&P from the IC&I sector would require infrastructural investments to expand system capacity (for both collection and processing), which is a cost that has not been quantified.

Ministry staff have indicated that proposed changes are not intended to take effect for 6 years, and as such, it is impossible to understand what system capacity will be then, and what changes will need to be made now. This is not an adequate answer – the decision to invest in infrastructure, even if those changes are not anticipated for another 6 years, is something that needs to be planned for now. As an example, if we know that the proliferation of light weight and composite plastics is likely to increase over time, then significant changes will have to be made to existing infrastructure will be required (although I personally feel that spending money trying to capture these materials is a fools errand).

It is not good enough to say “I don’t know what the future will look like, but you will have to pay that bill when it comes due”.

Material from schools, long term care facilities and multi-residential sectors are heavily contaminated

According to waste audits conducted for these sectors, contamination rates are significantly higher for the recycling stream when compared to waste generated from single family homes.

Schools and long term care/retirement facilities struggle with fiber contamination in particular, which significantly impairs its value, or in some instances, makes it completely unrecyclable. As such, an expansion of the steward obligation into these sectors is likely to result in an even more acute escalation in costs (beyond what has been estimated), as revenues received from the sale of collected recyclables is likely to be depressed.

Markets for recyclables are deteriorating, and an expansion is going to make it worse

Setting aside concerns surrounding contamination and its negative effect on revenue, there is also the practical issue that collecting more printed paper and packaging from the IC&I sector is going to exacerbate already deteriorating prices for recyclables.

Beginning with the Chinese sword and further compounded by the global economic slowdown resulting from COVID, prices for most PP&P is languishing. As a result, any proposed legislative change that is likely to result in more recyclable material being marketed is going to make a bad situation even worse. With that being said, that is not necessarily an outcome that needs to be avoided – as noted earlier, allowing commodity markets to operate freely is likely to result in the most economically efficient outcome.

However, lower prices for recyclables poses significant challenges to domestic recycling brokers and re-processors, which necessitates that any legislative change that can potentially affect commodity prices is approached with caution.

Existing estimates surrounding the cost of expanding the steward obligation assumes a fixed IC&I material management cost

Current estimates by the ministry surrounding the proposed expansion of the Blue Box into the IC&I sector does not take into account the composition of material from these sectors. The general expectation is that stewards will be obligated for the total system cost of servicing these sectors, and will negotiate individual relationships with PROs for how this material gets managed.

For as much as I can understand and appreciate that the obligation does not refer to specific material categories, we cannot in good faith estimate a cost for servicing these sectors without taking into consideration what materials are generated by these sectors.

Collecting uncontaminated office paper from Office Buildings is fundamentally different than collecting a mixed bale of contaminated fiber and tetrapaks from a school yard. The delta in material management costs is enormous. To say that we don’t need to take that into consideration when developing our existing estimates completely ignores the reality of the situation.

No one size fits all approach

A sentiment expressed earlier is that not all materials are created equal, and neither is all recycling. So with that in mind, why should legislation treat all materials the same way?

Proposed legislative changes under the Blue Box transition has the potential to adversely affect a significant number of stewards, particularly those who manufacture light weight and composite plastics. However, these same changes are being embraced by beverage stewards, who are looking to capture as much material as they can from both the residential and IC&I sector. Ideally, legislation should be able to allow stewards the approach that yields to most economic and environmentally sustainable outcome, while ensuring that they meet their legislative requirements.

This is why it is so critical that the goals of Blue Box legislation should be outcome based (total carbon abated) as opposed to tonnage based (recycling/diversion rates). It is possible to recycle less material in an absolute sense, but achieve a superior environmental and economic outcome by prioritizing certain materials for recovery.

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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.

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?
Written 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