Toronto-based Start-up turning food waste into textiles

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A Toronto-based cleantech start-up, ALT TEX, has developed a technology that turns food waste into textiles.  The company claims that it creates the  world’s most sustainable polyester alternative from food waste using a three-step process.

The company’s novel bio-polymer technology re-engineers sugars extracted from the food waste into high performance, polyester-like fibres and fabrics for sustainable fashion brands. The closed-loop alternative is aimed to replace polyester, which makes up over 60% of textile manufacturing. The closed loop technology allows the companyto do this at a competitive price to other sustainable options, and without sacrifice to performance.

The company recently raised $1.5 million in a pre-seed round of funding. The round was co-led by Garage Capital and Amplify Capital, with participation from Globalive Capital, Panache Ventures, Ramen Ventures, Spacecadet Ventures, and Presstar. Astronaut Chris Hadfield also invested in the round, as did University of Toronto business professor Ajay Agrawal.

The company was founded in 2019 by Myra Arshad and Avneet Ghotra.  Ms. Arshad is a business school graduate and serial entrepreneur.  Ms. Ghotra is a biochemist.   “This industry has always been close to me given my family’s background in this space, but the level of customer, investor and general stakeholder interest we have received really validates that the environmental and ethical problems are also becoming personal to the general population,” said Arshad.

“We essentially take one of the world’s largest landfill contributors, which is food waste, and we convert it into what we believe will be the world’s most sustainable polyester alternative,” stated Myra Arshad in an interview with National Observer.

The recent infusion in capital allowed the company to buy a key piece of machinery (a polyester melt extruder), secure more space, and start paying themselves.

“We want to take this global because we truly believe this technology can effectively replace polyester,” Arshad said in a video interview with the National Observer, noting the source fibre they create could be turned into textile on the existing equipment for the fossil fuel-based version, meaning, “this should not be a premium product for a very, very long time.”

 

Calgary-based Atco Energy Solutions to use organic waste to produce RNG

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Calgary-based Atco Energy Solutions recently announced the construction of a new facility that will use the byproducts from organic waste to produce renewable natural gas (RNG).

The facility, a first for the Calgary-based company, will be built north of Vegreville, Alta. and should be up and running by late 2022. It will process agricultural manure and other organic waste products from nearby municipalities, harvesting the methane emissions that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

The facility will also produce fertilizer as a byproduct, to be used by local farmers. Vegreville-based biofuels company Future Fuel Ltd. will partner with Atco to develop the project.

Mike Shaw, senior vice-president for Atco Energy Solutions, said the facility will be one of the largest renewable natural gas facilities in Canada once completed. He said it will produce enough natural gas to heat 2,500 homes per year and reduce carbon emissions by 20,000 tonnes annually.

While the Vegreville facility will be Atco’s first renewable fuels project, Shaw said it is in the process of developing others in order to help meet its climate change and sustainability targets. Renewable natural gas can be produced from a variety of feedstocks, including residential and commercial organics, waste from water treatment plants, and landfill waste. It can be injected into the existing natural gas grid just like conventional natural gas.

“This facility is an important investment in the advancement of ATCO’s clean fuels strategy,” said Bob Jones, President, ATCO Energy Solutions.  “ATCO is leading the shift to a lower-carbon energy system by enabling our customers’ energy transition to cleaner fuels such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen. We are actively investing in sustainable energy projects – here in Alberta and globally – in an effort to decarbonize the way we live and work, in support of a safe, reliable, affordable and cleaner energy future.”

Brian Nilsson, Director at Future Fuel, stated at the news conference, “We are pleased to announce our partnership with ATCO Energy Solutions to recommission and repurpose an idle biogas asset in Two Hills County. This project adds organics processing facilities in the Capital region, offering a solution to both municipalities and the confined feeding industry for organics processing and emissions reductions. We look forward to continued cooperation with ATCO Energy Solutions and Emissions Reduction Alberta.”

Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) has committed $7.9M to the project through its Natural Gas Challenge. This investment comes from the Government of Alberta and is sourced from the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) fund.

Ontario and B.C. Governments Show Commitment to Expansion of Renewable Natural Gas Generation

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Ontario

The Ontario government recently announced new rules related to biogas that are designed to create new ways for farmers to expand the emerging biogas and renewable natural gas (RNG) market in the province, creating economic opportunities while maintaining the province’s strict environmental protections.

There are approximately 40 agri-food anaerobic digesters in the province; located mostly on farms.  The regulation changes will enable new on-farm biogas systems and expansion of existing systems to be approved more easily and at a lower cost to help ensure that Ontario continues to be a biogas sector leader in Canada. The changes will also help reduce GHG emissions by diverting waste from landfills and by encouraging production of RNG. The regulation changes will enable Ontario’s $35 million-a-year biogas sector to grow by up to 50 percent over the next five years.

“By reducing regulatory burden for on-farm anaerobic digesters, we can provide economic solutions to divert more valuable food and organic waste from landfills, while maintaining environmental protections by encouraging the recycling of nutrients and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “We’re saving farm businesses time and money to allow them to grow untapped economic opportunities and take advantage of the emerging renewable natural gas market.”

Using farm waste to generate renewable natural gas is win-win for farmers and the environment: not only does it give farmers the opportunity to use materials that would otherwise go to waste, they are also able to reduce their carbon footprint,” said David Piccini, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. “Importantly, these changes include new requirements to better safeguard the environment and human health – helping to ensure that economic growth doesn’t come at the expense of environmental health.”

“StormFisher and the Ontario Government share a vision of an Ontario with less waste going to landfills, more clean energy being created here at home, and more jobs and investment in rural Ontario. The changes announced today regarding on-farm anaerobic digestion will help with all of these goals,” said Brandon Moffatt, Vice President of Development, StormFisher. “The agricultural industry plays a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The conversion of manure and other agricultural materials to renewable natural gas is a great step forward that will lead to significant economic development in rural Ontario and will support our farmers in diversifying their revenues.”

Changes to regulations under the Nutrient Management Act will create more opportunities for farmers to treat on-farm materials as well as other types of off-farm food and organic waste materials in on-farm regulated mixed anaerobic digestion facilities. This will enable an increase in on-farm production of biogas to generate renewable natural gas and will provide Ontario farmers with a new source of on-farm income.

British Columbia

British Columbia recently amended the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regulation (GGRR) to increase the production and use of renewable gas, as well as green and waste hydrogen in the province. BC is the first province in Canada to make these changes allowing for the increased production of renewable gas. The GGRR allows utilities like FortisBC and Pacific Northern Gas to make time-limited investments, within spending and volumetric caps, to stimulate the domestic market for renewable gases and reduce GHG emissions.

“A key part of our CleanBC strategy is increasing the use of hydrogen and other renewable gases in place of fossil fuels in vehicles, buildings and industry,” said Bruce Ralston, Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation. “The changes we’ve made to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regulation will provide natural gas utilities with more flexibility, stimulate investments in renewable energy and accelerate growth of hydrogen and renewable gas supply in their systems, while keeping rates affordable for their customers.”

“Changes to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Regulation are important to accelerate the growth of B.C.’s renewable gas supply,” said Roger Dall’Antonia, president and CEO, FortisBC. “By increasing the renewable gas cap and expanding the regulation to include other renewable gases, such as hydrogen, we’re entering an exciting new phase of renewable energy development that will accelerate the transformation of our natural gas infrastructure into a delivery system for carbon-neutral energy.”

The amendment to the GGRR will enable utilities to increase the amount of RNG, green and waste hydrogen, and other renewable energy they can acquire and make available to customers, and help the province to achieve its CleanBC objectives, which commit to a 15% renewable gas content in the natural gas system by 2030.

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.