Local resource recovery drives bioplastics standards globally

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Written by Jonathan Cocker, Partner, BLG LLP

The push to overhaul the use of conventional plastics with bio-based and/or biodegradable alternatives is supported by many multi-national companies, particularly in the various consumer goods industries.

Therefore, international standardization of the bioplastic packaging or (single use) product content is seemingly foreseeable, if not inevitable. However, recent legal initiatives looking into this previously unregulated sector suggest bioplastics specifications will be based upon actual recovery in the communities in which they are waste-managed, turning a global development into a very local concern.

European Union (E.U.) mandates performance proof for biodegradable plastics (BDP)

The European Commission (EC) has been actively investigating the value of bioplastics under various end-of-life processes in an effort to capture the actual movement of such materials within Europe. In December 2020, the EC issued Biodegradability of plastics in the open environment, containing recommendations by an independent scientific advisory group looking at the performance of BDPs where no dedicated processing (such as in-vessel composting) has been applied.

The recommendations constrain the promotion of BDP and require performance verification based upon the particular waste management environments in which they are processed. These recommendations include:

  • Supporting the development of testing and certification schemes evaluating actual biodegradation of BDP in the context of their application in a specific receiving open environment;
  • Required assessment of biodegradation and environmental risk of BDP under the conditions of specific open environments; and
  • Supporting the development of a materials catalogue and their relative biodegradation rates in a range of environments.

As the EC is aware from its ongoing assessment of compostable/biodegradable plastic packaging standard CEN 13432, processing of waste, even industrial composting activities, differs among E.U. members, making the “specific open environment” a domestic designation at best.

Japan places biomass at centre of bioplastics strategy

Similarly, Japan recently issued a Bioplastic Introduction Roadmap specifically tied to growth of “sustainable bioplastics” driven by a national plastic resource recycling strategy. The roadmap focuses on switching from fossil fuel to biomass-based polymers, specifically plant-derived inputs, reflecting the availability of local resources.

Manufacturers of products using plastics, such as containers and packaging, plastic shopping bags, electrical and electronic equipment, clothing, footwear, furniture and toys, are to introduce biomass content into their products, with the coincident growth of recycling infrastructure to match this material profile. Concerns over international compostability standards and certifications are secondary to Japanese resources and their recovery.

Canada looks at aerobic/anaerobic bioplastic performance

The country’s Zero Waste Plastic Initiative is funding an assessment of the performance of certain “compostable” bioplastics in both aerobic and anaerobic organic waste facilities, recognizing that plastic waste frequently contaminates organic waste streams, particularly residential source-separated “green bin” organics. In doing so, locally-demonstrated resource recovery is prioritized over international bioplastics standards:

While national and international certification standards exist, meeting those standards does not necessarily ensure that Compostables can be properly managed after reception of the source separated organics, including Compostables, at Ontario’s aerobic composting or anaerobic digestion facilities.

A similar study was funded last year by the EC and found the demonstrated value of compostable plastics in these processes to be “sparse and inconclusive”.

Bottom-up waste management over top-down product standards

While there are significant growth projections for bioplastics and plans for further standards developments, such as under the EU Circular Economy Action Plan 2020, obtaining product certification under an international regime will not necessarily mean acceptance in any domestic market. Instead, demonstrable performance of the bioplastic within existing local waste management infrastructure will ultimately be needed.

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About the Author

Jonathan Cocker, a Partner at BLG LLP, provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations.

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.

Hydrogen from Waste: Challenges, Government Actions, and Technologies

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Written by Zoltan Kish, Ph.D., Quasar ScienceTech

Many countries have taken an early lead in the hydrogen economy development. Canada can play an important role in sustainable economic development based on hydrogen. The global hydrogen market size was valued at USD 117.49 billion in 2019. Hydrogen has re-emerged as an exciting and potential long-term way to address climate change and air quality while creating opportunities for the industry to grow. According to the Goldman Sachs estimate, the Green Hydrogen market could be worth €10 trillion ($11.7 trillion) by 2050, split between Asia, the U.S. and Europe. The recently proposed Hydrogen Strategy for Canada and Ontario Low-Carbon Hydrogen Strategy lays out an ambitious framework for actions that will cement hydrogen as a tool to achieve a speedy economic recovery from the devastating COVID-19 impact, while also helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions and position Canada as a global, industrial leader of clean renewable fuels. Launching a hydrogen strategy has the potential to inspire other cleantech industries and further develop a sustainable and knowledge-based economy in Canada.

The increasing application of hydrogen is anticipated in the following sectors: industry, transportation, power and chemical production, building and communities. Hydrogen is produced in various ways, such as natural gas steam reformation and pyrolysis, water electrolysis, coal and biomass gasification. Whereas, currently, natural gas is the primary source of hydrogen production via steam methane reformation. Depending on the method of production, hydrogen has the potential to be low-carbon, which can help decarbonize our economy.

In addition to the conventional way of hydrogen production, low-carbon hydrogen can be produced from waste using advanced waste conversion technologies.

The Waste Challenge

Hydrogen from Waste

The increasing amount of waste is one of the most challenging problems facing the World. Around the World, 2.12 billion tons of garbage every year is produced. Contaminated and mixed waste products (e.g., plastics, paper, MSW, industrial and medical waste) are challenging to recycle in the traditional way – mechanical/physical processing. Especially, traditional plastic waste recycling has difficulties and limitations. Mechanical sorting is not effective for mixed plastic waste. Thousands of different types of plastic are manufactured by combinations of different resin types, dyes, and additives. Even carefully selected plastic materials can only be recycled limited times into similar products since it degrades every time after reheating. Therefore, most plastic products are downcycled into items of reduced value, such as textiles, toys or even construction materials, and eventually, end up in landfills and water resources creating tremendous environmental problems. The recent study – Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste concludes by Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) that landfilling 87% of plastic waste represents a CA$7.8 billion lost opportunity. By 2030, it is estimated that Canada’s lost opportunity related to unrecovered plastics could rise to CA$11.1 billion, under a business-as-usual scenario following the same end uses and value recovery performance as the current baseline.

Without effective recycling, most of the waste is sent to landfills and the energy in waste is essentially lost, producing mountains of trash, emitting harmful pollutants into our air, water and soil and creating enormous environmental problems. In landfills, the biodegradable components of waste decompose and emit methane – a greenhouse gas, which is more harmful than CO2. Landfills release many smog and acid rain related components and persistent organic pollutants, from both natural processes and landfill fires. Landfill fires, earth movements, groundwater flows, and development all contribute to landfill leachate of toxic substances (e.g., mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, organic toxins) to eventually seep and contaminate nearby ecosystems. Besides, we have an additional problem in Ontario. As Mike Chopowick, CEO at Ontario Waste Management Association, recently wrote in his article – Ontario’s garbage crisis is urgent, “Every bag of garbage we throw out brings us one step closer to running out of landfill space. Our landfill capacity deadline of 2032 will arrive even sooner — by 2028, just eight years away — should the U.S. government decide to close the border to Ontario’s garbage.” Currently, 30% of Ontario’s waste has been shipped by 100,000 semi-truck trailer loads travelling each year to Michigan creating a tremendous amount of pollution.

Canada and many other countries in the world are facing a waste management crisis. Waste accumulation problems are growing. In addition to current waste problems, the produced waste will be further increased in the health care, hospitality and food sectors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic could be a wake-up call for waste handling and reduction. Regrettably, Canada and other G7 countries are planning to use waste-to-energy incineration as part of plastic pollution solutions. However, incineration is a very costly and inefficient way for waste conversion into energy and generating highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants. The flue gas of the waste combustion is significantly diluted and increased in volume by the nitrogen content of the excess air use. The large volume of the flue gas is more difficult to clean and costly.

Fundamental Shifts

We need a fundamental shift in the way of produced waste handling. The circular economy is not only based on simply reusing waste products. The purpose of recycling is to redesign and convert waste into forms retaining as high-value as possible in a circular economy. There is a requirement for a new and innovative approach in the development of a solution for the waste management challenges, waste recycling, plastic waste pollution reduction and a working circular economy.

The environmental impact of waste can be minimized by applying proper waste management using advanced waste conversion technologies. Chemical recycling as waste recycling using effective waste conversion technology is essential for a working circular economy. Whereas, Chemical Recycling of waste can be defined as a chemical process converting waste materials into new usable products with desirable properties and composition for required applications. Garbage can be converted into high-value products using advanced and cost-effective waste conversion technologies. Perspectives of different waste conversion technologies are provided in the article – “Perspectives on Waste-to-Energy Technologies”. In a circular economy, chemical recycling based on effective waste conversion technologies can play a pivotal role in waste conversion into usable materials and clean energy.

The Government has recognized (e.g., Zero Plastic Waste: Canada’s actionsWaste-Free Ontario ActStrategy for a Waste-Free Ontario Building the Circular Economy and many other documents) that waste diversion from landfills, recovering valuable resources and greenhouse gas emission reduction can be achieved by incorporating chemical recycling and emerging technologies into waste management practices. However, without the Government’s support and endorsement for chemical recycling as part of the circular economy, municipalities and private sectors are not in a position to move forward with implementing waste conversion technologies based on chemical recycling. On the other hand, in 2019 Illinois and Ohio, like many other US states, had passed new laws making it easier to build chemical recycling facilities, regulating them as recycling operations rather than waste processing plants. The Canadian Government could also consider this new approach using Chemical Recycling in waste management as recycling operations.

Technology Solutions

In response to the waste accumulation problems, an innovative and cost-effective waste convection technology has been further developed after many years of testing at the pre-commercial waste conversion facility. The developed advanced clean technology is based on a steam gasification process in combination with a reliable scrubbing/cleaning system. The proposed waste steam gasification, as a chemical recycling process, satisfies the purpose of recycling to convert waste into forms retaining as high value as possible in a circular economy. The steam gasification technology represents a potential alternative to the traditional treatments of waste feedstocks.

During traditional gasification and incineration, the required heat is produced directly in the reaction chamber. As a result of the oxidation component of the traditional gasification systems, noxious oxides (e.g., nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides), furans and dioxins are generated during these processes. Furans and dioxins are highly toxic and carcinogenic pollutants even at a very low concentration. Additionally, the produced synthesis gas (syngas) will be significantly diluted by the oxidation process which includes the nitrogen content of the air and produced carbon dioxide and water vapour. Therefore, the heating value of syngas produced from the traditional gasification process is significantly reduced. The lower quality syngas fuel generated from partial oxidation gasification can be run in reciprocating engines, but generally cannot be used as a fuel for cleaner burning and more efficient gas turbines, due to its relatively low heating value. The hydrogen content of the produced syngas is significantly reduced as a result of the reaction with introduced oxygen to the gasification reactor. Additionally, traditional gasification of waste produces more carbon dioxide due to the carbon content of waste reaction with oxygen, and typically requires extensive and expensive waste feedstock pre-treatment and cleaning/scrubbing system.

On the other hand, the application of the steam gasification process for waste processing eliminates pollution created by incineration and traditional gasification processes. The waste steam gasification is a thermo-chemical process and is based on the waste materials reaction with steam without the participation of oxygen or air at elevated temperature. The main product of the reactions is syngas. The steam gasification technology represents a potential alternative for the traditional waste treatments to produce higher heating content syngas, which has a higher hydrogen concentration and lower carbon dioxide content than products produced by traditional gasification. The steam gasification process does not generate noxious oxides (nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides), furans and dioxins. The chemistry is different due to the high concentration of steam as a reactant and the total exclusion of air and, therefore, oxygen from the steam gasification process. Contaminates are easier to remove from the produced syngas because it is not diluted by excess air or nitrogen and products of combustion. Utilizing an indirectly heated kiln with an effective scrubbing/cleaning system, the waste steam gasification technology is a novel and unconventional waste conversion technology, which allows for robust operation of various heterogeneous waste feedstocks, such as plastics, MSW, biomass, used tires, sewage sludge, industrial and medical waste. The developed technology significantly reduces the requirements for pre-processing feedstock. The high quality of the produced syngas and residual waste heat can be used to power combined cycle gas turbines, reciprocating gas engines or potentially fuel cells for the generation of electricity and produce hydrogen from waste. Besides, because of the high hydrogen to carbon monoxide ratio of the produced syngas, the technology can be coupled with a Gas-to-Liquids technology (e.g., based on the Fischer – Tropsch process) to produce higher-value liquid synthetic fuels and chemicals.

The steam gasification technology, as an innovative and cost-effective chemical recycling process of waste, is the most suitable for contaminated & mixed waste conversion into clean energy and sustainable products, such as hydrogen, electricity, liquid synthetic fuels, and chemicals. At the current stage of the market demand, the application of steam gasification for waste processing into hydrogen can provide a cost-effective solution for waste accumulation problems and diversion from landfills. The waste diversion from landfills and recycling into hydrogen can protect the environment from pollutions and save natural resources by incorporating chemical recycling based on the waste steam reformation technology into waste management practices. Furthermore, if the processing waste is renewable feedstocks (e.g., agricultural or forest waste), the produced hydrogen can be considered green and the process can be considered carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative if the produced CO2 is captured and utilized (e.g., in greenhouses). Hydrogen production from waste is a cost-effective solution for waste diversion from landfills and recycling into a high-value product. The green hydrogen can be a base feedstock for green chemical production, such as green ammonia.

The developed cost-effective waste steam gasification technology as a chemical recycling process can provide a comprehensive and innovative solution to the complex problems of waste management, hydrogen production, environment protection, depletion of natural resources, and moving towards a circular economy. The application of the cost-effective waste steam gasification technology has competitive advantages over currently used hydrogen production and waste management technologies. The low-carbon hydrogen produced from waste holds the potential to decarbonize many sectors of our economy, including resource extraction, freight, transportation, power generation, manufacturing, oil refinery, and the production of steel, chemicals and cement. The use of the advanced steam gasification technology as a cost-effective chemical recycling process provides an innovative waste management strategy to divert waste from landfills and water resources and produce clean energy and sustainable products. Chemical recycling based on the cost-effective steam gasification technology can provide a fundamental shift in the way of waste handling in a circular economy. Waste conversion into hydrogen could become a base of the hydrogen and circular economy.

With the Government’s support, the waste steam gasification technology can be brought to the market as an industrial waste processing plant recycling waste into high-value sustainable products, such as hydrogen, chemicals and clean energy. The hydrogen production from waste can create many highly skilled jobs in the CleanTech and the waste management sectors and opportunities to export Canadian technologies around the Globe. With the right approach, Canada can be a front-runner in leading sustainable waste management and circular and hydrogen economy developments.

About the Author

Dr. Zoltan Kish has a Ph.D. in Chemistry with over 25 years of diverse industrial and academic experience and contributed to more than 70 scientific publications. He has developed and managed complex research and development programs related to alternative/renewable energy, clean technologies, effective waste conversion into usable products, sustainability, and advanced materials applications, such as solar energy technology, ceramic engine & cutting tool components, materials processing, and electronics. Dr. Kish was the Director of Research & Development at two Canadian alternative energy companies where he focused on R&D and commercialization of advanced waste conversion technologies and reliable scrubbing/cleaning systems to produce clean energy and sustainable products. In response to global environmental challenges and market requirements for viable economic growth, he has established a consulting company – Quasar ScienceTech (www.quasarsciencetech.com) to develop advanced technologies and provide multidisciplinary science and technology consulting in the areas of Natural & Applied Sciences, Clean Technologies & Energy, Waste Conversion, Scrubbing Systems, Advanced Materials, Innovation, Technical Due Diligence, Environmental Protection, Climate Change Mitigation, Circular Economy and Sustainability.

 

Cannabis And Waste: Another “Green” Opportunity

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Written by Holly SherlockTalia GordnerRalph Cuervo-Lorens, McMillan LLP

While the rapid growth of the cannabis industry in Canada has created new and exciting opportunities, this breakneck pace raises questions regarding the management of cannabis-related waste.

Cannabis production generates a significant amount of waste in the form of almost all of the by-products of production, including plant discards, air emissions, wastewater and other solid waste. Some estimates have found that Canada’s cannabis industry will generate up to 6,000 tonnes of cannabis waste in 2020.1

However, despite the general emphasis of regulators on the importance of proper waste management, there is little guidance from either the federal or the provincial governments on this issue specific to the cannabis industry.

Federal Regulation

Generally, the production of cannabis is regulated by the federal government under the Cannabis Act2 and Cannabis Regulations.3 Cannabis producers are subject to strict requirements regarding licensing, security, production standards and product quality.

The Cannabis Act provides for a comprehensive definition of “cannabis”, which in effect includes any part of the cannabis plant, any substance or mixture that contains or has on it any part of the plant, and any substance that is identical to any phytocannabinoid (e.g. THC or CBD) produced by or found in such a plant.4 Schedule 2 excludes certain parts of the plant, including non-viable seeds, mature stalks without leaves, flowers, seeds or branches, fibres derived from any items listed in Schedule 2 and the root or any part of the root of the plant.5

The federal Cannabis Regulations provide that any unused cannabis must be “destroyed”. The method of destruction, however, is not set out. Nevertheless, cannabis may only be destroyed by methods that comply with otherwise applicable federal, provincial and municipal laws. For example, destruction must not result in anyone being exposed to cannabis or cannabis vapour, must take place in the presence of two witnesses and producers are to record every instance of destruction and keep these records for a minimum of two years.6

With the exception of destruction of unused cannabis, the Cannabis Act and Regulations do not address the management of the waste resulting from the production of cannabis.

Provincial and Territorial Regulation

Given the limited guidance of federal law, the regulation of cannabis waste falls to the provinces and territories, all of which have pre-existing waste management regimes.

In Ontario, for example, a well-established and comprehensive regulatory scheme comprised primarily of the Environmental Protection Act7 (“EPA”) and the Ontario Water Resources Act8 (“OWRA”) regulates every aspect of waste. In addition, the Pesticides Act9 and the Nutrient Management Act10 deal with waste issues specific to agricultural operations. Other provinces have similar schemes.

The EPA is the principal environmental framework in Ontario governing waste. The purpose of the Act is to conserve the environment by regulating activities that discharge contaminants into the natural environment. Various regulations have been enacted under the EPA to regulate waste related activities such as soil management, greenhouse gas emissions, waste disposal and landfill sites. Generally, a party is required to obtain an Environmental Compliance Approval (“ECA”) prior to undertaking any activity that will result in the discharge, emission or disposal of contaminants. If a company or producer obtains an ECA, they are only entitled to emit a specified amount and type of emission into the environment for a limited period of time. The EPA imposes various penalties, including substantial fines, for failure to comply.

The OWRA protects and governs the quality of water resources in the province by controlling the discharge of contaminants into local water bodies. Generally, an ECA must be obtained under the OWRA prior to any discharge occurring. Approval must also be obtained for the taking of surface or groundwater at a rate above 50,000 litres per day.

The Pesticides Act and the Nutrient Management Act regulate the use of pesticides, fertilizers and the application of soil nutrient material to land. Users of these materials are subject to licensing requirements and nutrient-management plan approvals.

It remains unclear just how Ontario’s regulatory scheme governing waste will be applied to waste generated from the production of cannabis. The answer will likely depend on how cannabis operations are ultimately characterized for the purposes of regulation. For example, certain emissions from agricultural operations are exempt from large portions of the EPA, including the requirement under section 9.1 to obtain ECAs prior to discharging a contaminant into the natural environment. As a result, if cannabis growers are considered agricultural operations as opposed to industrial operations they may be exempt from a large portion of Ontario’s waste framework. However, if they are not exempt in this way, they will face strict waste compliance and reporting obligations.

The Future

Cannabis producers are properly focused on destroying cannabis so as not to run afoul of federal law. However, this can lead to cannabis being mixed with other waste, potentially making it unrecognizable as well as unusable and creating complications when it comes to composting and disposal.

While some commentators point to a missed opportunity to repurpose cannabis waste, including the unused portions of the plant into other products such as hemp items and construction materials, as the law currently stands, cannabis producers are largely unable to reuse or repurpose cannabis parts. This leads to unnecessary waste and expense.

New companies are cropping up to deal with cannabis waste opportunities, including start-ups developing technology to dispose of cannabis through a process that results in compostable biomass solids while extracting water clean enough to be reintroduced into the municipal water system.11

Given the absence of clear rules provided by the federal, provincial or territorial governments, cannabis producers should seek legal advice when contemplating what to do with their waste and to help them devise appropriate waste management, disposal and recycling protocols that dovetail with the applicable provincial and territorial regulations. McMillan has the expertise to navigate these regulations and assist cannabis industry members in weighing all of their options.

Ultimately, we should expect higher levels of regulation as the environmental impacts of the cannabis industry become better understood and the industry itself matures. Hopefully, future regulation will provide clarity on cannabis waste management options as well as appropriately incentivizing producers who prioritize environmentally sound practices and sustainability.

Footnotes

1 Senate of Canada, Standing Committee on Agricultural and Forestry Evidence,  (Published 27 March 2018).

2 Cannabis Act, SC 2018, c 16 (Cannabis Act).

3 Cannabis Regulations, SOR/2018-144 (Cannabis Regulations).

4 Schedule 1, Cannabis Act.

5 Schedule 2, Cannabis Act.

6 Cannabis Regulations, s. 146(7).

7 Environmental Protection Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E19.

8 Ontario Water Resources Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. O.40.

9 Pesticides Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. P.11.

10 Nutrient Management Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 4.

11 Vancouver Sun, “ Vancouver startup high on technology to process cannabis plant waste”,  (Published 4 April 2018).

Originally Published by McMillan, November 2020

The foregoing provides only an overview and does not constitute legal advice. Readers are cautioned against making any decisions based on this material alone. Rather, specific legal advice should be obtained.

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About the Authors

Holly Sherlock is an associate in the firm’s Litigation and Dispute Resolution Group. She is building a broad practice in complex civil and commercial litigation. She has experience in a range of areas, including contractual disputes, regulatory compliance and environmental litigation. Holly has appeared before the Ontario Court of Justice, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Talia Gordner is a partner in the firm’s Regulatory Group. Her advocacy practice covers a broad range of corporate and commercial matters with an emphasis in the management and resolution of complex environmental and regulatory disputes. Talia represents clients from a wide range of industries dealing with matters ranging from common commercial disputes such as breach of contract, fraud and negligence to environmental matters involving recent, ongoing and historical contamination.

Ralph Cuervo-Lorens is a partner in the firm’s Regulatory Group. His regulatory practice has a focus on CSR standards, social license to operate and environmental risk-management and compliance for clients with “high impact” businesses. Ralph’s work in this area includes traditional regulatory matters (such as impact assessment, disclosure and reporting, decommissioning, Aboriginal consultation and accommodation, audits, risk management, emergency response and remedial and clean-up plans) and also extends into due diligence, risk management and disclosure issues in corporate securities, financing and mergers and acquisition transactions.

Doing less, with more – Why the environmental performance of the Blue Box is decreasing over time

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

Can recycling be bad for the environment? This is a question that I have posed to students in the past – almost universally, the answer has been a resounding no. For decades, Ontarians have been inundated with the message that “recycling is good” and that it is our collective responsibility to recycle in order to preserve resources for future generation. In fact, Ontario’s Blue Box program is expected to play a critical role in helping the province achieve its carbon reduction and zero waste goals, and remains as the centerpiece of the Waste Free Ontario Act. With all of this in mind, recycling must surely be a good idea, right?

I would be disingenuous if I told that recycling was bad for the environment. However, I do feel that not all recycling is created equal. What we recycle, when we recycle and why we should recycle is very much contingent on a number of site and situation specific circumstances. When evaluated in isolation and all things being equal (cetterus paribus), recycling will yield a positive environmental outcome. However, the situation becomes much less clear once we begin to include other factors (economics, social equity etc,) and the “opportunity cost” of recycling activity (where opportunity cost is the forgone benefit that would have been derived by an option not chosen.).

Looking at the performance of Ontario’s Blue Box program, we observe a troubling trend – the environmental performance of the Blue Box (measured in terms of GHGs abated) has decreased every year since 2015. In that same period, the net cost per tonne to recycle all Blue Box materials has increased by 21%, while overall tonnes diverted has fallen by more than 80,000 tonnes. In short, the province is doing “less with more”, as the cost of the Blue Box program continues to increase by double digits year over year, while recycling less material and abating fewer tonnes of carbon.

It is important to note that this “decrease” in performance cannot be attributed to any particular cause – the rapidly changing nature of what packaging is made up of, uncertainty regarding the scope and timeframe of proposed legislation, volatility in end markets and realized revenues etc. are all exogenous factors that affect what is being recycled and the costs of doing so. The Blue Box of today is fundamentally different than it was even as little as a decade ago. Over the past 5 years, the program has seen overall paper recycling drop by more than 159,000 tonnes annually (an approximately 38% reduction). Steel packaging and glass cullet have also seen their overall recovered tonnages decrease, while aluminum, PET and HDPE have remained flat. Of particular interest, is that the share of plastics #3-7 (LDPE Film, Polystyrene, Plastic Laminates and Other Plastics) of all tonnes generated and recycled has increased significantly during this same period. This change in the mix of materials generated into the market and recovered tells a story of a system that is increasingly being made up of expensive, difficult to recycle materials.

In light of these challenges, the province now finds itself at a crossroads of sorts, and faces questions that are fundamental to the very nature of the program.  1) Does Ontario continue to promote recycling policy in the hope that a producer operated system will realize operational and economic efficiencies that overcome these problems? 2) Does the province explore  alternative modes and methods of waste diversion that are no longer rooted in recycling, and 3) What is the goal of the program, and what are we willing to spend to achieve it?

For me, this last question is probably the most important one. In many ways, we have a decoupling of environmental and diversion goals. For decades, we have been taught that ‘more’ recycling is better for the environment – but conspicuously absent from this feel good message is what should be recycled. Is the decision to recycling everything (everywhere), economically feasible or environmentally desirable?

As noted earlier, a message that cannot be stressed enough is that not all recycling is made equal – while counterintuitive, a higher recycling rate does not necessarily result in a superior environmental outcome – a system which prioritizes recovery of materials such as aluminum, newsprint etc. (low cost, high impact) can achieve greater carbon reduction, even in a scenario where overall recycled tonnes decreases. In 2016, the university published a study titled “Optimizing emissions targets for residential recycling programs: Why more is not necessarily better with respect to diversion” (Lakhan, 2016 doi: 10.1177/0734242X16659923). The following is an excerpt taken from the paper abstract:

This study demonstrated targeting specific materials for recovery could result in a scenario where the province could improve both overall diversion and emissions offsets while reducing material management costs. Under the modelled scenario, as the tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) avoided increases, the system cost per tonne of GHG avoided initially declines. However, after avoiding 2.05 million tonnes of GHGs, the system cost/tonne GHG avoided increases. To achieve an emissions target in excess of 2.05 million tonnes, the province will have to start recycling higher cost non-core materials (composite materials, other plastics, etc.).

While the paper itself goes into much greater detail surrounding the methodology and findings, the key take away was that what is being recycled, is often more important than how much is being recycled. Much of the current dialogue surrounding waste management revolves around increasing recycling rates and waste minimization, but we must take a step back and ask whether a higher recycling rate should be the focal point of policy objectives. Are there metrics beyond recycling rates and emission impacts that need to be considered when evaluating the long-term sustainability of waste management systems?

While movements towards more sustainable waste management options should certainly be promoted, we must recognize that the most sustainable system is not necessarily the one that recycles the most material. Although recycling is a central component of developing sustainable waste management systems, its adoption must be weighed against budgetary, social and environmental considerations. For every one dollar we spend on one activity, is one dollar less to spend on another – in a resource constrained world, how we chose to prioritize our goals and allocate these resources is of paramount importance. The careful balancing act between continuous improvement in diversion, GHG abatement and cost containment is a topic that requires more attention now more than ever.

Note: For the purposes of this editorial, I have defined carbon abatement/reduction as being a barometer for environmental performance. I recognize that carbon/GHG reduction is only one component of a much larger environmental footprint, and a true life cycle analysis should consider things like water consumption/acidification/eutrophication/toxicity etc.

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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.

Circular economy approach at Emerald Energy from Waste

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Written by John Nicholson, Navdeep Randev, and Anastasia Jagdeo

Circular Economy

There has been much discussion on the term “circular economy” and the need for individuals, organizations, and governments to think in terms of circular economy.  In essence, a circular economy is one in which waste is essentially eliminated.  Prior to the modern age, humans were part of the circular economy that exists in nature.

As we may have learned in high school science class, there are cycles in nature including those for carbon, water, and nitrogen.  The industrial revolution broke away from natural cycles and created a linear approach to materials and energy management – products were manufactured, served their useful purpose, and then disposed of in a landfill.  The circular economy approach attempts to create a circle again through the 3Rs and the 4th R.

In Europe and in other forward-thinking jurisdictions around the world, energy-from-waste is considered the Fourth “R” after the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle).  The fourth “R” represents the recovery of energy from waste.

Circular Economics applied in Waste Management

Since 1992, the Emerald Energy-from-Waste (EFW) facility has quietly and unassumingly been part of the 4th R – recovering the energy from municipal solid waste.  The facility, originally knowns as Peel Resource Recovery Inc. is situated in an industrial area in north Mississauga, Ontario.  In all of its years of operation, there has been nary an odour, noise, or other nuisance complaint formerly brought against the facility.  Visitors tend to be amazed when they tour the facility which ends at the emissions stack.  Their preconceived notion is that they would see smoke from the stack.  In fact, the emissions are invisible on a warm day.  On cold days, the visible emissions are water vapour.

For the first twenty years of its operation, the facility’s main source of waste was from the Region of Peel.  More recently, it has received waste from several municipalities as well as U-Pak Disposal Ltd., a related company.  The facility also specializes in disposing of special waste including contraband seized by various police departments and Canadian Border Services at nearby Pearson Airport.

The facility runs 24-hours a day, 7 day per week.  It has a total of five two-unit gasifiers/combustion modules that work in parallel to process 500 tonnes per day of solid waste.

The heat generated from the combustion of waste at the facility is used to turn water into steam.  Some the steam is piped to a neighbouring cardboard recycling facility to meet their process needs.  The remaining steam is used to generate about 10 MW of electricity.  The facility itself consumes about 2 MW and its sells the remainder to the local power utility.

Unfortunately, the electricity generated from the Emerald EFW is not considered renewable under Ontario rules and hence does not receive the premium pricing other forms of the renewable energy receive.  There are jurisdictions around the world where EFW is considered a renewable energy source and is priced at a premium.

The volume of waste coming into the facility is reduced by 90 percent through the EFW process and is in the form of either bottom ash or fly ash.  The bottom ash is disposed of in a landfill, although the facility has been and continues to look for other uses for it such as an additive to asphalt or in building materials.  The facility is working with McMaster University researchers on developing a high-value use for the bottom ash.

The fly ash, by regulation, is considered hazardous and is managed at a hazardous waste landfill.

Expansion Plans

The facility is currently in the planning stages of an expansion which would involve the addition of more combustion units and an upgrade of its air pollution control system.  The plans also include an alternative use of the energy recovered from the waste – the production of hydrogen fuel for the trucks that bring waste to the facility.

The facility is working with researchers at the University of Waterloo and a partner in the automotive industry to work out the details of hydrogen generation and use as a fuel for the trucks the off-load waste at the facility on a daily basis.  Preliminary economics and environmental analysis indicate that this is a much more effective use of the heat obtained from the EFW facility.

The Emerald EFW is a shining example of EFW done right in Canada.  It has been an underappreciated harbinger what can be accomplished at municipalities throughout the country.

Why expanding the list of acceptable Blue Box materials hurts more than it helps

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

Preface: For readers outside of Ontario, the Blue Box refers to the province’s residential recycling program for printed paper and packaging.

What is being proposed?

On October 19, 2020, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks released a proposed regulation to govern the Ontario Blue Box program under the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, 2016 (the RRCEA). The regulation will transition Ontario’s blue box recycling program for printed paper and packaging to full extended producer responsibility (EPR).

The proposed regulation expands the list of acceptable Blue Box materials to include “packaging-like products” and certain single-use items. Examples of packaging like products include: aluminum pie plates, tin foil, plastic wraps and food trays, plastic cutlery/plates and single use drink containers.

The intent of this change is three fold: 1) By including packaging-like products, the regulation targets items that so far have been free riders in Ontario’s Blue Box system. 2) Reduce public confusion regarding what is considered an acceptable Blue Box material in their jurisdiction. The proposed change will standardize accepted Blue Box materials, with the same set of materials being collected throughout the province 3) Move towards harmonizing approaches to managing packaging waste at a national level – British Columbia has announced plans to include single-use and packaging-like products in its list of obligated materials by 2023

What is the issue?

The MOECP’s decision to expand the list of acceptable Blue Box materials to include “packaging like products” is inconsistent with previous direction from the province and contradicts the messaging surrounding the federal single use plastics ban.

Prior to the transition plan, municipalities actively discouraged accepting packaging like products in the Blue Box. The primary concern expressed by municipalities was that it was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recycle many of these materials. The costs associated with attempting to collect and recover packaging like products was prohibitive, and could not be rationalized given that these materials were often treated as contamination (both at the material recycling facility, and downstream re-processors), and subsequently disposed of.

Under a full EPR system, wherein packaging producers assume 100% of the physical and financial responsibility for managing packaging waste at end of life, the messaging surrounding packaging like products has now changed. While the infrastructural and technical barriers to recycling these materials remains unchanged, who pays for it has. The potential costs to producers is significant, as none of the pre-requistes for effectively recycling packaging like products are in place – there is limited infrastructure, no viable end markets and no end use applications for these materials.

With respect to the federal directive to ban single use plastics, Ontario’s decision to try and include these items as part of the Blue Bin program is perplexing. Allowing households to place single use packaging in the Blue Bin erroneously suggests that these materials are going to be recycled. As a result, the public receives two conflicting messages – the federal government is saying that single plastics should be banned due to their lack of recyclability and impact on the environment, while the provincial government is saying to include these materials as part of the residential recycling program.

Consumers already struggle with differentiating between what products can be recycled, and what cannot. Consumers have also expressed skepticism as to whether the materials that are collected are actually recycled at all. With this in mind, the decision to include packaging like materials as part of the Blue Box program is likely to exacerbate uncertainty, and serve to undermine the efficacy and credibility of the federal single use plastics ban.

It is the university’s assertion that expanding the list of acceptable materials will result in adverse economic, environmental and social outcomes for Ontarians and lead to consumer confusion regarding what materials are actually recyclable.

What will this cost?

Quantifying the economic impact of expanding the list of acceptable Blue Box materials is enormously challenging, largely because the vast majority of packaging like products cannot be recycled in our existing system. Further complicating matters is that we don’t have a clear understanding of the quantities of packaging like products that are being generated in the province – in short, there is not enough data at this time to make informed policy decisions.

With that in mind, this section attempts to model a scenario using best available data that is intended to provide directional guidance as to what this change will cost. Additional research needs to be done in this area as better data becomes available.

Note: The data used in this section is based on the Stewardship Ontario Pay in Model (used as an analog to estimate net costs per tonne for packaging like products) and 55 waste audits conducted throughout Ontario, between the periods of 2015 and 2020. Audit data is used to estimate the quantities of packaging like products that are being generated by households each year.

Based on the waste audit data, Ontarians, on average, generate approximately 567kg of waste per household every year (Note: Estimates range from as little as 411kg/hh to more than 740kg/hh depending on where the audit was conducted). Overall residential waste generation in Ontario, based on a population of 5,169,175 households, is 2,933,196.66 Tonnes.

Of this, packaging like products makes up approximately 4.01% of all waste generated. Table 1 below provides a detailed breakdown of waste composition, as well as net cost per tonne to manage these materials as part of the Blue Box.

No alt text provided for this image

Weighted Average Net Cost Per Tonne: $2002.52/T

% of Packaging like products of overall waste: 4.01%

Based on our aggregated audit data, 39% of packaging like products are found in the recycling stream (Blue Box), 8% in the Organics Stream (Green Bin) and 53% in the garbage stream (Trash)

Using the above data, we can now estimate what the potential cost would be if Ontario were to move forward with the decision to include packaging like products as part of the Blue Bin. To reiterate, these numbers should be interpreted with caution due to the paucity of available data. This modeling assumes that the material analogs we have taken from the PIM model, accurately reflect packaging like products. We also assume that packaging like products are being recycled, as opposed to being screened as contamination and subsequently discarded. The results of this analysis are shown in Table 2 below:

No alt text provided for this image

Are there environmental benefits?

In light of the enormous costs attributable to expanding the list of acceptable Blue Box materials, it seems prudent that we evaluate the environmental benefits of this decision. The increase in costs could potentially be rationalized if it yields a more sustainable outcome (in this context, we refer to environmental sustainability)

Unfortunately, the inclusion of packaging like products in the Blue Bin does not mean that these materials will be recycled. Based on available infrastructure, processing technology and end markets, there is a very strong likelihood that these materials will be treated as contamination (either at the MRF, or at the processor) and subsequently discarded.

If the landfill is the likely outcome for these materials, it begs the question, “What are we trying to achieve?” At this juncture, it’s not entirely clear what expanding the list of Blue Box materials achieves other than a higher cost for producers (and subsequently, a higher cost for households).

While proponents of this legislative change will cite that packaging producers will have the ability to innovate and develop new end markets and end use applications for these materials, there is very little evidence (if any) of that occurring. Policy makers often erroneously assume that packaging producers have a significant degree of autonomy and control regarding what happens with their products at end of life. The reality is that the vast majority of CPG companies are “market takers”, subject to macro-economic conditions that ultimately determine the value and recyclability of a particular material. In short, if a material had inherent value at its end of life when recycled, then markets would already exist for these materials. Forcing packaging producers who operate in Ontario to invest and develop the infrastructure to recycle packaging like products places them at a distinct disadvantage, as they are incurring an additional cost to manage and recycle materials that would not be recovered if left to a free market.

An argument could even be made that the decision to include packaging like products as part of the Blue Box yields an inferior environmental outcome relative to landfilling. Based on the modeling shown in Table 2, we estimate that the decision to include packaging like products would result in an additional 45,872.26 tonnes being managed as part of the Blue Box system. These are materials that would ultimately have to be collected, transported and sorted – all of which have a carbon impact associated with each activity. For context, GHG impacts of recyclable collection and sorting (at the MRF) makes up approximately 19% of the total carbon footprint of recycling activity. If packaging like materials are ultimately sent to disposal due to a lack of adequate infrastructure or end market demand, then the province’s decision would have actually added GHGs to the environment, not prevented it.

Whatever environmental benefit that may result from including packaging like materials in the Blue Bin is predicated on these materials actually being recycled. Both the public and policy makers need to understand that diversion/recycling is not based on the quantities of collected material inbound to a MRF – at present, recycling is defined as baled and marketed material. In the absence of end markets for packaging like materials, what does the province think is going to happen to the material that is collected?

Caveats to this analysis and key considerations

To reiterate, the estimates used in this analysis use the costs associated with attempting to actually recycle packaging like products. Given that these materials are not actually recyclable in the given system, we have used cost analogs taken from the Stewardship Ontario Pay in Model. Numerous parties (including the university) have expressed concern regarding the accuracy and validity of the data found within the PIM model, but at this juncture, there is no alternative source that can be publicly referenced.

If packaging like products were to be included as part of the Blue Bin, the most likely scenario is that the vast majority of the material is going to be screened and end up in landfill. Even in this scenario, producers would be obligated to pay for the costs of collecting, sorting and disposal – while significant, the only credible way to estimate what this would cost would be to conduct an activity based costing study.

In a review of the proposed changes being put forward by the MECP, there are two key takeaways are: 1) What are we trying to do? If these materials can’t be recycled and ultimately be discarded, why bother including them to begin with? The decision to do so would result in industry spending millions of dollars to achieve an outcome that is no different than what is happening today.

2) At this juncture, there is insufficient data regarding how much of these materials are being generated, where it ends up, and what it costs to manage them. Given the degree of uncertainty surrounding the credibility of the data, it would be in the best interest of all stakeholders for the government to defer the decision to include packaging like materials in the Blue Box (until the potential impacts are better understood).

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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.

Giant ‘vacuum cleaner’ leaves beaches microplastic-free

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Conservationist group #SeaTheBiggerPicture Ocean Initiative (#STBP) and engineers from Matriarch Generic Engineering have developed a giant vacuum cleaner that picks up trash and sieves out microplastics from the beaches of Cape Town in South Africa.

Called the Enviro Buggy, it sieve out microplastics, pieces of plastic that have broken down and now are smaller than 5mm, from ordinary beach sand. It would take humans days to do the same using manual methods.

“The Enviro Buggy was born out of a necessity. We were fed up with trying to pick up so many tiny degraded particles of plastic. It was near impossible by hand, even with a large-scale crew,” said Tash Krauss, a conservationist at STBP.

Ontario’s blue box transition: Bringing individual producer responsibility to packaging

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Written by Jonathan Cocker, BLG and Denisa Mertiri, Green Earth Strategy

On October 19, 2020, Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks released a proposed regulation to govern the Ontario blue box program under the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, 2016 (the RRCEA). The regulation will transition Ontario’s blue box recycling program, covering paper products and packaging (PPP), to full extended producer responsibility (EPR).

Since 2002, Ontario has operated a shared responsibility framework for EPR, with municipalities and producers each bearing half the cost of municipal blue box programs. Municipalities, however, have remained in charge of operating recycling systems. The new regulation transitions both financial and operational responsibility to producers. It also aims to refine EPR using the innovative policy mechanism of individual producer responsibility (IPR), making each individual “producer” of PPP directly and individually responsible for resource recovery of the PPP placed onto the market in the province.

Using IPR, the province aims to hold individual producers accountable for the entire lifecycle of their own products – a watershed event in the development of a circular economy for PPP.

There are a number of notable requirements in the draft regulation implementing an IPR framework for PPP in Ontario.

Expanded list of materials

Currently, the blue box system includes paper products and packaging materials. The new regulation expands this list to include “packaging-like products” and certain single-use items. By including packaging-like products, the regulation targets items that so far have been free riders in Ontario’s blue box system. These include aluminum pie plates or bags bought in bulk. These items are indistinguishable from many considered packaging, such as aluminum plates used to package pies sold in supermarkets. With respect to single-use products, the regulation targets products such as straws, cutlery, plates used to consume food, and drink containers that are “ordinarily disposed of after a single use, whether or not they could be reused.”

Ontario’s choice to include these items aligns Ontario’s list of materials with those regulated as PPP in British Columbia. BC recently announced plans to include single-use and packaging-like products in its list of obligated materials under its EPR system by 2023. Perhaps this is a sign of more cross-country harmonization on PPP regulation, consistent with the federal initiatives in this area.

Special rules for compostables

Citing challenges with determining proper management approaches for compostable materials, the new regulation imposes registration and reporting obligations with respect to compostable materials, but does not mandate collection or management requirements.

It is hoped that these lowered obligations will provide policymakers with the information necessary to determine how these materials are used in Ontario, and to suggest better approaches to their management. Only a few facilities in Canada may be able to manage compostable materials. Optical scanners at most material recovery facilities cannot sort these materials, while manual sorters cannot easily tell the difference between certain types of compostable and conventional plastics.

This arguably reflects the ongoing uncertainty around the role that bioplastics and alternatives to plastics will play in Canada’s management of PPP.

New definitions targeting online free riders?

Online retail is growing rapidly worldwide, particularly during COVID-19 when physical stores are, at times, inaccessible. Ontario is no exception to this trend. This heightened online retail activity is, however, introducing in Ontario’s market products by producers that have no presence in Ontario or Canada and may not be registering as producers or paying fees to fund Ontario’s recycling system. This scenario has exacerbated the quantities of free riders in most EPR systems, whose products are collected by local recycling systems that they do not fund. Past product stewardship laws in Canada have reinforced this divide by only obligating resident sellers.

The draft regulation appears to address this challenge by designating “marketplace facilitators” that contract with “marketplace sellers” as producers if they are resident in Canada. The regulation defines “marketplace facilitator” as a person who,

(a) contracts with marketplace sellers to facilitate the supply of the marketplace seller’s products by,

(i) owning or operating an online marketplace or forum in which the marketplace seller’s products are listed or advertised for supply, or

(ii) transmitting or otherwise communicating the offer or acceptance between the marketplace seller and a buyer, and

(b) provides for the physical distribution of a marketplace seller’s products to the consumer, such as by the storage, preparation, or shipping of products

This definition appears to capture many online retailers who make the products of many sellers available to Ontarians.

Annual allocation table

Most surprisingly, the regulation also sets out a number of rules that will govern the creation of an “annual allocation table,” the first of which should be submitted as early as March 31, 2022. These rules help to determine which producers will be responsible for collecting from which sources, notionally allocating to them specific residences, facilities or public spaces each year.

The rules also set out the factors to be considered in the making of these allocations. Although the regulation leaves allocation decisions with producers and their producer responsibility organizations (PROs), once in force, the rules will have a regulatory effect over all producers and PROs in the system.

The allocation method is a novel approach to regulating producer responsibility and appears to run counter prior provincial commentary that the new blue box regulation under the RRCEA would be outcomes-focused and not prescriptive as to the manner in which producers chose to fulfill their obligations. The possibility that the Minister might either police existing rules, or even make rules for producers and/or their PROs should they fail to successfully do so themselves, appears to deviate from the free market foundations of this IPR model.

Conclusion

The new blue box regulation under the RRCEA is innovative in its decisions to implement a policy as complex as IPR for PPP. In addition to the novel approaches already discussed, many others bear mentioning, including reducing management requirements for use of recycled content in products, and joint and several liability between and among producers and their PROs for certain obligations under the regulation.

The proposed regulation is available for public comment for 45 days (until December 3, 2020). In addition, the province is also looking for feedback on amendments to Regulation 101/94 under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act. Regulation 101/94 sets rules for recycling and composting municipal waste and standards for blue box waste management systems, including collection, acceptance, transportation and processing. As much is changing, stakeholders may have a lot to say before Ontario finalizes the new PPP regime.

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About the Authors

Jonathan Cocker, a partner at BLG, provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations.

Denisa Mertiri J.D., is the founder of Green Earth Strategy. Green Earth Strategy advises industry, cities and government on how to create and maintain practical and effective circular economy and waste management strategies with staying power.