Too Much Waste, Too Little Investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Crunchbase, 1995–2019

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

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

There are many reasons for this investment shortfall:

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

Time to invest in our only rapidly growing resource: waste

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

Source: Crunchbase 2010–2019

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chemical Recycling for a Circular Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author

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

GFL Environmental aims to raise more capital, Acquires County Waste of Virginia

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GFL Environmental Inc. (“GFL”), headquartered in the Greater Toronto Area, recently announced that it priced its previously announced private offering of US$500 million in aggregate principal amount of 5.125% senior secured notes due 2026  and US$275 million in aggregate principal amount of 7.000% unsecured senior notes due 2026 and in a transaction that was significantly oversubscribed.

GFL previously issued US$400 million in aggregate principal amount of its 7.000% unsecured senior notes due 2026 and the Unsecured Notes will be treated as “Additional Notes” under the indenture governing the Unsecured Notes and will be treated as a single series with the Existing Unsecured Notes under such indenture. In addition to the Notes, GFL expects to raise a minimum of $300 million of equity from existing shareholders of GFL (the “Equity Financing”). The closing of the Equity Financing and the Notes Offering are not contingent on each other.

GFL intends to use the net proceeds from the offering of the Notes, together with the Equity Financing (i) to fund certain acquisitions, including a pending acquisition, (ii) to repay outstanding borrowings under its revolving credit facility, (iii) to pay related fees and expenses in connection therewith and (iv) for general corporate purposes.

GFL also announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire County Waste of Virginia, LLC and its subsidiaries.  The transaction, which is expected to close in January 2020, is subject to receipt of customary regulatory approvals.

County Waste offers solid waste management services, including collection, transportation, transfer, recycling and disposal of non-hazardous solid waste for municipal, residential and commercial and industrial customers in Virginia and Eastern Pennsylvania. County Waste’s collection and hauling operations utilize a fleet of over 410 trucks that service over 410,000 residential customers and 19,000 commercial customers. County Waste owns six transfer stations and one material recovery facility and operates a landfill in Troutville, Virginia.

City of Kamloops to ban cardboard in Landfills

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The City of Kamloops, British Columbia is the latest municipality looking to ban a recyclable material from landfill. In the case of this south-central BC community of 90,000, IC&I cardboard is the target.

In an interview with Kamloops This Week, Glen Farrow, the city’s environmental services manager, stated: “We’re still seeing some businesses, some loads coming to our landfills from some of the other private haulers in town, with a large percentage of all their waste is cardboard,” city environmental services manager Glen Farrow told KTW. “In those particular cases, why can’t that be separated? Why can’t that be diverted?”

Currently, the City collects residential cardboard curbside and delivers it to the Emterra waste processing facility, the only location in Kamloops that recyclings cardboard. Cardboard generated by the IC&I sector is collected by the City on a piecemeal basis. Most businesses pay to have their cardboard hauled privately.

The city is considering the ban on cardboard in landfills as part of a region-wide initiative,that will put the onus back on businesses to find an alternative way to dispose of the material.

“It’s the lowest-hanging fruit,” Farrow said in his interview with Kamloops Today. “We’ve been talking about commercial recycling for years and, based on the global markets, soft plastics, mixed paper — all those are challenging in finding an end market. The product that has the greatest value and the ability to be pulled out more easily from your product mix is cardboard.”

With Emterra being the only cardboard recycler in the City, there are issues when cardboard loads are not accepted at the facility due to contamination. If a landfill ban is in place, there will only be expensive out-of-city options for cardboard management.

Fun with Waste: Sorting Game in Surrey

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The British Columbia community of Surrey has a fun way to educate its 518,000 citizens on its waste collection rules. Using an online game that is also available as an app, the Rethink Waste Sorting Game provides users with a game-type experience for learning on how to recycle and “what goes where”.

The City also has “Surrey Rethink Waste” app that is available for download for free mobile app by searching “Surrey Rethink Waste” in the app store:

  • Download it from Apple’s App Store
  • Get it from Android Market
Get it on Google Play

The Rethink Waste app allows users to quickly:

  • find waste collection set-out information
  • identify materials accepted for recycling, composting or disposal
  • find alternative disposal and recycling options
  • look up the Surrey Transfer Station location, hours of operation and disposal rates
  • access customer service phone numbers, and more.
  • play our Rethink Waste Sorting Game

City of Montreal awards contract to build, operate, and maintain a SSO Anaerobic Processing Facility

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The City of Montreal recently signed a contract with SUEZ to design, build, operate and maintain a source separated organics (SSO) waste treatment center. This contract, worth $167 million (Cdn.), provides for a two-year construction period of the plant followed by a five-year operating period. This is the second contract won this year by SUEZ in Montreal, which is currently building a composting facility. The new plant will convert organic material into biomethane, producing enough renewable gas to power around 3,600 households.

SUEZ will build an organic waste biomethanation center that can process 60,000 tons of organic material each year, on the east side of Montreal Island. This plant will recover organic waste produced by nearly 1.5 million inhabitants of the east side and the city center into biomethane. SUEZ will equip the plant with innovative technologies allowing for the anaerobic digestion of organic material to generate biogas, which will then be purified using high-performance membranes to produce biomethane. Expected to be commissioned in 2022, the facility will be operated and maintained by SUEZ for a period of five years.

This plant will contribute to the City of Montreal’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. First, it will significantly reduce the distances traveled in treating this waste, which is currently taken to a facility around 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Montreal. Moreover, the new plant will convert the organic material into biomethane, a renewable energy that offers the same advantages as natural gas. Non-polluting and locally produced, the biomethane will be injected into the local gas network.

This facility is the second organic waste treatment centers planned by the City of Montreal to recover and divert away its organic waste from landfills by 2020. In April 2019, SUEZ was selected by the City of Montreal to design, build and operate the city’s first organic waste treatment center, located in the Saint-Laurent borough.

About SUEZ North America

SUEZ North America operates across all 50 of the United States and throughout Canada. It has 2,825 employees. The company provides drinking water, wastewater and waste collection services; treats water and wastewater ; delivers water treatment and advanced network solutions to industrial and municipal sites; processes waste for recycling; rehabilitates and maintains water assets for municipal and industrial customers; and manages $4.1 billion in total assets. The company posted revenues of $1.1 billion in 2018 and is a subsidiary of Paris-based SUEZ.

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

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

The title of this article may seem like a bit of “click bait”, but the topic itself is one near and dear to my heart, but is often neglected in conversations surrounding waste. How socio-economic inequality manifests itself in the form of impeded access, or participation in waste management initiatives is a poorly understood topic. Much of the existing academic research on environmental justice has been on the unequal distribution of environmental hazards and benefits along racialized lines, where there are consistent indications that waste facilities and waste related hazards are disproportionally located in lower income areas (or those predominated by minorities). Perhaps more alarmingly is the epidemiological link between waste exposure-related health effects and low income areas.

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

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

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

In all fairness, the connection between waste management and socio-economic inequality is not something that is top of mind for most policy makers. Generally speaking, there is an idea that a municipality will provide waste management services to a particular area, support that initiative through a combination of promotion and education efforts, and hope for sustained public participation.

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

Economic Access

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

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

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

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

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

However, it is important to recognize that the ability to do so is a luxury – in a focus group conducted of more than 1800 consumers in the Greater Toronto earlier this year, more than 80% of respondents indicated that price was the primary determinant for making a purchase. If possible, respondents indicated that they would like to make more sustainable purchases, but budgetary restraints largely impeded them from doing so.

More than 70% of respondents also indicated that they did not have the ability to travel outside of a 5km range to make daily purchases, and often shopped at specific retailers because of a mix of multiple factors such as: convenience, price, familiarity and purchasing agglomeration (one stop shopping).

In a 2019 analysis of consumer purchasing preferences in the Greater Toronto Area, households characterized as “low income” (household income less than $40,000 per year) consumed 18.4% more pre-packaged goods (namely grains, produce and frozen meats), when compared to families whose household income exceeded $100,000 a year. There is an inverse, statistically significant correlation between household income and % of prepackaged foodstuff of overall weekly purchases.

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

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

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

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

Knowledge Access

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

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

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

Figure 1: Smart Phone Ownership

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

Figure 2: Primary System Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infrastructural Access

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3: Density of Bin Per Sample Area

1 – # of Recycling Bins Per Transit Stop

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

3 – # of Recycling Bins per sampled area

No alt text provided for this image

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

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

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

Stop and Think

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

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

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


About the Author

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

Central-Alberta Village Championing Municipal WTE Facility

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As reported in the Red Deer Advocate, the Mayor of the Village of Caroline is championing the concept of a centralized waste-to-energy facility as an alternative to landfilling municipal waste.

Mayor John Rimmer gave a presentation to the Town of Rocky Mountain House council recently that the goal is to seek out private backers to own and operate a plant that would take garbage municipalities now truck to landfills and process it into a product that can be used to create energy.

The Mayor envisions the proposed WTE facility to use similar technology to that promoted by Fogdog Energy Solutions , which is working on a waste-to-fuel project for the Town of Sylvan Lake. The company is still awaiting final provincial approval.

Fogdog Energy is developing a technology that converts waste into refuse-derived fuel that can be used for heating, electricity generation, and other uses. The seven-step process includes crushing, evaporation to remove moisture, superheating, sterilization, and cooling. The entire process takes 30 minutes.

Fogdog Waste to RDF Converter

“They’re in the running,” he said of Fogdog. “But we’ll have several different bids from different companies.”

The Town of Sylvan, with a population of approximately 15,0000, signed an agreement with Fogdog Energy in 2018. Instead of burying waste in a landfill, the company says it can convert solid municipal and medical waste refuse derived fuel. The project still needs approval of the Alberta Environment Ministry.

Once the Fogdog Energy Converter system get government approval, it will take two years to get the system up and running. The Town of Sylvan’s Chief Administration Officer, Wally Ferris, believes there is potential for the town to save about $227,000 each year in waste management costs utilizing the converter vs. landfilling.

Albertans create about 3.4 million tonnes of waste yearly — or about one tonne each. A little under one-third of that is recycled, leaving about 2.5 million to be trucked to the province’s 162 landfills.

GFL to Acquire Canada Fibers Ltd.

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GFL Environmental Inc. (“GFL”) recently announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Canada Fibers Ltd. 

Based in Toronto, Canada, Canada Fibers is an operator of material recovery facilities for the recovery and processing of recyclable materials for more than 28 years.  Canada Fibers provides recycling processing services to municipalities across Ontario, including the City of Toronto at its Arrow Road facility in Toronto, and to its institutional, commercial and industrial customers. Canada Fibers has also been awarded the contract to design, build and operate an advanced single-stream material recovery facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which will commence operations in the fourth quarter of 2019.

“Given the current state of commodity markets, we believe that now is the right time for GFL to acquire Canada Fibers, with its long established relationships with recyclable material buyers and its expertise in operating single stream material recovery facilities,” said Patrick Dovigi, GFL’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer.

GFL, headquartered in Vaughan, Ontario, is the fourth largest diversified environmental services company in North America, providing a comprehensive line of non-hazardous solid waste management, infrastructure & soil remediation and liquid waste management services through its platform of facilities across Canada and in 20 states in the United States.  Across its organization, GFL has a workforce of more than 9,500 employees and provides its broad range of environmental services to more than 135,000 commercial and industrial customers and its solid waste collection services to more than 4 million households.

The terms of the agreement were not disclosed. The transaction, which is expected to close in the third quarter of 2019, is subject to customary regulatory approvals.

GFL Environmental Inc. files for IPO, seeks to raise $1.5 billion

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Written by Abimbola Badejo, Staff Reporter

GFL Environmental Inc., a Toronto-based environmental services company specializing in solid and liquid waste management, hazardous and special wastes management and infrastructural services, has been rapidly growing its base since 2007 by acquiring environmental solution firms across Canada and abroad; and building its employee and customer base across North America.

With giant shareholders such as BC Partners and Ontario’s Teachers Pension plan, the privately-owned company is planning to recapitalize by releasing about $1.5 billion (USD) in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) and fund the company’s future growth. According to the filing, the company will be listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange starting in September. This move by the company will value GFL Environmental Inc. at about 15 billion US dollars.

GFL has facilities across Canada and in 23 U.S. states, serving 4 million homes. The company, which has more than 9,500 employees and 135,000 business customers, provides services including solid-waste hauling, soil remediation and liquid-waste management.

Even though the number of shares offered, and price range have not been determined, the IPO is already planned to be underwritten by financial houses which include Royal Bank of Canada, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of Montreal and Bank of Nova Scotia.