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.


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.

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