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Program Launched to Recycle more plastic from Farms in Canada

Cleanfarms, non-profit environmental stewardship organization, with support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, recently announced a three-year 1.3 million project aimed at recovering and recycling more plastic from Canadian farms.
The innovative multi-year initiative will ramp up this fall.  It will provide more Canadian farmers with opportunities to manage plastic waste in environmentally responsible ways.
The project, funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Canadian Agricultural Strategic Priorities Program (CASPP), has been developed and is being executed by Cleanfarms, the national, non-profit industry stewardship organization that has programs in place across Canada to recover and manage non-organic farm waste, most of it plastic, for recycling or environmentally responsible disposal.
Entitled ‘Building a Zero-Plastic Waste Strategy for Agriculture’, the project has three broad-based objectives:
  • to build consensus on the appropriate management of non-organic agricultural waste;
  • to survey farmers to establish current patterns of disposal before and after pilots and education programs; and
  • to demonstrate best practices in ag waste management through pilot programs conducted throughout Canada.

Canadian agriculture currently uses about 40,000 tonnes of plastics annually in the process of growing crops and raising livestock, most of it in plastic containers, grain bags, twine and bale/silage film. Though plastic is essential throughout the farming industry, managing the end of lifecycle of plastics is a big challenge that requires forward-thinking solutions.

Cleanfarms already operates five permanent programs across Canada, the best known of which collects small plastic containers that are 23 litres and under for recycling. In 2019, farmers returned 5.5 million containers bringing the total number returned since the program began 30 years ago to 131.5 million. The containers are recycled into new agricultural products such as tile drainage pipes.

The CASPP/Cleanfarms project links with a recent initiative undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through Environment and Climate Change Canada to quantify the types and volumes of on-farm plastic wastes and identify recycling facilities for agricultural plastics across Canada.

German Researchers Discover Plastic-Eating Bacteria

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Researchers in Germany recently published a research paper in Frontiers in Microbiology in which they describe the isolating a strain of bacteria that can degrade plastic.  The specific bacteria Pseudomonas sp. were able to biodegrade polyurethanes.  The plastic, specifically polyurethane, served as the sole source of carbon and energy for the bacteria.

Due to the variety in physical, chemical, thermal and mechanical properties, polyurethanes (PU)have a broad range of applications, Some of the main applications are detailed below:
• Flexible PUF: automobile seating, furniture, carpets.
• Rigid PUF: refrigerator, insulation board.
• Elastomers: footwear, adhesives, medical.
• RIM: automobiles (bumpers, side panels).
• Other: carpets, casting, sealants.

As PUs are used in so many every day applications and industrial uses, they enter the municipal solid waste stream, usually by way of discarded consumer and industrial products. These products frequently are durable goods with a long lifespan such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and automobile parts. By weight, approximately 1.3 million tons of waste PUs are generated each year in the USA alone. The largest market is for PUF (47% flexible and 28% rigid), followed by PU elastomers (8%).  North America represents around 30–35% of the world total consumption, with the remainder in Western Europe (around 40%), the Far East (around 15%) and the rest of the world (around 10–15%).

Polyurethanes, due to there diverse chemical composition, are very difficult to recycle.  Due to their high flammability, they are typically treated with flame retardants that may be carcinogenic.

“The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy,” says microbiologist Hermann Heipieper, from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Germany. “This finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle PU products.”

The discovery was made in the soil underneath a waste site containing an abundance of brittle plastics. Having spotted the strain, the scientists ran a genomic analysis and other experiments to work out the bacterium’s capabilities.  It will be some time before there is a commercial-scale bacteria-based solution to plastic waste challenge.

Canadian Research

In Canada, researchers from the University of British Columbia and industry partner Polymer Research Technologies are working together to develop technology that will allow polyurethane foam waste to be chemically recycled into polyols.  If successful, the research will lead to a commercial-scale process that can produce a reusable, recyclable, economical, and eco-friendly raw material alternative to petroleum-based virgin polyol.

 

Multi-criteria decision making framework for plastic packaging: An expanded life cycle approach

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

This white paper is a general overview of a tool being developed by York University and Pollution Probe to help stakeholders better understand the impacts (environmental, economic and social) of plastics with respect to product and packaging design. Our goal is to provide methodological guidance and create a common set of evaluative criteria that stakeholders can use to make informed decisions regarding plastics. This includes the development of an expanded life cycle analysis model, that attempts to model the economic, environmental and social impacts of plastics, at all stages of its life.

Often times, one of the greatest obstacles in the debate surrounding the role of plastics in a circular economy is that we either operate on incomplete information (i.e. how much is actually being generated and diverted), or we fixate on one component of a products life cycle (i.e. recycling at end of life), and evaluate its viability through that narrow lens.

It’s our hope that this tool (and more broadly, the methodological approach), be used in a way to ensure that stakeholders have clear and prescriptive guidance regarding what needs to be considered when making product design and policy decisions.

**Note: The development and dissemination of the expanded life cycle analysis tool is contingent on raising sufficient funding and support from stakeholder groups. If funding can be secured, the anticipated deployment of this tool will be in Fall of 2020.**

Issue Overview

Plastics have transformed everyday life, with more than 400 million tonnes of plastic and plastic products being generated every year across the world. While plastics often bring many societal benefits and play an instrumental role in manufacturing, technology, healthcare etc. there are significant concerns regarding the quantities of plastic waste being discarded into the environment. In Canada, it is estimated that only 10% of all plastics produced in the country are actually recycled, with the balance accumulating as waste in landfills, public spaces, water ways and oceans. This accumulation of plastics entering into terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems poses acute risks to both human and animal health, with bio-accumulation of plastics being observed as causing endocrinological disruptions to wildlife. It is with this in mind that in January of 2020, the Canadian federal government announced a proposed ban on single use plastics items by the year 2021. This decision was informed by a report commissioned by Environment Canada concluding that single use plastics posed significant risk to the environment resulting from both their manufacturing and disposal.

While this decision has generally been met by a favorable response from both environmental groups and the public, there remain significant questions regarding what single use plastics will be banned. There remains considerable uncertainty regarding what the rationalization and methodology for evaluating which materials should be banned, in addition to the short and long term economic implications resulting from a single use plastics ban.

However, despite the findings of the Environment Canada report, and the prevailing negative sentiment surrounding plastics, and particularly plastic packaging, it is important to recognize that not all plastics are created equal. While the vast majority of plastics are made from ethylene derived from hydrocarbon sources, there exists a significant heterogeneity with respect to the types of resin (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene etc.), including how it is made, how it is used, why it is used and what can be done with it at end of life.

Many of the environmental concerns attributable to plastics tend to be focused on the manufacturing stage and available end of life waste management options. It is during these two stages that the release of macro plastics (pieces larger than 5mm) and micro plastics (pieces smaller than 5mm) into the environment is considered highest.

While the Environment Canada report undertakes a comprehensive literature review to determine the risks posted to both human and ecological health attributable to plastics in our environment, it does not offer any guidance regarding which plastics to ban, or provide an evaluative framework that can assist decision makers in identifying problematic materials.

One of the dangers of characterizing all single use plastics the same way (bad for the environment, should be banned etc.), fails to capture the complexity and nuances of plastics, particularly for packaged goods.

This white paper outlines a potential evaluative framework for examining the environmental, economic and social impacts of plastic materials (with a specific emphasis on household plastic packaging). The purpose of this framework is to provide both policy makers and plastic producers with a decision making tool that captures the latest in life cycle thinking and consequential impacts (both economic and social), resulting from proposed material bans.

Life Cycle Analysis Thinking

Life cycle thinking for the purposes of informing policy decisions is not a new phenomenon – in fact, many of the studies included in the Environment Canada literature review included a life cycle component when evaluating the environmental safety of various packaging types.

However, most contemporary approaches to life cycle analysis, particularly within the context of end of life management of packaging waste, define system boundaries that are too limited in scope. Often times, model boundaries are defined from the point of disposal, to its final end use application (recycling, composting, energy from waste, or landfilling). The environmental impacts of a particular end of life option are compared against a baseline assuming 100% virgin production (i.e. Recycling 1000 tonnes of PET, would be compared against the environmental impacts of producing 1000T of virgin PET, with the delta in LCA key performance indicators being the measured impact)

The vast majority of life cycle analysis specific to waste management and material design is only concerned with what happens to an item once it reaches its end of life. It is through this lense that many plastics, particularly single use plastics, are deemed to be environmentally problematic. In many instances, particularly for light weight and composite plastics, these materials cannot be readily managed in existing waste management infrastructure.They either cannot be recycled or composted, and even when sorted at a material recovery facility, there are limited end markets for most non PET and HDPE plastics.

As a result, the characterization of these materials is often seen as being “bad” for the environment, with many environmentalists and municipalities pointing to the lack of recyclability as being the primary driver for banning single use plastics. In the absence of recycling or reuse, there is no offset to the environmental burdens associated with virgin production of these plastic materials. If these materials end up in a landfill, the risk of entering into our environment and disrupting both aquatic and terrestrial eco systems increases.

While this outcome may lend credence to the decision to ban single use plastics, it fails to account for the upstream impacts (economic, environmental and social) of a material, prior to consumption. In spite of many single use plastics possessing low levels of recyclability, potential benefits attributable to plastic packaging include:

  • A reduction in the amount of materials used. The transition to plastics for many products has resulted in the light weighting of materials – less physical material is used to make the product.
  • Logistical efficiencies (more material can be transported per shipment) – largely attributed to the reduction in overall weight, the use of light weight and composite plastics has resulted in a reduced emissions footprint related to the transport of materials.
  • Increased durability, longer shelf life (both in the store, and in the home), and allowing for discretionary consumption (you only use what you need). This is particularly true of plastic food packaging. As an example, a laminate package for soup (in lieu of the conventional tin can) allows users to reseal the pouch, allowing it to be stored longer and avoiding waste.

This white paper expands the list of criteria for what should be considered in a life cycle analysis, as a means to create more informed and defensible policy decisions.

 Expanding life cycle criteria

This white paper recommends expanding the boundaries of a life cycle analysis to capture criteria such as material reduction/light weighting, logistical impacts attributable to light weighting, effects on useful product life (both at the store and in the home for perishable items packaged using plastics), discretionary consumption, direct and indirect economic impacts, available waste management infrastructure, risks when landfilled and risks when incinerated.

Table 1 below summarizes what variables are included in the proposed expanded life cycle analysis. It is important to note that depending on the scenario and circumstances being modeled, not all criteria will apply (nor have all criteria been defined)

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The above KPIs include both quantitative measures (i.e. $ cost per tonne managed,) as well as qualitative variables that provides useful contextual information that can better inform decision making.

While expanding our life cycle approach to capture these variables may result in a more time and data intensive life cycle analysis, adopting this methodology is critical in understanding the “true” impact of plastics, particularly single use plastic packaging. In theory, a comprehensive life cycle analysis is intended to capture the aforementioned components, however, there is little methodological guidance with respect to how to do that, and for which materials can it be applied. Further complicating the inclusion of these additional variables is an issue of measurement – how can we measure things like waste reduction, shelf life etc?

Development and Deployment of Expanded Life Cycle Analysis Tool

York University and Pollution Probe are currently working together in order to develop an expanded life cycle analysis calculator that includes the aforementioned components shown in table 1 above. Accompanying this tool will be a guidance document that explains how to measure and weight the above KPI criteria, and how to interpret the output in a meaningful way to help inform decision making.

This purpose of this tool is four fold: 1) allow users to capture life cycle impacts that have traditionally been omitted from previous investigations into LCA or plastic packaging 2) provide an evaluative framework to stakeholders who are looking to evaluate and compare the economic, social and environmental impacts of different types of plastic materials 3) quantify the environmental and economic affects attributable to potential programmatic changes (i.e. a ban on LDPE film), or allow users to model multiple scenarios to see how various options compare (i.e. landfilling all LDPE film, or recycling all LDPE film).

The tool that will be developed and distributed by York University and Pollution Probe will be populated with default data and assumptions (reflecting Ontario specific transportation distances, energy grid mixes, available infrastructure, and material management costs). Users will have the ability to change the underlying assumptions to better reflect differences in their particular jurisdiction, or model scenarios involving trans-jurisdictional management of waste. York University and Pollution Probe can also work closely with stakeholders in developing a more granular expanded life cycle calculator that pertains to the specific operations of a particular organization or municipality.

In the absence of conducting an expanded life cycle analysis, policies and decisions may not be fully informed, potentially resulting in inferior economic, social and environmental outcomes. Using an expanded life cycle approach is intended to capture both the upstream and downstream impacts of plastics, with the intention of helping stakeholders arrive at the most sustainable outcomes.

It is important to note that the most sustainable outcome isn’t necessarily the one that diverts the most material. Understanding what impact material decisions will have on cost (both in terms of material management costs and indirect impacts on the price of packaged goods), and which groups are most likely to be adversely impacted by changes in cost, access or availability, is critical in sustainable materials management.

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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.

What Power Does Canada Have to Restrict Single-Use Plastics?

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Written by Jonathan D. Cocker, Baker McKenzie and Peter Hargreave, Policy Integrity Inc.

With all of the talk from the Government of Canada about the coming laws targeting single-use plastics (SUP), it’s worth asking whether the Parliament has such powers and what’s needed for them to act on SUP.   After all, the federal government has ceded much of its role to the provinces and territories which regulate over environmental protection generally, including most waste management matters, and some provinces have expressed hostility and a willingness to commence legal challenges to any encroachment on their jurisdiction, often on environmental matters such as climate change.   

Regional exceptionalism has become the norm as the federal government has for decades left the provinces and territories to take the lead without national coordination. As a result, the federal approach to SUP which will inherently value (in some measure) national consistency over regionalism will have difficulty in establishing balance, particularly given that some provinces rely upon plastics production as critical revenue sources.  So where exactly does the federal government believe they possess the powers to fulfil their promises to impose a SUP law across Canada?

CEPA and Toxic Substances

The federal government will, by all accounts, attempt to use Part V of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Controlling Toxic Substances.   Specifically, Environment and Climate Change Canada has the power to regulate plastics under section 90(1) of CEPA, if satisfied that the substance is toxic, to place them on the List of Toxic Substances, which is Schedule 1 to CEPA. 

Findings of toxicity were made for plastic microbeads in toiletries in 2017. Section 64 defines a substance as toxic if

“it is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that:

  1. have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity;
  2. constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends; or
  3. constitute or may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health.”

On the Toxic Substances List already are substances Canadians would recognize as inherently dangerous such as lead and mercury.  In contrast, the federal government would be seeking to make a common household material, broadly used to contain and preserve our foods, medicines, etc. equivalent under CEPA to these clearly toxic substances.  It would be a difficult argument to claim that plastics are toxic at all times and for all purposes.    

The ECCC presumably intends to assess plastics as toxic on a more narrow and functional basis – namely that plastics become plastic pollution as they degrade over time, principally as waste material, especially when not managed properly at the end of life.  As waste management is admittedly a provincial/territorial area of legislative authority, the toxicity claim would blur jurisdictional lines.  In short, it’s not as straight forward as the federal government has suggested. 

The Test to Establish Plastics are Toxic

Curiously, while the test for plastics to be placed on Schedule 1 List is that plastics are toxic, the considerations the ECCC are to adopt in assessing a substance are expanded under section 68 to whether a substance is toxic or is capable of being toxic.  The considerations include:

  1. whether short-term exposure to the substance causes significant effects,
  2. the potential of organisms in the environment to be widely exposed to the substance,
  3. whether organisms are exposed to the substance via multiple pathways,
  4. the ability of the substance to cause a reduction in metabolic functions of an organism,
  5. the ability of the substance to cause delayed or latent effects over the lifetime of an organism,
  6. the ability of the substance to cause reproductive or survival impairment of an organism,
  7. whether exposure to the substance has the potential to contribute to population failure of a species,
  8. the ability of the substance to cause transgenerational effects,
  9. quantities, uses and disposal of the substance,
  10. the manner in which the substance is released into the environment,
  11. the extent to which the substance can be dispersed and will persist in the environment,
  12. the development and use of alternatives to the substance,
  13. methods of controlling the presence of the substance in the environment, and
  14. methods of reducing the quantity of the substance used or produced or the quantities or concentration of the substance released into the environment;

As this is a list of considerations and not a strict legal test, no particular item may be necessary or sufficient for the federal government to declare plastics are toxic – there is likely considerable latitude where the science supports concerns over environmental harm.

Does the Draft Assessment Provide Sufficient Scientific Support?

On January 31st, 2020, the ECCC released its draft Science Assessment of Plastic Pollution.   The assessment was not focused upon plastics itself, but rather on plastics when it comes pollution.   This might be understood as an assessment of how plastics are capable of being toxic and not a study on the inherent toxicity of plastics, which has a separate assessment process.  This itself is a departure from the ECCC’s common assessment process, although used for microbeads as arguably the first of those lifecycle toxicity tests.

The findings from the draft Assessment, still in consultation until the end of March, are limited to the pollution (read: waste) effects of plastics and not plastics absent their current usage:

The purpose of this report is to summarize the current state of the science regarding the potential impacts of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, as well as to guide future research and inform decision-making on plastic pollution in Canada. It provides a review of the available information on plastic pollution, including its sources, occurrence, and fate, as well as on the potential effects of plastics on the environment and human health.

It’s also notable that the draft Assessment is identifies as a “survey” of existing science and anticipates further research on plastics, even though the assessment is to serve as to “guide regulatory activities”. 

This report is not intended to quantify the risks of plastic pollution on the environment or human health, but rather to survey the existing state of science in order to guide future scientific and regulatory activities.

The broad remedial powers of the ECCC under CEPA likely cure these defects in science for a finding of plastics as toxics, but proceeding to regulation from the draft Assessment alone may open the ECCC up to challenges that more is needed before such as determination can be made. The ECCC seems to leave the door open to more science, perhaps as much due diligence as inquiry.

It is also worth noting that the regulation of SUP in the name of plastic pollution mitigation aligns with Canada’s commitments under the Ocean Plastics Charter. Such an agreement does not however vest the federal government with implementation powers it does not already have.

So Which Plastics Would Be Declared Toxic?

The draft Assessment divides plastics into two categories:  microplastics (5mm of less) and macroplastics (more than 5mm).   There is some other discussion regarding alternative plastics, such as biodegradable, compostable and bioplastics, but these arguably aren’t sufficiently addressed in isolation in the draft Assessment to warrant findings specific to these alternatives.   

It’s likely that each of microplastics and macroplastics will be the subject of distinct regulatory control measures on behalf of the ECCC under the coming law, with microplastics perhaps attracting the greater restrictions given the greater nexus to contamination.   After all, “microbeads” of 5mm or less are already listed as a toxic substance on Schedule 1.  

It’s also clear that the federal government views SUP as a more pressing matter in light of the 2021 implementation by member states of the European Union’s (EU) Single-Use Plastics Directive and the Ocean Plastics Charter.  In fashioning a Canadian version of a SUP law, it’s worth understanding what regulatory instruments the ECCC would have under CEPA.

The Range of Control Measures Available

Once some category of plastics are deemed “toxic”, the ECCC inherits a considerable range of control instruments to regulate those plastics.  Section 93 of CEPA provides the ECCC ability to control:

  1. the quantity or concentration of the substance that may be released into the environment either alone or in combination with any other substance from any source or type of source;
  2. the places or areas where the substance may be released;
  3. the commercial, manufacturing or processing activity in the course of which the substance may be released;
  4. the manner in which and conditions under which the substance may be released into the environment, either alone or in combination with any other substance;
  5. the quantity of the substance that may be manufactured, processed, used, offered for sale or sold in Canada;
  6. the purposes for which the substance or a product containing it may be imported, manufactured, processed, used, offered for sale or sold;
  7. the manner in which and conditions under which the substance or a product containing it may be imported, manufactured, processed or used;
  8. the quantities or concentrations in which the substance may be used;
  9. the quantities or concentrations of the substance that may be imported;
  10. the countries from or to which the substance may be imported or exported;
  11. the conditions under which, the manner in which and the purposes for which the substance may be imported or exported;
  12. the total, partial or conditional prohibition of the manufacture, use, processing, sale, offering for sale, import or export of the substance or a product containing it;
  13. the total, partial or conditional prohibition of the import or export of a product that is intended to contain the substance;
  14. the quantity or concentration of the substance that may be contained in any product manufactured, imported, exported, offered for sale or sold in Canada;
  15. the manner in which, conditions under which and the purposes for which the substance or a product containing it may be advertised or offered for sale;
  16. the manner in which and conditions under which the substance or a product containing it may be stored, displayed, handled, transported or offered for transport;
  17. the packaging and labelling of the substance or a product containing it;
  18. the manner, conditions, places and method of disposal of the substance or a product containing it, including standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of disposal sites;

It is likely that a suite of these measures will be adopted distinctly for microplastics and macroplastics. (It’s not clear if alternative plastics would attract their own measures.)  The EU’s Single Use Plastics (SUP) Directive may be instructive, it sets out a number of measures including:

  • Aggressive recycling targets for beverage containers (77% by 2025 and 90% by 2030);
  • Design requirements for beverage containers (i.e., recycled content and tethered caps);
  • Labelling requirements for products that are often not disposed of properly (tobacco products, beverage cups, wet wipes and sanitary towels);
  • Expanded producer responsibility requirements; and
  • Bans by 2021 on single-use plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons; all products made of oxo-plastic; cups, food and beverage containers made of polystyrene foam.

Enter the Provinces

It is generally understood that most jurisdictions in the EU will achieve most of the outcomes in the Directive through EPR provisions. Given the diversity in approaches to EPR in Canada that could prove difficult to achieve as these efforts have firmly and institutionally rested with the provinces (and increasingly, territories) in Canada.  The ECCC is playing catch up and there are some questions related to their legislative authority over this mechanism without the support of the provinces. A comprehensive strategy around SUP will necessarily involve provincial /territorial for which the 2018 Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment’s (CCME) Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste was just the beginning of a new age of cooperation on (plastic) pollution.


About the Authors

Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm’s Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. 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. Mr. Cocker was recently appointed the first Sustainability Officer of the International Bar Association Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on environmental issues and has authored numerous publications including recent publications in the Environment and Climate Change Law Review, Detritus – the Official Journal of the International Waste Working Group, Chemical Watch, Circular Economy: Global Perspectives published by Springer, and in the upcoming Yale University Journal of Industrial Ecology’s special issue on Material Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation.

Peter Hargreave, the President of Policy Integrity Inc., has over 15 years’ experience in providing strategic advice in the development, implementation and oversight of public policy. Over his professional career, he has developed a strong network of relationships with regulators, public and private organizations, and other key stakeholders involved in environmental issues across Canada, the United States and abroad. He has extensive experience in assessing waste management policies at the federal, provincial, and municipal level across the country. He has also played a key role in leading major research efforts in the waste management sector including data capture and analysis, and understanding the economic and environmental impacts of various waste management activities.

Economic Study of Canadian Plastics Industry, Markets, and Waste

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You may have missed a significant study published by Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) last year on the Canadian plastics industry that included an examination of the waste. The scope of the study encompassed most plastics types used across all key sectors. It attempted to shed light on the entire plastics value chain in Canada, from raw material production and products manufacturing to use and end-of-life.

The study concludes that landfilling 87% of plastic waste represents a $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.

Domestically recycled “secondary” plastics output accounted for approximately CA$350 million in sales in Canada in 2016. In comparison with the sales of its primary resin competitor, it is 30 times smaller. The recycling industry focuses on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polypropylene (PP) and is predominantly located in large end-markets providing easier access to plastic waste feedstock, such as in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

The main generating sectors for plastic waste are packaging (43 percent of total plastic waste), automotive (9 percent), textiles (7 percent), and electrical and electronic equipment (EEE 7 percent). The construction sector, while an important end-use market (accounting for 26 percent of plastic put on the market), is not yet a large plastic waste generator (5 percent), given the fairly recent incorporation of plastics in construction (in the 1980s and 90s) that remains ‘stocked’ in houses and buildings; this situation could change in future years with construction renewal. Under a business as usual situation, the linear profile of the Canadian plastics economy is not going to improve given forecasted trends in waste streams and economic drivers.

Ambitious Recycling Plan

An ambitious 2030 scenario was developed as part of the study to model the potential costs and benefits of achieving zero plastic waste. This scenario used a 90% landfill diversion rate as a proxy for zero plastic waste and assumed that: i) plastics production and end use applications increased but followed the same patterns as in 2016, ii) mechanical recycling was quadrupled from its business as usual level; iii) chemical recycling was significantly scaled up, taking into account readiness levels and associated learning curves and iv) energy from waste was leveraged to deal with the remaining volumes and hard-to-recycle plastics.

The 90% recycling scenario is not a prediction or a recommendation: it is an illustration of what zero plastic waste could look like given current product designs and emerging value recovery technologies. Changes in plastic production and design would open the door to higher value recycling and recovery options. However, even without such changes, a preliminary comparative analysis shows that 90% recyclingwould deliver significant benefits to Canada in comparison to business as usual: CA$500 million of annual costs avoided, 42,000 direct and indirect jobs created, and annual greenhouse gas emissions savings of 1.8Mt of CO2 eq.

About the Study

The report then describes future scenarios up to 2030, highlighting potential paths for the plastics value chain, in particular relating to end-of-life performance. The report then presents a high-level economic, environmental and social impact assessment to discuss the scenarios and their feasibility. Finally, the report introduces a review of policy measures that could be implemented to support the growth of the secondary plastics markets in Canada.

ECC funded and coordinated the study. It was conducted by a consortium the included Deloitte and Cheminfo Services.

CleanFarms sets up plastic recycling pilot for Alberta Farms

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The Agricultural Plastics Recycling Group (APRG) through Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) are moving ahead with their three-year pilot to collect plastic twine and grain bags from Alberta farmers.  The program is being run by CleanFarms, a Canadian non-profit industry stewardship organization committed to environmental responsibility through the proper management of agricultural packaging and product waste.

Funding for the program is coming from the Alberta government and the administered by the Alberta Beef Producers are responsible for administering it.

Under the pilot program, farmers can drop off plastic at 20 collection sites around the province. Details on collection sites are online at the Collection Sites page at cleanfarms.ca.

Cleanfarms, who is responsible for running the Alberta pilot program, also runs grain bag recycling programs in Saskatchewan, and empty container recycling in Manitoba and Quebec.

Grain bags and twine represent 50% of all plastics generated on-farm in Alberta. The other 50% of plastics not included in the pilot collection are bale wrap and silage plastic, netting, supersacks, greenhouse film and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers.

Currently, there are two facilities in North America recycling grain bags; one in Canada and one in the USA. Current markets are washing and pelletizing grain bags for use in other blow-molding applications. More infrastructure is currently being built in Western Canada.

With respect to twine recycling, there are two recycling facilities in the United States. One recycler is washing and pelletizing for re-manufacture and the other is cleaning and shredding for use in the roofing industry.

New Waste Plastic to Hydrogen Facility planned in the UK

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Peel Environmental – part of Peel L&P – recently announced it was working in partnership with Waste2Tricity to build a waste plastic to hydrogen facility at its 54-hectare Protos site near Ellesmere Port, England.

The $12 million (Cdn.) plant will use ‘UK first’ advanced thermal treatment technology developed by PowerHouse Energy Group (AIM:PHE) at Thornton Science Park, next door to Protos. The pioneering DMG® (Distributed Modular Generation) technology could transform the way plastics are dealt with in the region. The plant will take up to 35 tonnes of unrecyclable plastics a day and create a local source of hydrogen which could be used to power road vehicles.

This local source of hydrogen could be used as a clean and low-cost fuel for buses, Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) and cars, helping to reduce air pollution and improve air quality on local roads. The facility would also generate electricity which could be provided to commercial users via a microgrid at Protos, helping to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Peel Environmental is looking at developing a closed loop solution at Protos where plastics are recycled on-site with the leftover material used to create hydrogen.

The development would see a further 14 full time permanent jobs created at the Protos site with over 100 jobs created in the North West during fabrication and construction.

Myles Kitcher from Peel Environmental – part of Peel L&P – said, “This is a great step forward towards delivering the first of many waste plastic to hydrogen facilities across the UK. There is huge potential for hydrogen to replace fossil fuels in our transport system. We already have hydrogen buses in Liverpool and trains being converted to hydrogen in Widnes. Using waste plastic to generate a local source of hydrogen could not only help to reduce our reliance on landfill but improve local air quality with a clean and low-cost fuel for buses, HGVs and cars.”

David Ryan, CEO of PowerHouse Energy Group (AIM:PHE), said, “The submission of the planning application is an important step forward in delivering the first commercial application of the DMG technology, creating hydrogen from waste plastics. The team have worked hard to develop a robust application and we’re hopeful of securing consent and subsequent financial close in the coming months.”

The Protos strategic energy hub sits within the Energy Innovation District (EID), which is spearheaded by the Cheshire Energy Hub and brings together energy users, network owners, innovators and partners working alongside Cheshire & Warrington LEP, Cheshire West and Chester Council and the University of Chester. The EID is looking to develop a local, smart energy microgrid which a recent report demonstrated could lead to energy cost savings of up to 25% and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 34%.

The project is also one of many under the North West’s bid to become the UKs first low carbon cluster by 2030. The North West Energy and Hydrogen Cluster is being led by the North West Business Leadership Team, with support from Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region Mayors and the Cheshire & Warrington LEP.

Canadian Government funding for innovative plastic recycling technologies

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The government of Canada is partnering with Canadian businesses to develop innovative solutions to keep plastics in the economy and out of landfills and the environment.

The government recently announced six winners of the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, a part of the Innovative Solutions Canada program. Dealing with issues related to food packaging, construction waste, and the separation of plastics for recycling, these Challenges are an opportunity to invest in innovative ideas and technologies that could play a role in addressing plastic pollution and moving Canada toward a zero-plastic waste future.

Copol International Ltd., one of the funding recipients located in Sydney, Nova Scotia, is a local small business developing a food packaging solution that would incorporate biodegradable components extracted from marine waste into a cast polypropylene film.

The $150,000 in funding will be used on a research project, in partnership with Cape Breton University’s Verschuren Centre, to develop and test biopolymer formulations extracted from marine plants and marine waste products and replace the unrecyclable product that is currently being used to make polypropylene film. For example, shrimp shells could be utilized in the manufacture of polypropylene film.

The research project will last approximately six months. If it is successful, then a prototype film will be produced for commercial testing.

Polypropylene (CPP) film products from the Copoal International Ltd. facility (Source: Copol International Ltd. website)

Copol International Ltd. has 54 employees, operates 24/7 in a 90,000-square-foot building. The company began operations approximately 20 years ago. IT currently provides customized mono- and multi-layer films for food and textile packaging, industrial applications, and heath care products for customers across North America 

Copol International Ltd. joins other small businesses from across the country who will each receive up to $150,000 to develop their idea.

Phase 1 recipients, such as the six winners of the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, who successfully develop a proof of concept will be invited to compete for a grant of up to $1 million in Phase 2 to develop a prototype. The Government of Canada then has the option to be the first buyer of any successful innovation.

Innovative Solutions Canada consists of over $100 million in dedicated funding to support the scale-up and growth of Canada’s innovators and entrepreneurs by having the federal government act as a first customer for innovation. Twenty participating federal departments and agencies have set aside a portion of funding to support the creation of innovative solutions by Canadian small businesses.

A total of seven Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenges were put forward as part of the Innovative Solutions Canada program, each encouraging innovative solutions to a different problem area in addressing plastic waste.

The seven plastics challenges are sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and Natural Resources Canada; who each oversee the selection of the winning projects for their respective Challenges.

Separating fact from fiction – are we really only recycling 9% of plastics?

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

It seems like everywhere I turn, I see the headline “Canada only recycles 9% of its plastics” – this figure, taken from a report prepared by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada, has now become the focal point of both those within the industry and the general public alike.

For a country that prides itself on being environmentally conscious and engaged, can we really be doing that badly?

I want to start this post off by saying that I will readily admit to not knowing what % of plastics are recycled in Canada (or anywhere else for that matter). However, I would venture to say that nobody knows, and we should be cautious about taking any estimate at face value without fully understanding the methodology and limitations used to arrive at that figure.

How do we calculate a recycling rate?

For those of you well versed in the subject, feel free to skip ahead. However, it is important to understand how exactly recycling rates are calculated. At a high level, a recycling rate is total tonnes of waste recycled divided by total tonnes of waste generated. This seems simple enough, but this grade school arithmetic actually involves a tremendous amount of modeling, assumptions, and to be perfectly blunt, guess work.

Solid waste diversion and disposal, Canada, 2002 to 2016
(Source: Government of Canada)

Total Tonnes Recycled (The Numerator)

First, let’s consider the numerator in the equation – total tonnes of plastics recycled. For certain jurisdictions, (i.e. Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec etc.), total tonnes of residential plastics recycled is tracked by municipalities (using total tonnes of material marketed), who then subsequently report those figures to a provincial body. These figures are then summed and aggregated, to arrive at a figure for total tonnes of residential plastics recycled.

Generally speaking, tracking recycled tonnes for residential recycling programs is fairly straightforward, as these are actual measurements being reported by collectors. This sounds simple – until we are asked to determine total tonnes recycled by the IC&I (industrial, commercial and institutional) sector. The vast majority of all waste generated in Canada comes from the IC&I sector – by comparison, it is estimated that the residential waste stream makes up less than 20% of the overall waste stream.

As noted in a previous post, data surrounding plastics generation/recovery in the IC&I sector remains extremely poor, with little consensus regarding who is generating plastics waste, how much is being generated, and how much is being diverted.

The IC&I sectors consist of a range of establishments, including: malls, office buildings, construction and demolition sites, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, educational institutions, manufacturing plants, and multi-residential buildings.

Previous attempts to model IC&I recycling rates have ranged widely, with plastic diversion rates ranging from as little as 10% to as much as 80% depending on the sector and what actually constitutes diversion activity. The reason for this widely ranging disparity is that there is no formal legislative requirement for the majority of the IC&I sector to report the quantities or types of waste being generated, diverted or disposed to provincial authorities.

In Ontario for example, only large IC&I establishments are regulated under existing legislation (which requires establishments to have a formal waste diversion plan and conduct waste audits). However, it is estimated than 80% of waste generated from the IC&I sector comes from small and medium sized establishments, and thus, fall outside the purview of existing regulation. This issue is exacerbated in other provinces which have no formal legislation that monitors the IC&I sector, and relies on voluntary reporting to keep track of waste generation data.

In short, the majority of the plastic waste being generated across Canada is not being tracked – which makes the figures reported by Deloitte all the more curious.

As an intellectual exercise, think about your average food court for a moment and how much packaging waste is being generated (both recyclable and unrecyclable). Are shoppers putting all their papers in the recycling bin? Oops, somebody with a half full drink tossed it in and ruined the material. How many plastic forks, knives and straws are being handed out? Did the person taking out the trash really just put all the recyclables and garbage in the same bag? Variations of this chaotic scene plays out every day, all over the country, and somehow, I am supposed to believe that this is being tracked by the owners of establishments?

One of the reasons why legislation for the IC&I sector has been so challenging in Ontario (and nationally) is due to the poor quality of the data. Whatever estimates do exist, have largely been based on a relatively small sample of waste audits, and modeled using a combination of waste generated per employee estimates (by sector and by NAICS code). If this sounds confusing, it is – at no point have we ever been able to credibly quantify the total tonnes of material recycled for both the residential and IC&I sectors. At best, we are making educated guesses, and at worse, we are producing inaccurate estimates based on a flawed methodology.

In short, the majority of the plastic waste being recycled across Canada is not being tracked – however, this does not necessarily mean that this material is ending up in landfills.

On site recovery, reuse and recycling

Despite the fact that there is very little formal data for plastics waste that is being tracked, many IC&I generators (particularly in the industrial and manufacturing sector), rely on on-site waste management programs to reuse and recycle plastic waste. True to the spirit of a circular economy, many producers use plastic waste outputs from one part of their production process, as inputs for the next. Anecdotally, many producers claim diversion rates close to 100%, as any material of value is reused, recycled or reprocessed internally. It is estimated that more than 50% of all IC&I material being generated is managed using on-site options. While this makes sense intuitively, it is difficult to gather any firm data regarding the quantities or scale of on-site material management for plastics. As noted previously, existing legislation does not require this information to be reported, and as such, any data that is available is left to the discretion of private companies and associations to share publicly.

Previous attempts to gather this data (most recently by the Ontario MOECC in the IC&I Review conducted in 2014) was met with resistance from the IC&I sector, who claimed administrative burden and commercial sensitivity in collecting and sharing this data.

Total Tonnes Generated (the Denominator)

I could probably stop here having made the point that we are working with insufficient data – however, I am also writing this article so that people can fully appreciate what goes into calculating a recycling rate, as very few ever stop to ask how we come up with our numbers.

With that being, I now turn my attention to the denominator in the equation – total plastic waste generated. Unlike total tonnes recycled, which is something that can be measured and recorded using a weigh scale at a material recycling facility, total plastic waste generated is an entirely modeled number. For the residential recycling sector (Blue Box), producers of packaging are asked to report their unit sales into a given market, and generation rates for households are modeled using a series of assumptions based on population density, locality, urban/rural split etc. I have worked in this space for the better part of a decade, and I still could not tell you what exactly goes into the waste generation model used for printed paper and packaging.

Turning our attention back to the IC&I sector, there is no formal requirement for any establishment to report how much of a particular plastic waste they have generated into a market every year. Unlike printed paper and packaging, we cannot assume that unit sales is a proxy for waste generation, as many plastics are durable goods. To use a very simple example, a company may sell 1000 tonnes of plastic lumber into a market every year, but that doesn’t mean all 1000 tonnes will reach end of life during that period.

To accurately model the quantities of plastics needing to be managed at end of life, we would need to know its life expectancy, composition, primary and secondary use etc. To make a very long story short, you would almost need to do a mass balance of all plastics before we could credibly estimate overall generation. Simply put – we do not have that information, and even if it could accurately monitored and tracked, there is no legislative requirement for plastic producers to share that information.

Is “Ball Parking” good enough?

The exact findings from the Deloitte report said:

3.2 million metric tonnes ended up as garbage, 86 per cent went to landfill, 4 per cent to incinerators and 1 per cent — 29,000 metric tonnes — ended up as litter which can contaminate lakes and oceans. Most of the wasted plastic comes from offices, institutions or industries.

To be quite frank, I do not think the above numbers are accurate – however, does that really matter? I suppose that depends on what we are trying to achieve. If the purpose is to highlight that a significant percentage of our plastics is ending up in a landfill, necessitating immediate corrective action, then I am all for it. Communicating the size and scale of the problem is of greater importance than precision.

However, if our intent is to develop policy and legislation, particularly with respect to asking producers to pay for end of life costs associated with managing plastics at end of life, then we have to press pause.

Solid waste diversion rate by source, Canada, 2002 to 2016
(Source: Environment Canada)

Developing a data acquisition strategy

Identifying stakeholders who may have access and be willing to share sector specific data with respect to plastics generation/recycling/diversion will be critical in fully understanding the size and scope of the issue. It is only possible to achieve “Zero plastic waste” if we can understand how much is being generated, and what is presently happening to it.

Potential sources for this data include individual producers, industry associations and waste service providers. The latter has not traditionally been used as a source for data on tracking/measuring plastics waste, but waste service providers must often maintain detailed manifests regarding what they are collecting, and where they are processing it.

It is also the recommendation of this article that extensive research be conducted into on site waste management activity. As noted above, many manufacturing and industrial stakeholders claim to operate on site plastic recovery and diversion programs. However, access to this data (how much is being managed, how is it being managed (technologies, end use applications etc.) has historically been very difficult.

Designating who will be responsible for collecting and maintaining this information is also a critical early step in developing a successful circular economy. Many stakeholders have expressed concerns surrounding the sensitivity of sharing this data (for competitive/proprietary reasons), while provincial governments have cited lack of resources and administrative oversite to collect and maintain data repositories. This problem is compounded when attempting to gather data across multiple jurisdictions.

The report prepared by Deloitte was a critical first step in helping understand the plastic waste issue, but I would caution readers from jumping to conclusions when reading a sensationalized headline like: “Canada does a bad job at recycling plastics” – a more accurate statement would be “Canada doesn’t know what is happening to plastics at end of life”

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. Calvin has worked as both a policy planner for the MOECC and as a consultant on projects for Stewardship Ontario, Multi Material Stewardship Manitoba, and Ontario Electronic Stewardship. Calvin currently sits on the editorial board for Advances in Recycling and Waste Management, and as a reviewer for Waste Management, Resources Conservation and Recycling and Journal of Environmental Management.

New global rules curb unrestricted plastic waste exports

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Governments at the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) of the Basel Convention recently acted to restrict plastic waste exports by requiring countries to obtain prior informed consent before exporting contaminated or mixed plastic waste. A deluge of plastic waste exports from developed countries has polluted developing countries in Southeast Asia after China closed the door to waste imports in 2018.

Fourteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention

“With this amendment, many developing countries will, for the first time, have information about plastic wastes entering their country and be empowered to refuse plastic waste dumping,” said Dr. Sara Brosché, IPEN Science Advisor. “For far too long developed countries like the US and Canada have been exporting their mixed toxic plastic wastes to developing Asian countries claiming it would be recycled in the receiving country. Instead, much of this contaminated mixed waste cannot be recycled and is instead dumped or burned, or finds its way into the ocean.”

The unanimously adopted actions on plastic wastes include:

  • Removing or reducing the use of hazardous chemicals in plastics production and at any subsequent stage of their life cycle.
  • Setting of specific collection targets and obligations for plastics producers to cover the costs of waste management and clean-up.
  • Preventing and minimizing the generation of plastic waste, including through increasing the durability, reusability and recyclability of plastic products.
  • Significant reduction of single-use plastic products.

A group of cured resins and fluorinated polymers was not included in the requirement of prior informed consent, which means they can be freely traded without notification.

The theme of the meetings was “Clean Planet, Healthy People: Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste”. The meetings, attended by about 1,400 participants, from 180 countries, adopted 73 decisions.