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New Recycling Facility Opens in Lachine

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The City of Lachine, a borough within the city of Montreal on the Island of Montreal, has a new state-of-the art recycling facility. The centre, built at a cost of $50M, will process 100,000 tonnes of material per year.

Some 80 trucks a day will arrive at the centre every day. The centre will be able to process 100,000 tonnes of recycled materials per year — 58 per cent of the recyclable material collected in the city.

Lachine Mayor Maja Vodanovic sees the opening of a recycling plant in Lachine as one important element in a much larger plan — the creation of what is called a circular economy.

The goal of a circular economy, also referred to as circularity, is to eliminate waste by creating a closed loop. Material waste is reused, refurbished, repaired or repurposed. The circular template differs from the linear purchase-and-discard practice. The circular process not only reduces waste, it reduces the number of road trips required to cart waste to another location.

The plant will use automated machinery to separate paper, cardboard and plastic. A staff of 25 workers are required to operate the facility.

In the new year, glass recycling equipment will be added to the operations at the facility at a cost of $2.5 million.

New Guideline related to Construction, Renovation, and Demolition Waste Management

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The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) has posted a Guide for Identifying, Evaluating and Selecting Policies for Influencing Construction, Renovation and Demolition Waste Management.

Construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) wastes make up one of the largest solid waste streams in Canada. This waste comes at a significant cost: it is expensive to manage, poses risks to human health and the environment, and represents a missed opportunity to recover value from
discarded materials. Consequently, there are strong social, economic and ecological imperatives to both reduce the rate of CRD waste generation and increase the quantities diverted from disposal.

This guide provides decision-makers with high-level guidance for identifying, evaluating and selecting effective policies for influencing CRD waste management. This includes reducing the amount of waste generated by CRD activities, decreasing the amount of CRD waste that is disposed, lessening the environmental impacts of the CRD waste that is disposed, and
strengthening the markets for, and value of, diverted CRD materials.

Reducing the amount of CRD waste heading to landfill is a complicated task, and there is no single policy that can address the issue on its own. CRD waste reduction and diversion requires a comprehensive approach. Successful jurisdictions use a combination of policies that are tailored
to their unique regional political, economic and market conditions. Policymakers can leverage a three-step process for evaluating CRD waste management policies:

  • Assess: The starting point is to assess the regional context to determine the current state of CRD waste management and identify the materials and systems with the greatest potential for reduction or diversion.
  • Prioritize: The second step is to establish a set of goals and select a short list of strategies and policy measures that are most closely aligned with the regional priorities, needs and context. This may include setting diversion targets and identifying priority materials, construction life-cycle stages and actors for action.
  • Evaluate: The final step is to assess the potential benefits and impacts of each policy and decide on a path forward.

Looping you in on Loop: An evolution in waste management, or a work in progress?

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

Terracycle’s Loop program has turned the world of packaging waste on its head, largely seen as the first major initiative to encourage the reuse of consumer packaging in lieu of recycling. The initiative has been warmly received by both CPG companies and consumers alike, with initial reviews touting it as being an evolution in how packaging is designed and used by households.

For those who may not be familiar with Loop (although that would genuinely surprising given the press it has received), it is premised on developing reusable packaging solutions for common consumer items such as detergent, hand soap, cereal, condiments etc. The program, which is backed by industry giants such as Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola and more, promises to help move consumers away from a consumption-disposal model, to one in which we strive for zero waste.

Participating households are able to place an order online, and receive various durable products (ranging from groceries, general household items and personal care) which is shipped in Loop’s exclusively designed shipping tote. After use, consumers can place the empty containers into their Loop totes, and go online to schedule an in home pickup. These items are then returned to a Loop partner facility where the package is then sanitized, cleaned and refilled, and finally shipped back to the consumer to be reused again.

Why was Loop created?

For much of the past 30 years, the waste management system has tended to fixate on the “recyclability” of packaging. In spite of the waste management hierarchy which prioritizes waste reduction and reuse over recycling, recycling has largely been promoted as the preferred end of life scenario for consumer packaging goods. While this approach has been reasonably successful, the proliferation of difficult to recycle light weight and composite materials, coupled with deteriorating end markets for recycled goods, has forced the waste management industry think of new and innovative ways to promote diversion.

Loop offers a convenient solution to this problem, in that it is premised on a closed loop system where products can be reused again and again, to assist in both minimizing packaging waste and reducing the need to generate new packaging.

Conceptually, this seems like a great idea – encouraging both brand owners and consumers to embrace a reuse model has the potential to radically transform our waste management system. However, is the program successful (and feasible) in practice? Let’s find out.

An issue of efficiency, economics and equity

I want to preface this next section by saying that I am actually supportive of what Loop could represent and achieve in the future. There is certainly a need to pursue new avenues with respect to diversion, and reuse seems like a logical choice with respect to packaging waste.

However, if we begin to examine both the economic and environmental impacts of Loop’s logistics and collection network, the benefits of the program become a lot more murky.

Simply put, it is extremely inefficient to have an individual product shipped to a consumer, and have that product subsequently shipped back at the discretion of the household. This issue is exacerbated in instances where take back facilities are not located in close proximity to markets in which the product is being consumed.

A distance too far: Environmental and economic impacts of transportation

As an intellectual exercise, consider the following scenario. A household that subscribes to Loop’s program decides to purchase reusable cereal and oatmeal containers. Every other week, this household will return these containers back to Loop, where the containers are then cleaned and refilled, and subsequently shipped back to the household. That is 52 unique trips in a calendar year (to both send and receive the reusable package), in which containers are traveling potentially hundreds of kilometers per trip before arriving at its destination.

Now imagine if this same household decides to tell 10 of their family and friends to join the Loop program. Unless all households coordinate when to send and return their packaging, we now have 520 unique trips in which reusable packaging is being transported.

While I do not have any specific data with respect to where Loop take back facilities are located, let’s consider a scenario wherein the take back facility is located 100, 250 and 500km away.

Every year, the reusable containers being used by each household are being transported between 5200km, 13000km and 26000km respectively (depending on the transport scenario). This is for a single household, using a single product that weighs between 150 and 400 grams (weight is contingent on the material being used for the reusable containers).

The carbon footprint of transportation is potentially enormous, sufficiently so that it offsets the environmental savings of using a reusable package. In our above scenario (assuming that the average reusable cereal container weighs approximately 400g), it would take roughly 2500 packages to make up just one tonne of material. That one tonne of material represents more than 13 MILLION kilometers traveled to collect and resend reusable packaging, assuming each package is shipped back individually (using an assumption of every other week, and a default transportation distance of 100km). This translates into roughly 1950 TCO2e of transport emissions per tonne managed. This figure only becomes more astronomical the further away the take back facility is away from the point of generation.

I wish I could say the above represented a worst case scenario, but the reality is that take back programs must find ways to economically consolidate and transport their material, and ensure that receiving facilities are located in close proximity to the market in which the reusable package is being sold.

For curbside recyclable and waste collection, a specially configured truck will go from house to house, and when full, return to the transfer station/depot to empty its material before redeploying to the road. The efficiency of this approach is in having a “critical mass” of material (within a specified geographical boundary), that only requires collection when sufficient waste has been generated.

However, the nature of Loop’s take back program is that households are asked to return their used packaging back to specific facilities to be cleaned and reused. There is no clear guidance regarding how much or how often material should be shipped back, as that is largely left to the discretion of the consumer.

From a convenience perspective, this has been a significant boon for well-intentioned citizens who want to participate in reuse initiatives without disrupting consumption and disposal habits.

The obvious drawback is that such a system is neither environmentally or economically tenable.

In June of 2019, York University published a white paper that specifically examined the merits of decentralized logistics networks, and used coffee pods as a case study to calculate the environmental and economic impacts of take back programs (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rfERnYLOIhPsHcPA7JHf-BxPvErSiezB/view)

This study goes into greater detail surrounding how to quantify environmental and economic impacts, but the key take away is that the cost (both environmental and economic) is prohibitive unless households are able to transport large volumes of material at once. In the absence of achieving that “critical mass” of material, the take back model does not work in the vast majority of instances (a potential exception is when a receiving facility is located in the same market in which the product is being sold).

An issue of equity: Environmentalism for those that can afford it

Setting aside concerns surrounding the practical economic and environmental impacts of Loop, what is of greater interest to me on a personal level is that a subscription service excludes some households from participating on the basis of cost.

Products offered by loop require a mandatory deposit, ranging in value from $0.47 for a Coca Cola bottle to $47 for a Pampers Diaper Bin (https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/loop-reusable-packaging-mission-ahead/index.html).

Households are also required to pay a shipping fee of $15 unless a minimum of $100 worth of product is purchased.

While these sums may not seem like much, by its very nature, it will exclude households who are unable to absorb an increase in costs for their groceries and other household necessities. Waste management suddenly becomes a tiered model – pay to participate in reuse initiatives, or rely on municipal waste collections services who may not offer reuse as an option.

Most recent academic research shows that stated levels of environmental concern is consistent across all income groups. The vast majority of people, irrespective of income, want the opportunity to be good environmental citizens and participate in activities that lead to more sustainable outcomes. However, poor and marginalized groups often have impeded access to waste management services (i.e. lack of clean waste rooms, lack of recycling and green bin programs in multi residential buildings etc.).

Programs such as Loop further reinforce the notion that environmentalism is a luxury for those that can afford it, and it’s not entirely clear to me how such a program can be scaled out without addressing how to be inclusive and ensure participation of vulnerable and low income groups.

In waste management, we often forget that sustainability is made up of more than just environmental and economic considerations. The social dimension of sustainability is equally critical, and in my opinion, it would be in the best interests of both brand owners and service providers to address issues of inclusion.

The road to the landfill is paved with good intentions

Despite the aforementioned criticism, Loop should be applauded for pioneering the field of reuse for consumer packaging. Historically, printed paper and packaging has never been seen as a durable good, and has almost exclusively been characterized as single use. Loop offers the opportunity to think “Beyond the Blue Box”, and get both households and brand owners to think about the importance of reuse as a diversion strategy.

If we are to have any hopes of achieving a zero waste future, reuse will inevitably play a critical role, however, we have to be extremely careful about what systems we have in place to encourage it.

As noted in this piece, there are serious concerns surrounding the economic and environmental tenability of Loop’s current approach. Perhaps more alarmingly, nobody seems to be questioning whether this is a good idea or not (and whether it needs to be re-examined). The uptake by major CPG companies in both supporting and promoting Loop has been unprecedented – companies recognize the utility of attaching themselves to an initiative that seemingly provides a solution to the single use problem. However, in the rush to be seen as an innovator in the reuse space, we may be losing sight of what we are ultimately trying to achieve.

The goal of a waste management system should ideally be to promote optimal environmental, economic and social outcomes. Emphasizing either recycling, or reuse only matters when that particular approach helps us achieve our overarching goals of sustainability. If it doesn’t, we have to be prepared to “throw it away” and try something new. 


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.

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.

$5M Bailout can’t save St.-Hubert Recycling Centre

The recycling centre in Saint-Hubert, Quebec is closing a year after is received a $5 million bailout from Longueuil agglomeration of municipalities.

Recyclages MD, the owner of the facility, stated that it had to shut down its business as it was unable to secure insurance for the facility. The owner of the building required Recyclages MD to carry appropriate insurance as a condition of its lease agreement.

The urban agglomeration of Longueuil consists of the Ville de Longueuil,
Ville de Boucherville, Ville de Brossard, Ville de Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, and Ville de Saint-Lambert. It sits on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River directly across from Montreal and has approximately 415,000 inhabitants.

All employees and operations will be transferred to other centres in Lachine, Châteauguay, and Montreal. Recycling collection for the Longueuil area residents should not be affected as the recycling will go to the other facilities.

The 2018 bailout of $5 million by the Longueuil agglomeration in response to a plea by the company that it could not operate under the existing contract conditions. The additional funds were made in an effort to keep the facility open until 2021.

Raining on the parade: A critique of packaging “take back”​ programs (Terracycle,Loop, Nespresso etc.)

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

I want to preface this post by saying that I wan’t to be proven wrong – while it may be a peculiar stance to take as a researcher, I want to believe in the environmental benefits of packaging take back programs offered by Terracycle, Recycle Bank etc.

The idea that we are now finding innovative ways to recycle problematic materials and transition towards reusable packaging is a breath of fresh air in an industry that finds itself in a waste crisis.

With that being said, it is important to fully understand what it is we are trying to achieve as we work towards a circular economy. A circular system is our end point, but the path that we ultimately take to get there is where we should focus our attention.

The following is an excerpt from the study (I have attached the full white paper for people to download). Please note that I welcome any and all questions, criticisms and comments – my goal is not to pick on any particular organization, but shed light on the challenges of using a decentralized network for waste collection.

Study Excerpt

In Spring of 2019, York University’s Waste Wiki team was asked to investigate the environmental and economic impact of take back programs involving coffee pods, and other reusable/recyclable items that have de-centralized collection networks (i.e. Terra Cycle programs for shampoo bottles, cigarette butts etc.)

It is a relatively recent phenomenon that consumer packaging goods companies are exploring end of life waste management solutions that exist outside of conventional curbside collection. Increasingly, CPG companies are announcing partnerships with “niche” recyclers (where niche is characterized as a company that specializes in the recovery of problematic/difficult to recover materials), enabling consumers to directly return used packaging to re-processors and have it be diverted from landfill.

However, scant attention has been paid as to whether these types of programs offer legitimate environmental benefits when taking a life cycle approach. While it may seem intuitive that keeping material of a landfill is a good idea, what constitutes recyclability is a much more nuanced question that requires a careful consideration of environmental benefits, costs, accessibility, availability and infrastructural capacity.

In the case of most take back programs offered by companies such as Terracycle, problematic materials are down-cycled into “one off” products. As an example, Terracycle presently has take back programs offered for a range of commonly used household products, including razors and other personal hygiene items, chip bags, multi laminate pouches, sharpies/markers and cigarette waste.

While this initially seems like a good thing, each of the aforementioned items are down-cycled, wherein the end of life secondary product cannot be subsequently recovered, and ultimately is disposed of (i.e. a shampoo bottle is converted into a running shoe, but that running shoe cannot be recycled at its end of life, and will either be landfilled or incinerated).

While Terracycle and their peers should be celebrated for their innovation and commitment to finding new uses for problematic materials, their approach to recycling and reuse creates a dangerous perception among the public about what items can (and should be) recycled/reused.

At present, the processing technology involved in any of the aforementioned take back programs is economically prohibitive, and is really only available in jurisdictions in which the collection program is being offered. Simply put – municipal waste management infrastructure is not designed to either collect or recycle problematic materials.

As an example, the only cost analog that can readily be found in a municipal waste system is for multi-laminate plastic packaging (chip bags, yogurt squeeze containers etc.). In 2018, for the limited number of municipal programs that accepted multi laminate materials as part of their Blue Bin, the cost of recycling exceeded $2000 a tonne.

While comparing Terracycle’s costs (which are not shared) with a public municipal waste management system isn’t a particularly useful comparison, it is done to highlight just how costly it is to achieve, even with established collection, consolidation and sorting systems in place.

Take back programs offered by packaging companies and their partners must find ways to economically consolidate and transport their material to specific facilities, and ensure that those facilities are readily equipped to process that material at scale. The economic and environmental impact of a decentralized logistics network is questionable – take back programs that ask consumers to ship things like coffee pods, chip bags, razors etc. hundreds of kilometers can be both inefficient and costly.

At this time, neither Terracycle nor their partners were willing to share their cost and diversion data with the university, limiting the ability to model our own costing scenarios.

However, as an intellectual exercise, let’s look at a take back program that we have a better understanding of – The “Nespresso” Aluminum Coffee Pod (also managed by Terracycle). 

Results  (See link below)

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rfERnYLOIhPsHcPA7JHf-BxPvErSiezB/view

Closing Comments

For those of you who may not be inclined to read through the entire white paper (although it is a relatively light read at a little under 8 pages – with lots of graphs), the closing comments are as follows:

Nespresso should be applauded for finding a recyclable alternative and innovating in a way that moves us away from single use plastic pods. However, the danger of programs such as Nespresso’s mailer program is that it creates the illusion of being a good environmental citizen (from both the perspective of the packaging producer and the consumer). However, as both consumers and decision makers, we have to perform our due diligence when evaluating whether our actions (in this case, recycling) are achieving our intended objectives (preferable environmental outcomes).

What is perhaps most damning is that Nespresso Aluminum pods is one of the only environmentally friendly packaging types managed by Terracycle that can readily be recycled at a low cost. Table 1 below summarizes the known emissions credits and recycling costs for commonly found Blue Box Materials (managed via curbside).

Table 1: Comparison of Emissions Credits and Recycling Costs

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Please note that the costs per tonne DO NOT include collection costs – these are just the costs of sorting and processing materials at a material recycling facility, net of any revenue received from marketed materials. Curbside collection costs for Blue Box materials typically range from $150-$300 a tonne (as different municipalities have different collection infrastructure, housing densities, labor rates etc.).

While Terracycle did not provide a breakdown of their collection costs for any of their take back programs, the purpose of this study is to highlight that voluntary take back programs, particularly involving those using a mailer system, can only work when there is a critical mass of consolidated material, and that material is being collected at designated intervals. A take back program that leaves it to consumer discretion for how and when they will return end of life materials is in all likelihood significantly more costly from a transportation perspective due to the number of unique trips required. The only way for material to be efficiently transported is when there is a critical mass of material to transport.

As a secondary concern, important questions surrounding the accessibility and affordability of take back groups needs to be considered. Many of the programs offered by Terracycle and their partners exist largely in urban areas – the reason for this is fairly obvious, as it is simply not economically feasible to offer recycling programs to everyone, everywhere. As a tangent to this statement, the introduction of reusable packaging such as Loop has placed upwards pressures on the price of packaged goods – once again, a novel and unique design, but one that is not readily affordable or accessible to a significant percentage of Canadians.

A recent study from York University estimated that lower income marginalized households are those most likely affected by increases in packaging prices, as a greater proportion of their purchases are made up of pre-packaged items.

The findings from this study should be interpreted with a degree of caution – in the absence of having Terracycle’s data, we can only make best guess estimates based on the existing cost of managing a municipal waste system in Ontario. We welcome critics of these findings to share their data, such that we can all have a better understanding of what it is we would like to achieve from our waste management systems moving forward.  

Simply “recycling” is not enough, and we need to be both ready and willing to explore packaging alternatives that “think outside the Blue Box”.

Lithium Batteries – Rethink, Recycle

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Written by Zachary Gray, B.Eng.Biosci., Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering

Electricity is in, and fuel is out — The Dutch Royal Shell’s 50-year plan is in motion. Much to longtime shareholder’s chagrin, the 112-year-old global behemoth is pivoting their business model away from fossil fuels in the decades to come in favor of more sustainable forms of energy, including wind, solar, and hydrogen.

The Dutch Royal Shell transition is not limited to ethereal boardroom speak, placating the dry martini-sipping corporate climate change activists, but aligns with the tenets of the Paris Accord and emerging trends in consumer behavior: more electric vehicles and charging stations, less crude oil. Indeed Canadians with ambivalent, and often geopolitically divergent attitudes towards their energy sector are purchasing electric vehicles (“EVs”) at an accelerating pace: EV sales increased 125% from 2017 to 2018, putting an additional 100,000 on our roadways.

The problem to avoid is exchanging one environmental sin for another. There is a greater understanding among the general road-faring population that the fuel they are pumping into their cars, on the way to doing more important things with their time, combusts, adding to the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, charging one’s EV adds a degree of separation between drivers and their energy source.

Generally, driving an EV in Ontario, where 93% of the province’s energy comes from carbon-free sources, is far better for the environment than the combustion box on wheels sitting in the queue at the Shell station. Not so much in Kentucky, where 92% of the state’s energy comes from low-energy-density coal; or worse: Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, or Texas, where they burn far more to keep the lights on – or, EVs cruising along their streets. An EV’s positive environmental impact is only as good as its energy supply and battery.

Often, the EV’s greatest sin is its battery. In a study comparing Tesla’s Model S alongside a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle, the former’s manufacturing process generated 15% more greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. Despair not, however, the same study acknowledged that a Tesla generally rack up fewer GHGs over its lifespan compared to the latter.

For context, Tesla’s position is far better than the first generation of Toyota’s hybrid vehicle, the 1997 Prius. Between mining nickel for its catalysts in Northern Ontario and the spiderweb of trans-continental shipping bringing together the car’s disparate components across Toyota’s decentralized manufacturing sites, the first Prius’s GHG emissions over the course of lifetime dwarfed those of military-grade Hummers – which, some readers may be surprised to learn, are not known for their fuel economy. Tesla’s cathode and electrolyte are its central issues.

Lithium-based Batteries

There are three components to EV’s lithium-based batteries: the anode, made from graphite; the lithium electrolyte; and cathode, often a mixture of nickel, aluminum, and manganese cobalt. Tesla’s cathodes, a combination of nickel, cobalt, and aluminum, are the main environmental culprit; the lithium is salt on the wound.

Analysts estimate that Argentia, Bolivia, and Chile hold 15% of the world’s lithium reserves. Abundance, however, is not the problem: water usage and isolation are. Clean water is scarce high in the Andes, and mining operations use immense volumes in their salt brine ponds to separate the lithium from magnesium and potassium that are also present. Lithium brine ponds now litter the famous Salar de Uyuni salt flats. While TIME magazine may celebrate the wealth potential, and the relative cleanliness of lithium mining throughout these South American countries, consumers should remain vigilant to ensure extractors are not given carte blanch over the region’s resources – besides, who gets a medal for not placing last?

Lithium Mining Operation

For some perspective, the Guangdong province in China used mining to further its economy, much like the three South American nations are doing, feeding the world’s growing appetite for electronics with its vast supply of heavy metals – perfect for batteries and processors. Now, it costs $29/kg to remediate soil in the region. Nor do few publications outside of Canada’s right-wing press celebrate the economic value that the Oil Sands mines deliver to Albertans.

There is also the social impact to consider outside of the environmental damage brought on the world’s growing appetite for electronics and the batteries that keep them charged.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the largest global producers of cobalt, a critical element in Tesla’s cathodes. There are also an estimated 35,000 child laborers working in the Congo’s cobalt mines. At $83,000 per metric tonne, the high commodity prices for this scarce metal are incentivizing the less than stable Congolese government to turn a blind eye to the increasing rate of child enslavement in their country. Meanwhile, citizens in developed nations enjoy faster charging times for their phones and better performance in their EVs, for which they can thank cobalt’s presence. 

That’s how it is: Fossil fuel reliance diminishes as society increasingly coalesces around electronics and sustainable forms of energy. Metals such as lithium and cobalt, play a critical part in the transition’s material infrastructure. However controversial, mining provides the initial access to these vital materials.  Consumers can take heart knowing that battery components, while not non-renewable, are recyclable – unlike the proceeding technology. The rare earth elements can feed a closed-loop supply chain as they enter circulation while robust recycling technologies ensure their place within it.

The importance of battery recycling

Tesla ensured that recycling as part of its battery’s supply chain. The company recycles 60% of spent cells from its cars, reuses a further 10%, and landfills the rest due to technical difficulties. They use Kinsbursky Brothers in North America and Umicore in Europe. Both of these recyclers use traditional furnace techniques called pyrometallurgy to process the spent batteries.

Four high-level events place during the pyrometallurgical process; they are:

  1. Preparing the furnace load, including the battery components and coke;
  2. Treating the off-gas, filtering the batteries’ vaporized plastic parts, before discharging to the atmosphere;
  3. Removing slag from the kiln, including aluminum, silicon, and iron;
  4. Completing the smelting process.

The resultant product is a copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel alloy, representing 40% of the batteries contents, while The treated off-gas and slag account for the remaining 60%. For reference, a Model S has 7,100 battery cells, weighing 540 kg, meaning that the heating-based approach recovers ~220 kg of valuable cathodic materials, representing approximately 80-85% of the original amount, for the industry’s growing closed-loop supply chain. 

Altogether, the pyrometallurgical recycling of lithium-ion batteries reduces GHG emissions by 70% over using new resources, further lowering the environmental impact for the next generation of EVs.

Umicore’s process can handle 7,000 metric tonnes per year, equivalent to 35,000 EV batteries. Right now, the company is focusing on better serving smaller-scale electronics and pivoting their technical model towards less-energy intensive forms of battery recycling. Fully embracing hydrometallurgical techniques, the process extracting metal ions from aqueous solutions and forming salts, is the new frontier in lithium battery recycling. One Canadian company stands out in the emerging technical group: Li-Cycle.

Li-Cycle Corporation

The Mississauga-based Li-Cycle Corporation is piloting its two-step, closed-loop recycling technology in Southern Ontario. First, the “Spoke” mechanically reduces the size of the battery’s components, leading to the “Hub,” which leverages hydrometallurgical technologies to yield high-value salts. In addition to emitting few GHGs and expending little solid waste, the company also treats and reuses its water and acid. Encouragingly, the company achieved a >90% recovery rate for critical metals during their pilot-scale operations.

Li-Cycle Technology™ is a closed loop, processing technology that recycles lithium-ion batteries. The technology recovers 80-100% of all materials found in lithium-ion batteries.

Li-Cycle’s technology minimizes energy usage and operational inputs while outperforming competitor’s return. Going forward, the company will separate the two components business units, better serving regional markets: Multiple Spokes, each processing 5,000 tonnes of used batteries per year, will supply a 15-20,000 tonne Hub. A constellation of Li-Cycle’s units would increase the availability of critical metals from other electronics, such as cell phones, for the rapidly expanding EV market.

Concluding remarks

Tesla recently announced its concern about the impending shortage of metals critical to their batteries’ chemistry. In the future, companies such as Canada’s Li-Cycle and Umicore will be able to mediate discrepancies in the EV supply chain. Used batteries languishing in the dump are harmful to the environment and damage the growing, technical infrastructure around recycling rare earth metals. Mining brings the batteries’ minerals into circulation while recycling keeps them in use.

Recycling will be an integral part of the EVs’ industrial arc as they proliferate in usage, while the energy paradigm continues to shift from fossil fuels to sustainable forms of electricity and new generations of battery technology minimize the use of precious minerals.


About the Author

Zachary Gray graduated from McMaster University with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering.  He has worked with several early-stage cleantech and agri-industrial companies since completing his studies, while remaining an active member of his community.  He is enthusiastic about topics that combine innovation, entrepreneurism, and social impact.

Polystyrene foam recycling returns to two Ontario Municipalities

Two Ontario municipalities recently began recycling polystyrene foam. The Town of Brockton and the Town of Hanover now recycle polystyrene foam, in part due to $9,700 in grant money received from the Foam Recycling Coalition.

Brockton, Ontario is located Bruce County, approximately 200 km northwest of Toronto. As of 2016, the population was 9,461. Hanover, approximately 20 km east of Brockton, has a population of of approximately 7,600.

Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is a type 6 plastic that is also known as the trademarked brand Styrofoam.  It is used in in food and beverage packaging (i.e., coffee cups), insulation, and for protection of materials during shipping.  It has very low density as it is over 95 percent air.

Although 100% recyclable, EPS’s low density means transporting any quantity of it for recycling proves prohibitively expensive.

The municipalities began collecting post-consumer polystyrene foam in 2007, but the popular recycling program was suspended 10 years later due to changing markets for the material. The recycling services will resume with the help of a polystyrene densifier, which compacts collected materials into condensed polystyrene bricks. End markets then recycle the bricks into new products.

“The discontinuation of the agreement to transport materials in 2017 was sudden and unexpected. With this grant from the Foam Recycling Coalition, we found a solution that allows us to begin collecting polystyrene again and bring back this service to our residents,” said Ron Cooper, director of public works for the Town of Hanover, Ontario.

Brockton and Hanover’s waste management departments will operate the program through the use of community drop-off depots. Businesses and residents can bring foam cups, take-out containers, egg cartons and meat trays, as well as protective foam packaging often found around shipped electronics. The material will then be sent to a central location for densification and turned into new products as varied as crown molding, picture frames and receipt spools.

Foam Recycling Coalition

In 2014, the Foam Recycling Coalition (FRC) was launched to support increased recycling of foodservice packaging made from foam polystyrene. In order to meet this objective, the FRC shares general information on foam recycling, provides technical resources and offers funding assistance to programs ready to start or strengthen post-consumer foam recycling.

In addition to encouraging the recycling of foam foodservice packaging (i.e. cups, plates, bowls, clamshells and cafeteria trays), the efforts of the FRC also extend to other foam food packaging like egg cartons and meat trays.

Other Polystyrene Recycling Projects in Canada

Nova Scotia

The Solid Waste Management Department of Colchester County, Nova Scotia is responsible for providing solid waste and recycling service to 130,000 residents across several communities.  In 2015, the Solid Waste Management Department estimated that foam polystyrene comprised one percent—620 tons—of the annual municipal waste stream. However, at the time, the county did not possess the equipment to efficiently recover foam products at their MRF, so the material still went to a landfill. To begin recovering this “lost” material, Colchester County applied for and was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Foam Recycling Coalition (FRC) that the county used to purchase a foam densifier for installation at their MRF. 

Unless it is densified, foam polystyrene is very lightweight. This makes the product inefficient and expensive to ship. Densifiers help compact foam into smaller, heavier, and more manageable bricks that can be easily transported in full truckload quantities. The MRF installed the new densifier in April 2016 and began densifying the foam that MRF employees captured at the end of the container line.

Densified foam polystyrene is a valuable commodity and tens of thousands of pounds can be trucked to end markets in a single load. Once the material is shipped from the MRF to plastic recycling facilities, the facilities grind, wash, and then pelletize the polystyrene which manufacturers can use instead of virgin plastic.

Quebec

Pyrowave, a pioneer in catalytic microwave depolymerization of plastics, has received a $50,000 grant from the Foam Recycling Coalition in 2017 to purchase equipment to allow for in-house processing of recycled polystyrene.

The Montreal, Quebec, company commercializes microwave-based equipment modules to perform fast depolymerization of mixed plastics and is focusing initially on post-consumer polystyrene. According to Pyrowave, the machines can depolymerize (or break down) post-consumer polystyrene materials into a styrene oil with up to 95 percent yield, which is then shipped to styrene buyers. 

Myths vs. Facts on Recycling in Canada

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With major headline in newspapers and newscasts on recycling in Canada, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) deemed it necessary to publish a fact sheet that dispels the myths and state the facts on recycling in Canada.

The Fact Sheet addresses one of the most persistent myths surrounding recycling, which is that no one knows how to address the challenges that the industry is currently facing. SWANA wanted it to be known that solutions are being implemented. Recycling facilities are embracing new technologies such as robotics to keep up with changing market requirements and material streams. New facilities are opening and existing ones are expanding, providing more demand for recyclables. Organizations are considering redesign, reuse and repair to address hard-to recycle items.

SWNA Fact Sheet of Recycling Myths and Facts

“Although the recycling industry is currently having some difficulties marketing some of their materials, the industry isn’t broken,” says Art Mercer, SWANA’s Incoming International Secretary. “Materials are recycled into new products and this has many benefits, such as energy and resource conservation. Just because it is temporarily difficult to market some of the items, this is no reason to stop recycling and throw these items away, often filling up landfills. Also, we need to remember that we all have a responsibility to reduce the items we buy and throw away. Recycling is not the only solution.”

SWANA is an organization of more than 10,000 public and private sector professionals committed to advancing from solid waste management to resource management through their shared emphasis on education, advocacy and research. For more than 50 years, SWANA has been one of the leading associations in the solid waste management field. SWANA serves industry professionals through technical conferences, certifications, publications and a large offering of technical training courses. 

Waste Not, Want Not: Recycled vs. Recyclable

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

This past weekend, at a gathering with friends, the topic of recycling came up.

“Did you know that they can recycle cigarette butts now?”

Being known as the “garbage man” among my peers, eyes turned to me to confirm this seemingly revolutionary advancement in recycling.

I hesitated, knowing that my answer was about to make me a “Debbie Downer” and open a can of worms about what it really means to recycle something.

“No – cigarette butts cannot be recycled in conventional recycling systems” – I made sure to add the latter as a qualifier.

“But I heard about a program that takes back used cigarettes and turns it into new forms of plastic and compost!”

What my friend was referring to was the breakthrough program offered by Terracycle (read more about it here: https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/brigades/cigarette-waste-recycling).

And with a heavy heart, I launched into a lecture about the difference between something that can be recycled, versus something that is recyclable.

By the end, the disappointment in the room was palpable – I was the proverbial wet blanket that ruined the “feel good factor” of trying to do the right thing.

My feelings towards Terracycle and other similar organizations are heavily conflicted. On one hand, they are innovative, transformative and committed to finding new uses for problematic materials. The accolades they receive are well deserved, but I also think it creates a dangerous perception among the public about what items can (and should be) recycled.

Most materials can technically be recycled – be it cigarette butts, laminated coffee cups, chip bags etc. Given the resources, infrastructure, technology and time, we can find ways to re-purpose problematic materials.

It is in this space that organizations such as Terracycle thrive – they have forged literally dozens of partnerships with companies across the globe to successfully “recycle the unrecyclable”.

Win, win situation, right? Wrong.

While it may seem novel to turn ocean plastic into shoes, or chip bags into handbags, the hard truth is that this type of recycling cannot be readily replicated at scale. The processing technology involved is economically prohibitive, and really only available in jurisdictions in which the collection program is being offered.

The latter point is also why the environmental and economic impact of a decentralized logistics network is questionable – take back programs that ask consumers to ship things like coffee pods, chip bags, razors etc. hundreds of kilometers can be both inefficient and costly.

Going back to our cigarette butt example, there is no recycling facility in Canada (that I am aware of) that can economically recover the material… which is why it is so imperative that we distinguish between something that can be recycled, versus recyclability.

To me, the former is a technical question – does the technology exist to recycle a particular good? The latter however is a much more nuanced question that requires us to consider the economic, environmental and social impact of recycling activity.

As an example, 99.99% of people who work in waste will tell you that glass can be recycled, but I would bet that a significant portion of those people would question whether it should really be recycled (at least in a curbside collection system).

Why this matters is that the average consumer has difficulty differentiating between recycling and recyclability. Much like my well intentioned friends, once people hear that something can be recycled, they assume that to be a universal truth. When Keureg teamed up with Recycle BC to pilot a recycling program, people across the country thought that they could now put K-cups in their Blue Bin (which was never the case).

Perhaps a more insidious example of how this consumer confusion can result in catastrophe, is in the green washing of packaging. My social media feed is full of examples of CPG companies partnering with Terracycle (and others) to pilot new recycling programs. The dangers of this is that companies may be more concerned with the “optics” of recyclability, as opposed to developing products that can be sustainability managed at end of life. The key to a successful pilot is accountability and transparency – I don’t want a headline announcing a partnership, I want to know how much is being diverted, where it is being diverted and at what cost.

I want to impress upon the reader that this post is not about bashing Terracycle or any other company attempting to develop new ways to recycle problematic materials. Their work is critical in promoting consumer awareness, and has successfully married CPG companies and recyclers to work collaboratively.

However, we have to remember that recycling is only one of many tools we have to promote a circular system. Inordinately focusing our attention and resources on recycling may be at the expense of other, more sustainable options. Consumers have an intense appetite and interest in doing the right thing and keeping material out of landfills, but we have to be honest with both them and ourselves regarding the role recycling can play.

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.