Bin There, Done That

In­side our in­ef­fec­tive re­cy­cling sys­tem

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Matthew Hal­l­i­day

In­side our in­ef­fec­tive re­cy­cling sys­tem

Most Cana­di­ans know the rit­ual: check the pickup sched­ule, sort the waste items, clean the jars, make sure the junk mail isn’t stained with cof­fee grounds. Then fill up the blue box (or blue bag, or blue cart, de­pend­ing on the city), and on the ap­pointed day, haul it to the curb. It’s an ac­tiv­ity that Cana­di­ans have par­tic­i­pated in ea­gerly for al­most thirty years. Of the three Rs drilled into our heads in school — re­duce, re­use, re­cy­cle — re­cy­cling is the only one that most of us reg­u­larly prac­tise. In 2011, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by Stew­ard­ship On­tario, three-quar­ters of On­tar­i­ans con­sid­ered the weekly act of sort­ing and dis­pos­ing as their “pri­mary en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fort.” But as much as Cana­di­ans love the blue box, “its role in [our] hearts and much larger than its ac­tual en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact,” wrote Dianne Saxe, On­tario’s en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mis­sioner, in a re­port last Oc­to­ber. In fact, re­cy­cling is one of the least en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly “en­vi­ron­men­tal” things one can do. Af­ter be­ing picked up, enor­mous vol­umes of re­cy­clable waste are un­loaded at a local ma­te­ri­als-re­cov­ery fa­cil­ity (MRF, pro­nounced like “smurf”), dumped onto con­veyor belts, and passed through a bat­tery of sieves, mag­nets, op­ti­cal sorters, and man­ual work­ers who separate each item into its own stream — plas­tic, pa­per, metal, and so on. The batches from each stream are then sent to gi­gan­tic balers, squeezed into cubes, and sold, of­ten by mid­dle­man com­pa­nies, to “end mar­kets.” These are the man­u­fac­tur­ers, in Canada and around the world, that profit from turn­ing our waste into some­thing new — toi­let pa­per, per­haps, or plas­tic lawn fur­ni­ture, egg car­tons, or dry­wall. More than a pub­lic ser­vice, re­cy­cling is largely a com­mod­ity busi­ness, as de­pen­dent on sup­ply and de­mand as any other. When mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties pro­duce more re­cy­clable garbage than end mar­kets can ab­sorb, the value of the prod­uct de­creases, and in the sell­ing mar­ket, Canada faces com­pe­ti­tion from coun­tries across the world. The lim­i­ta­tions of a mar­ket-driven sys­tem mean that, once in­dus­trial- and com­mer­cial-waste streams are fac­tored in, about two-thirds of Cana­dian waste still ends up in land­fills. Re­cy­cling per­sists not be­cause it’s ef­fi­cient (it isn’t) or ef­fec­tive (it’s much less so than we think) but be­cause we feel ob­li­gated to do it. It helps us feel bet­ter about the waste we pro­duce: ac­cord­ing to one es­ti­mate, 850 kilo­grams of garbage, per capita, ev­ery year.

When they were first in­tro­duced, blue boxes on Cana­dian drive­ways and side­walks seemed al­most revo­lu­tion­ary. Peo­ple were “ex­tremely en­thu­si­as­tic,” says Dan Hoorn­weg, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of On­tario In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. They “re­ally wanted to re­cy­cle.” But the box came with con­di­tions — an un­for­tu­nate com­pro­mise be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, gov­ern­ment, and the soft-drink in­dus­try that cre­ated the per­fect con­di­tions for an ex­plo­sion in lit­ter. In mid-1980s On­tario, af­ter years of ar­gu­ments with the prov­ince, the soft­drink in­dus­try agreed to par­tially sub­si­dize the blue box, which had been in­vented a few years ear­lier by a garbage col­lec­tor in Kitch­ener, in ex­change for be­ing al­lowed to switch from re­fill­able glass bot­tles to cheaper, dis­pos­able op­tions. The deal helped cre­ate one of the world’ s most pop­u­lar res­i­den­tial re­cy­cling pro­grams, which soon be­gan spread­ing na­tion­wide. But it also gave in­dus­try a so­cial li­cence to cre­ate one­time-use pack­ag­ing — alu­minum cans, yo­gurt con­tain­ers, those plas­tic-wrapped cheese-and-cracker kits par­ents put in kids’ lunch boxes. In a sense, re­cy­cling be­came the pre­ferred method for ex­cus­ing waste­ful­ness.

To make mat­ters worse, al­most twothirds of Canada’s waste is pro­duced by the in­dus­trial, com­mer­cial, in­sti­tu­tional, and con­struc­tion-and-de­mo­li­tion sec­tors — in ev­ery­thing from fac­to­ries to of­fice build­ings — which are ser­viced by pri­vate waste haulers. Un­less they can make a profit sell­ing re­cy­clables, which de­pends on mar­ket prices at the time of sale, there’s lit­tle in­cen­tive for these haulers to re­cy­cle. All of this means that you can put your take­out con­tain­ers and shred­ded pa­per into the of­fice re­cy­cling bin, but the com­pany that takes it away is un­der no le­gal obli­ga­tion to re­cy­cle it. In Toronto, for ex­am­ple, 72 per­cent of waste ma­te­rial from apart­ment and condo build­ings goes straight to a land­fill. On­tario is the only prov­ince from which de­tailed fi­nan­cials are avail­able. In 2016, blue-box col­lec­tion cost mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties a to­tal of $347 mil­lion, and only about $95 mil­lion was re­cov­ered from sub­se­quent sales. The rest of the bill was split be­tween the mu­nic­i­pal­ity and in­dus­try. The idea, early on, was that sales of re­cy­clables on the open mar­ket would pay in full for re­cy­cling pro­grams. That, of course, never hap­pened. Our blue boxes con­tain a lot of “light­weight, com­pli­cated ma­te­ri­als that cost a for­tune to re­cy­cle,” Saxe says. When­ever a con­fused res­i­dent places an un­re­cy­clable item (say, a plas­ti­clined take­out cof­fee cup) into their box, it only ag­gra­vates the sit­u­a­tion. “You ba­si­cally end up pay­ing to process [the item] twice,” says Jim Mckay, who over­sees Toronto’s solid-waste man­age­ment ser­vices: once as re­cy­cling, at the MRF, and once as garbage. In the end, ac­cord­ing to Saxe’s re­port, the blue box di­verts only 8 per­cent of On­tario’s ma­te­rial from land­fills. Other prov­inces, with fewer homes served by curb­side pickup, prob­a­bly re­cy­cle even less. Res­i­den­tial re­cy­cling it­self also comes with a sig­nif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print of its own, es­pe­cially tied to trans­porta­tion and car­bon emis­sions. In some cir­cum­stances, re­cy­cling could ac­tu­ally end up as an en­vi­ron­men­tal li­a­bil­ity. “In ru­ral ar­eas you have trucks go­ing half a kilo­me­tre be­tween houses pick­ing up re­cy­clables,” Hoorn­weg says. “It makes no sense.” Once you tally up the emis­sions associated with pick­ing up prod­ucts, sort­ing them at a MRF, and send­ing a batch to far-flung end mar­kets, it’s not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that it’s some­times bet­ter to send re­cy­cling to the dump.

This jan­uary, China de­clared war against yang laji (“for­eign garbage”). Af­ter decades of pur­chas­ing re­cy­cling that was clut­tered with un­de­sir­able ob­jects, such as greasy pizza boxes, the coun­try set strict clean­li­ness stan­dards for the ma­te­rial it pur­chases. The an­nounce­ment sent the global in­dus­try into a frenzy: for decades, China had been the end mar­ket for more than half of the world’s plas­tic and pa­per, which are used as raw ma­te­ri­als in Chi­nese build­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing. Many of the Cana­dian out­fit­ters that re­lied on China were left stranded be­cause they couldn’t guar­an­tee the qual­ity of their prod­uct. The ef­fects were im­me­di­ate: ex­ports of plas­tics and scraps to China fell from 6,700 tonnes in Jan­uary 2017 to 578 one year later. Pa­per-scrap ex­ports fell from 53,000 to 15,800 tonnes. Some of that leftover ma­te­rial is find­ing its way to other for­eign mar­kets, mostly in south­east Asia and In­dia. Some of it is end­ing up in land­fills. Hal­i­fax has re­sorted to burn­ing its plas­tics in waste-to-en­ergy fa­cil­i­ties. And, as of this May, Cal­gary was still stor­ing more than 7,500 tonnes of pa­per. At that time, the city also hadn’t been able to find buy­ers for 1,000 tonnes of clamshell plas­tics — the lit­tle con­tain­ers berries come in. “They’re lam­i­nated and cov­ered in ad­he­sive la­bels,” says Sharon How­land, Cal­gary’s leader of pro­gram man­age­ment for waste and re­cy­cling. “No­body wants them.” China’s ban forced many of us to con­front the re­al­i­ties of a bro­ken sys­tem. Canada is good at tout­ing its green con­science; sac­ri­fic­ing com­fort, con­ve­nience, and habit is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Yes, Justin Trudeau signed the Paris cli­mate agree­ment in 2016, promis­ing to re­duce green­house-gas emis­sions by 30 per­cent from 2005 lev­els by 2030. But still, road pol­lu­tion in the coun­try is ris­ing. When­ever gas prices drop, oil-sands projects slow down — which could be seen as en­vi­ron­men­tal progress. But we also then buy big­ger, less-fuel-ef­fi­cient cars. And Canada is lag­ging be­hind most other in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries when it comes to elec­tric-ve­hi­cle pur­chases. The same prob­lem can be seen with the blue box: we cling to our good in­ten­tions, but we sel­dom carry them out. We have al­ways pro­duced far more garbage than we could off­load to end mar­kets. In­creas­ingly, our MRFS — and our streets, streams, and oceans — are over­flow­ing with waste. Saxe’s Be­yond the Blue Box re­port was pre­sented to On­tario’s leg­is­la­ture last fall, as the prov­ince was con­sid­er­ing a sea change in its ap­proach to garbage: a “cir­cu­lar econ­omy” in which in­dus­try would be re­spon­si­ble for prod­ucts’ post­con­sumer life and man­u­fac­tur­ing would be­come a closed loop in which as much as pos­si­ble is reused, in per­pe­tu­ity, to cre­ate new prod­ucts. But while On­tario passed the Waste Free On­tario Act in 2016, it pro­vides only a guid­ing frame­work for this hy­po­thet­i­cal fu­ture, with very few de­tails and no con­crete plan of ac­tion. “It’s cer­tainly a great am­bi­tion to imag­ine this path for­ward,” Saxe says. “But it will clearly be very, very dif­fi­cult.” The act’s suc­cess is en­tirely de­pen­dent on reg­u­la­tions yet to come, mak­ing it, at this point, lit­tle more than good in­ten­tions. To­day, with a premier in­tent on rolling back the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment’s en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives (also in­clud­ing the prov­ince’s cap-and-trade car­bon-pric­ing mea­sures) a waste-free fu­ture looks doubt­ful. Re­cy­cling alone will likely never be enough to make up for the garbage we pro­duce. The fight, thirty years ago, to keep Cana­di­ans’ fizzy drinks in re­fill­able glass bot­tles was a good thing to do all along. Mak­ing cof­fee the old-fash­ioned way is bet­ter than cycling through mil­lions of sin­gle-use cof­fee pods. And yet most peo­ple who’ve spent their ca­reers in waste man­age­ment con­tinue to en­cour­age re­cy­cling — it’s bet­ter than noth­ing. And Cana­di­ans love it be­cause it’s some­thing each and ev­ery one of us can con­trol: sort, clean, and carry to the curb. j

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