Put a lid on it: Blue box litter abatement

Open top blue boxes at the curb can contribute to litter on the streets and moisture levels that can impact the marketability of the materials. The CIF has been working with Durham Region to develop a methodology to assess litter and moisture related to open blue boxes, and furthermore, to measure the cost and effectiveness of a blue box lid that will keep materials in the box and dry.

In the fall of 2020, a litter, moisture, and time-and-motion audit was conducted with 1,000 households in ten sample areas in Durham Region. A mixture of rural, suburban and urban dwelling types are participating. Research and analysis will continue into the spring of 2021, including a cost-benefit analysis of a crumb-rubber lid and a residential feedback survey. In this three-part mini-series, we’ll explore the initial findings on litter, moisture, and collection costs. Below are the main take-aways with regards to litter.

Litter from overflowing bins and windy days

It is thought that one of the biggest culprits to blue box litter is overflowing set-outs, especially on windy days. When forecasters call for winds or gusts of 20km/h or higher, municipalities often recommend residents wait to put out blue boxes, stack them with heaviest items on top, hold for a week, or don’t overfill beyond the rim.

For the litter audit, the number, size, and stream of overflowing blue boxes for each of the 10 sample areas was recorded. The data show that the residents set out overflowing fibre bins more often than container bins and that rural dwellers do not put as many overflowing bins compared to suburban and urban residents. Preliminary results show that the average number of litter pieces per household per week is higher in suburban and urban areas when compared to rural areas, which aligns with the prevalence of overflowing bins. Over the last decade, there has been a push to offer larger blue boxes to manage increased amounts of plastic packaging, however, a rise in fibre generation resulting from at-home shopping and work activities may be contributing to overflowing bins.

Less than half of litter is recyclable

In order to determine the lost opportunity for recycling revenue, litter was gathered, sorted, weighed, and counted into 18 categories over three weeks. The graph represents the composition of litter from all ten areas included in the study. Litter collected had an average of 47.8% acceptable recyclable materials. It is important to note that some littered items, for example coffee cups, although not accepted in Durham recycling, may have originated from a blue box. Recyclable containers, shown in blue, made up 18.21% by weight, while, not dissimilar to the blue box, paper materials, shown in brown, made up 29.59%. The majority of the litter was made up of garbage, organics, and other waste that would not be accepted in the blue box.

With an overall average of 0.007 kg per household per week of litter generation, the early estimation is that, in Durham Region, approximately 35 tonnes of recyclable material is lost annually into the environment. Based on the November 2020 CIF Price Sheet, this would represent a loss of approximately $3,192 in revenue.

To provide a more complete understanding of the total cost of litter, staff time associated with residential street cleaning was collected. AET consulting staff travelled a total of 72.66 km of streets in ten areas over three weeks. It took an average of 20 staff minutes per residential area kilometer to sweep up litter. With a fully burdened labour cost approximation of $27.40 per hour this equals $9.13 per km in labour costs to clean the streets.

Lids offer a potential solution

Over the years, many municipalities have reviewed various blue box litter abatement tools, such as nets, plastic lids, flexible flaps and levered tops. The lid used in this project is made from recycled crumb rubber. It is relatively simple to attach and remove from the blue box, provides a moisture-barrier for the contents inside, and is heavy enough that it won’t blow away after collection.

The litter audit captured preliminary data on whether the lid was effective in reducing blue box litter, thereby increasing capture rates and marketed revenues. Some of the sample areas received a lid in 2019, while others received new lids after the initial fall litter audit was complete.

Data was collected on the number of lids used and the presence of winds or gusts greater than 20km/h on the day of collection. After collection was completed, the sample areas were cleaned and the number of litter pieces per household per week was obtained. The results of the litter audit showed the number of pieces of litter per household ranged from 0.23 to 1.83 for different areas per week. In the areas that were given the lids in 2019, 6% of households were utilizing them. With that amount of participation, the relationship between the pieces of litter generated and the presence of the lids could not be evaluated.

Following this initial audit, more lids were distributed to households in the study areas and a follow-up audit is planned for Spring of 2021. Staff have recently seen more lids and it is expected that more data will be available to measure the impact of lids on the amount of litter.

The results of this portion of the study show that litter adds up to a small, but noticeable tonnage of lost recyclables annually. With 6% of households using the lids, the impact they have on litter at this time is difficult to determine. However, in notoriously windy neighbourhoods, the lids could offer a potential solution.

This blog has been re-posted with permission from the CIF.