Opinion

New Year's predictions

by Emily Atkins

A news item that I posted recently under Headline News states that Stewardship Ontario forwarded cheques totaling $12.8 million at the end of December to municipalities to share the cost of implementing and operating Ontario's municipal blue box recycling system. Turns out, the December payment is the third this year, bringing the total for the 2005 program year to $51 million. The grand total since the funding program started three years ago is $81 million. You can read the news item to learn the details, and you can get the specific breakdown of how much each municipality received via the websites mentioned at the end of the news item. (For your conveniece, I've pasted the news item at the end of this entry.) However, the news item provoked a philosphical thought in me. Some critics (including me at times) charge that the blue box funding scheme is something of a sell out, with certain industries off the hook, perverse consequences in which the good guys get punished for recycling more (think "paper"), and (worst of all) industry paying only 50 per cent of net recycling costs (whereas in real producer responsibility they should pay all the costs, some say). Yet I have to admit (for once!) that when you step back and think about it, from a macro perspective, this is really incredible news. I mean, this just isn't happening in the United States, or in most Canadian jurisdictions (yet). Let's set aside the complex issues of EPR and product stewardship schemes for used oil, batteries, paint, tires, etc. for a moment. It's a Really Big Thing that in Ontario, municipalities are now splitting millions of dollars worth of cheques written by industry to offset the cost of recycling such things as used beverage containers, old newspapers, plastic peanut butter jars, and so on. I know that I, for one, get so entangled in the minutae of recycling and funding issues that I sometimes lose sight of the bigger issue. What I'm getting at is this: A few decades ago, when someone bought a product and/or its packaging or container, that was the end of the matter. The material was thought to belong to the consumer, and they could either use it and keep it in their house, or discard it in the trash. The green garbage bags or metal container were emptied into the rear packer, and when the truck turned the corner, it was "out of sight, out of mind." The cost of waste collection and disposal was paid for via municipal property taxes, and the garbage went to a landfill or incinerator. End of story. Okay, a high percentage of soft drink containers were once collected on deposit and even (gads!) refilled in a privately owned and operated bottling system that was arguably better from an environmental economics point of view. But again, let's willfully ignore that for now. Now look at what's happening. Over time we have shifted, as a society, to a totally new paradigm about waste. We now consider only a minor fraction of discards to be true "garbage." We now think of anything that's recyclable or compostable as a kind of renewable resource, and we feel obligated to capture it and renew it via a recycling/composting infrastructure. We are willing to pay more for this, if necessary. But the most amazing thing is this development in blue box funding wherein we now believe that it's the producer or brand owner's responsibility to pay for the recycling. That it's "their waste" and not just ours, the consumers'. Isn't that incredible? People are beginning to clue in, too, that our waste generation keeps rising, on both an aggreate and per capita basis, despite all our recycling. Higher energy costs, the requirement to divert waste from landfill, and (eventually) direct billing for disposal services are going to act in concert to take things to the next level, which will include genuine packaging and waste reduction, not just recycling. Now let me make a prediction. (This is the New Year, after all.) I predict that within ten years this paradigm will expand to include all "waste." By 2015, I believe we'll see the following. (And even though these concepts won't be fully realized for ten years, we're discussing them and making decisions right now -- I predict 2006 will be a watershed year in that regard.): 1) Brand owners and first importers (let's just call them "producers") will pay 100 per cent (not just 50 per cent) of the net costs of recycling materials collected in the blue box (e.g., ferrous and non-ferrous metals, fibre, glass, plastic containers, etc.). 2) Producers will also pay 100 per cent of the net cost of any fraction of their materials that end up in landfill. In other words, they will fund the "bad" disposal as well as the "good" recycling/composting. 3) More producers will fund the net cost of more materials, to the point where essentially 100 per cent of what is managed in the waste stream, whatever its fate, will be funded one way or another by the producer. This will even be extended to organics. Grocers like Loblaws etc. will write cheques to help out with the cost of composting their green wastes. Since the consumer ultimately pays the tab, this will inspire change at the point of purchase and in the wholesale/manufacturing stages (which is really the whole point of producer responsibility programs). 4) Anything that can be managed in a return-to-depot deposit-refund system will be. Wine and liquor bottles will be handled in a system similar to that of the Brewers of Canada as illustrated by The Beer Store in Ontario. Watch for the emergence of new niche players in the soft drink business who will use the smart economics of local bottle refilliing systems (refillable PET, etc.) to cut into Coke and Pepsi's business based on one-time-use "recyclable" containers. The niche players will succeed because eventually government policies in each province will make them more competitive, i.e., by imposing recycling levies to the extent that the current model (in which vast quantities of soft drinks are canned and bottled in large regional hubs) is not as appealing as local take-back systems. The soft drink companies will lobby against this like heck, but over time they'll lose, especially because of the ongoing higher cost of energy and petroleum. 5) All of this will generate real reductions in packaging and waste volumes, because the producers will pay and the consumers will have a more direct economic signal about the cost of their wicked ways, in part because by 2015 all municipalities will directly bill for waste services, and the costs will no longer be buried in confusing property tax receipts. There will be more private contractors, but whether the service is delivered privately or publicly, new technology (and the requirement that households sort their garbage into different containers) will allow the service supplier to directly charge householders by the ounce for each material collected, with the net cost varying in real time according to shifting spot market prices for such things as aluminum, steel, glass, plastic, garden-quality compost, and so on. Entrepreneurs will gain a competitive advantage by offering customers specialized or more efficient services to take away their spent fluorescent bulbs, batteries, or other discards, either more cheaply than the municipal service provider, or actually paying for the materials because of a profitable market for the specific product. (I think this will be especially true of used computers and other "e-waste.") 6) The new market will evolve a sea change in who are the big players. Large waste companies that currently see themselves as being in the "landfill" business, where profit margins are high and where recycling is sometimes a token activity, will become smaller players, except for those that seize the opportunity and become experts in product stewardship. Large companies often miss these kinds of changes, the most famous example being IBM's blue suited executives and their failure to realize the importance of the personal computer, which allowed some hippy-ish young men with long hair, bears and jeans to become tycoons via Microsoft and Apple computers (among others). It may be that Bill Gates and his Microserfs are about to lose out in the next evolution, which is Internet-based instead of hardware driven, and in which people pay for software by subscription, on an as-needed basis, accessed on remote servers via their small "information appliance." Similarly, by 2015, the waste management companies will no longer look like those of today. It will be less and less an industry of garbage trucks and landfill operators, and more and more a system involving agents and brokers coordinating a network of consumer and commercial markets with return-to-retail, return-to-depot, and direct pick up services. Their guild-like partners will be comprised of companies like HP, Dell, Safety-Kleen, Toyota, Google, eBay and companies that haven't been formed yet. The various consortia will be linked in a high-tech wireless communications system and will include oil re-refiners, pulp and paper mills, electronics equipment manufacturers, bottle refillers, and "soil farmers" turning organic waste into garden compost and rich loam to rehabilitate desertification-affected areas in other countries. I imagine a network of small vans and UPS-type trucks picking up discards and delivering materials to recyclng plants, farms, airport or truck hubs, in place of rear packers and front-end loaders going to transfer stations and landfills. Whatever landfills are around will be high-tech operations, generating power from methane and mining the incoming material for valuable materials left over from front-end programs. Many of these may move to offshore locations in places like China and India that will receive container loads of that small fraction of urban waste not diverted by the North American system. 7) There will be, for a period of time, a sharp divergence between Canada and the United States in this area as Canada moves more rapidly toward a European-style system with lots of product stewardship and EPR programs. Companies that do business on both sides of the border, and act as though Canada and the USA are just one big market, could get into trouble. Niche players will grow rapidly by recognizing the distinct Canadian opportunity, and will then grow into the United States as it too, eventually, embraces the product stewardship model. Much of what I've written above sounds fanciful today. Some of it may not play out as I have written, or the time frame may be different. But if you're a doubter, think about this: Companies are now writing millions of dollars worth of cheques to muncipalities to underwrite the net costs of curbside recycling. Many product stewardship policies and schemes are coming on stream. Within only a couple of years, Canada's most populated provinces will be expected to divert more than 60 per cent of their waste from landfill. Would a householder have imagined or believed this in, say, 1965? I doubt it. Back then, garbage issues were about keeping racoons out of the tin trash can, or headlines about the mob controlling "stops" on private hauling routes. It's incredible where we were, where we are now, and where we're headed. I expect my own career as a journalist in this niche will last about the timeframe I've just described. When I retire (or, more likely, just decide I can afford to move on to pursue other interests) in or around 2015, it'll be interesting to reflect back on this blog posting, and see whether I was right or wrong. Now here's the news item that got me started down this path:

The top ten Christmas gift packaging offenders

by Emily Atkins

A news item that I put up today ("Kootenay pushes full EPR for 'product waste'") points up something that's been on my mind as my wife and I buy and wrap presents in preparation for Christmas. (For your convenience, I've pasted the article at the end of this blog item.) I imagine that even people not in the waste and recycling/composting business have the same thoughts as they wrap and unwrap presents on the Big Day: What a nuisance all that packaging is, and what an environmental burden. Of course, the packaging of toys and various doo-dads shared at Christmas are not dissimilar to the consumer items we purchase and discard throughout the rest of the year -- there's just an intensity around Xmas that really brings home the message that we sure do consume and waste a lot. My guess is that in addition to each family's regular Christmas traditions, there is also a "garbage tradition" beyond the trip (for some) to church, and the usual tree, turkey, egg nog and so on. In our house, the "garbage tradition" includes getting out a big green garbage bag that we place in the middle of the consumer orgy room, er, I mean, living room. As the presents are opened, any waste packaging is shoved in there. By the time the consumer orgy is over, the towering dark bag is like a hideous green twin to the Christmas tree (which in our case is also made of green plastic). In the old days, before I became enlightened, the garbage bag would be put out with the trash. Now, of course, its contents get sorted into the recycling bins, and only a minimal amount is sent to the landfill. Another new part of our Christmas "garbage tradition" is that we now put most of our gifts in colorful gift bags, the contents disguised with a little crepe paper inside. The bags can be reused over and over, which is very politically correct, and I wish I could say we did it because we're environmentalists. Truth is, we do it because we're cheap! This is the same reason we now send email Christmas cards instead of paper ones to friends and relatives. Actually, that's not because we're cheap, but because we're lazy. Before I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (and a Happy Hannukah and Kwanza and everything else folks celebrate) I'd like to offer my my all-time most hated forms of wasteful, irritating packaging. In David Letterman style, the list goes from least to worst offenders: 10) Packaging inside other packaging. The cardboard box that encloses the plastic toothpaste tube is a good example. There are hundreds of others 9) The little easy-to-lose-in-the-(wind/car/grass) plastic sleeves around the straws on the outside of Tetra-Pak juice boxes. There must be billions of these floating around in the environment by now, making their way from children's hands through minivan doors and windows to the bottom of far-flung oceans and (by now) the Arctic (along with our toxic and greenhouse gases). 8) "Squeezable" plastic containers for condiments like mustard and ketchup. In fact, "squeezable" anything! 7) Styrofoam or polystyrene used to protect inexpensive items. (Okay, I understand it for thousand-dollar TVs, but there's still way too much of this stuff in use.) 6) Non-resealable packaging for items that you'd like to store in an open-and-close container (e.g., finishing nails). Typically these have a plastic front and a cardboard back, and hang neatly on store displays. I'm willing to pay MORE for the same items in resealable, reusuable packages. (You hear that, hardware manufacturers?) 5) The boxes that contain computer software and video games. (I mean, seriously, you open them up, and they contain a CD or DVDas thick as a credit card -- the larger box is entirely for advertising display.) 4) The shrink-wrap around CDs, DVDs, cassette tapes, etc. You know -- the stuff you try to open with your finger nail or tooth, and ALWAYS have to eventually open with a pair of scissors (which are never easy to locate). "Where are the good scissors?!" is a more common holiday refrain than Jingle Bells. 3) Packaging around Barbie dolls and other figurines that, if opened, destroys the resale of value of the item for collectors. How stupid is that? How many dolls addicts have little mortuaries of dolls stacked shoulder height in their basements, their contents forever peering out through their plastic windows, unloved, like Snow White in her glass coffin, except in this version when the handsome prince comes, instead of kssing her he sells her on eBay. 2) Aluminum cans: This probably should be number one. This metal is smelted in highly energy-consuming plants, after being strip mined and processed from bauxite. Okay, let's use it to make light-yet-rigid airplanes that fly for 25 years (and then get recycled) -- but it's a crime against the world to use it to make soda or beer cans for one-time use. (Yes, they are recyclable, but after all these years of proselytizing, half -- HALF! -- still end up in the landfill.) If I was garbage czar, I would order all soft drinks to be sold in refillable PET containers like they do in Germany. Having written this means I now have to check under the hood of my car before I start it up, for the rest of my life. But someone has to say it. And the Number One most offensive packaging is (drum roll)... 1) Action figures, motor cars and other toys sold in cardboard boxes, with clear plastic windows, buffered with styrofoam, and held in place to the rigid backing with about a dozen annoying wire-and-plastic twist ties that take about ten minutes to deconstruct while your five-year-old cries and grabs impatiently, before you then have to hunt for the tiny eye-glasses Philips-head screwdriver to open the compartment to insert the batteries, which by now you realize were embedded in a niche in the styrofoam that is now at the bottom of the garbage bag, and...ARGH...you know the rest of the story (and will relive it again in a couple of days...) Happy holidays everyone!

Auditing your e-waste recycler

by Emily Atkins

In the forthcoming December/January edition of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine I've written an article based on my recent plant tour of the Noranda Recycling e-waste recycling plant in Brampton, Ontario. I was very impressed with the plant, overall, and wanted to share with readers an item (below) that my tour guide Cindy Thomas handed to me, which is a ten-point check list anyone should use in auditing a potential service provider for e-waste recycling. To my mind, this is critical information. As a former editor of HazMat Management magazine, I'm very familiar with the importance to companies of auditing facilities that handle their wastes, and I suggest you copy and paste the information below and use it as a reference. Share it with anyone in your company involved in this kind of decision making. I've toured a number of e-waste plants and found them superficially acceptable, but then I've been disturbed later by little details. For example, in one plant I took some photos, and then couldn't use the most interesting pictures because droplets or deposits of some kind formed on my camera lens. This was invisible to me at the time, but it was interesting to me that the photos were fine up to the point in my tour when I was in the area of the shredding equipment. Clearly, the shredder was releasing some sort of fine dust into the air. In retrospect I'm concerned about the health and safety of the folks working in that area; it bothers me to think I was breathing that junk even for a short time. It's likely made up of very fine particles of plastic and metal. Yikes! With e-waste programs coming onstream across Canada, the importance will grow of plants operating to the same standard as Noranda Recycling. I hate to tout the virtues of any one company and I don't mean to endorse Noranda and not someone else. But do yourself a favor: tour the Noranda plant, and bring the check list below on any other tours you take. Don't settle for less. Another thing that impressed me about the Noranda plant was that they videotape operations and the destruction of equipment, to prove destruction and data security. I have a feeling that some of the companies taking e-waste these days need to make an investment in these areas, and I think regulators should insist on these as minimal standards, to establish a level playing field, and not one in which the low-cost operator wins contracts, while running a "dirty" business. Just my two cents. Here's the list.

A meeting and our next edition

by Emily Atkins

Today I'm having lunch with Wes Muir, director of communications for Waste Management, and our publisher, Brad O'Brien. This will be an excellent opportunity to learn more about recent changes at the world's largest waste services company, which recently underwent an internal realignment, and which also has some interesting projects on the go. One such project is an enormous single-stream recycling plant in Peel Region that will open in early 2006 which we plan to profile in our February/March edition. I'm also heading over to our corporate office in Toronto to review the final proofs of our December/January edition before they go to press. We have an excellent article lineup and I offer you a preview below by way of reproducing our Table of Contents for that edition. Please note that the December/January edition features our 2006 Annual Buyer's Guide -- a handy edition to keep on your office shelf throughout the year as a reference for all your waste industry product and service needs. At the bottom of the Contents page, you'll see a glimpse of what's coming in the February/March edition.

Landfill gas and industrial ecology

by Emily Atkins

The newspaper article "Landfill saves jobs at Cascades" from La Presse (December 9, 2005) is of interest to waste management professionals and policymakers. (I have reproduced it in full below.) The article shows that a fine-paper plant in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec would have been completely shuttered, but for the fact that inexpensive landfill gas from a special project has kept the plant (or at least most of it) competitive in today's tough paper market. In addition to illustrating an environmental win (utilization of potent methane gas that would otherwise have just been flared or released to the environment), the story points up another concept that I wish were banted about more often at waste industry conferences and professional gatherings: industrial ecology. Although the term "industrial ecology" has many components, at its core it's about one industry's waste becoming the feedstock for another industry's operations. Often it refers to the use of waste energy. A good example is steam from a boiler or incinerator used to drive turbines to produce electricity, or to otherwise power a nearby plant. In today's climate of rising energy prices, landfill gas and other energy outputs from waste management is becoming a cricual factor. In fact, I participated in a recent FCM workshop put on by MWIN in which the people at my table conducted an exercise with surprising results. We were tasked with designing a waste management system to achieve a certain level of diversion for a municipality of a certain size. In the end, we concluded that rather than collect source-separated organics for composting, it made more sense in this example (since we had no shortage of landfill space) to develop the landfill as a "bioreactor" and make use of the methane for commercial purposes. The Cascades story is more or less a real-world example of such a strategy in action. I expect to see more stories like this in future as municipalities and different industries work together to boost efficiency of what is often a wasteful and inefficient system, in terms of power use and generation and garbage disposal.

Organics, the AMRC event, and some big news

by Emily Atkins

Yesterday I attended a one-day workshop presented by the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC) entitled "Organics and 2008 – moving towards 60% diversion" at the Richmond Hill Country Club, December 6, 2005. The event was co-hosted with The Composting Council of Canada (CCC). I took lots of notes on my laptop computer, and cut and pasted them below for anyone who cares to browse. Please note that these are just my point-form notes and more detail will be available from the workshop proceedings when posted at the AMRC website (see below). You can read the notes for yourself, but there are a couple of "big picture" observations and comments I'd like to share quickly. First, a representative from the Ministry of Environment was invited but no one came. The event organizers were very polite about this, but I don't have to be. It's totally unacceptable that the environment ministry didn't send someone to talk to this excellent professional audience, especially since the ministry is pushing for 60% waste diversion, and claims to believe that organics diversion is a big part of that. Several peopl commented that this is yet another sign that the ministry is completely "disengaged." I would go so far as to say the ministry is arrogant and just not doing its job. The environment minister is concerned these days about sticking to her script and setting the agenda with drinking water, and is just not dealing with the waste file. Politicians seem to forget they were elected to serve the public, and not even being bothered to send a mid-level (or even junior) staff person to this event is reprehensible, and part of a very clear pattern. One highly regarded consultant muttered that if this is their attitude, we should all just stay home. I share his disgust, and I intend to keep bringing this topic up again and again until the minstry does something about it. The other big "take away" for me from the event involved the issue of plastic bags. The discussion about biodegradable bags was very interesting, and one or two people pointed out that they serve no purpose if some people use them and others use regular bags within a given program. Yet Jim Graham of London-based Try Recycling said that plastic bags were no big deal for his company and by using screens and some elbow grease, they were able to remove the bags and generate clean compost. Hamilton's Pat Parker had a very different perspective, and stated that the new Hamilton organics plant is not being built to handle bags, and that in pilots they've discovered people won't use bags at all if you communicate clearly and educate the public carefully. So it was interesting to see totally different attitudes toward plastic bags for organics. Apparently they're not a problem when allowed in a program, and they're not a problem when forbidden. I'd want to talk to these people in depth before going one way or the other if I was designing a program, but it was overall good news for anyone wondering if plastics prevent the generation of clean compost. (This whole discussion reminded me about glass apparently not being a big problem in single stream systems -- for some people -- in the last AMRC workshop.) The other big "take away" for me was the importance of Ontario adopting some version of the new CCME standard for compost. This was another reason someone from the ministry should have been there. (Are you listening, Minister Broten? I won't natter on about the new standard, since our Composting Matters columnist Paul van der Werf and consultant Michael Cant have written an excellent article about the new CCME compost standard for the December/January edition of our magazine, due out near the end of this month. A very big news item came out from this workshop, and that is that Recyc-Quebec is going to develop a certification for biodegradable bags. Apparently a news release is due within days, and I'll be sure to post it on Headline News on this website as soon as I get it. susan Antler (see below) said Recyc-Quebec is going to is investing $39,000 on a certification program for biodegradable bags. BNQ will undertake a review through the Standards Council of Canada. It's a six-month review process and will make use of the ASTM and two other standards so as to not reinvent what has been established elsewhere. There will be committee meetings, public meetings, public input, and SCC will give a number and its endorsement. The process will be complete in 2006 and companies will pay to be certified and will receive a BPI-style stamp. Hats off to the AMRC and the CCC, by the way, for yet another excellent workshop. Last month the AMRC put on a workshop on single stream recycling that was equally informative and interesting. (You can download the proceedings at the AMRC website.) I'd like to add that the venue of the Richmond Hill Country Club was superb. The CCC and the Recycling Council of Alberta (RCA) put on a wonderful conference in Lake Louise in October, too, so we'd like to see more joint ventures between the CCC and various recycling organizations in future. This reminds me that everyone should mark their calendars re. the AMRC Spring Workshop and Annual General Meeting (February 15 - 17, 2006) in Hockley Valley. Call (519) 823-1990 for details. I plan to attend, and I'll be bringing my snowboard this time -- now that I live in Collingwood this is de rigeur.