Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A garbage read. No, really

Just be glad you don't live in Kolonnawa, Sri Lanka, where 800 tonnes
of garbage is added to this dump every day. 
I'm reposting a 2002 story of mine on recycling here, and never mind that I quietly roll my eyes at my many photographer friends who trot out their old photos as "new" and repost them on Instagram. But here's the thing: it's such an interesting subject, what we do with our garbage, and perhaps even more relevant in 2018 than it was 16 years ago when I wrote this for the Times Colonist.

The subject of garbage was on my mind this week after I posted this story from the Guardian on Britain's rather appalling habits around its own waste; the country is still exporting plastic waste to countries that appear to be dumping it willy-nilly, and it hasn't yet even got a deposit program for its beverage containers.

The story prompted a lot of waste-related thoughts from my Facebook community, and curiosity about what was the latest on what we were doing with waste right here in our hometown.

Which got me thinking about my long-ago story. Here it is, with some updates in a few spots where I could find new information.

Thinking out of the box: Are we green enough?

Jody Paterson
July 28, 2002

The case for a garbage revolution in the capital region had been building for more than a decade by the time the local politicians gave the order to drain the lake.

It would have been an easy decision in an earlier time. This is, after all, the region that once towed its garbage out to sea, and Heal Lake on that July day 11 years ago was little more than a contaminated swamp ruined by decades of sitting next to the Hartland Avenue landfill.

But attitudes had changed over the years. The litterbug generation had grown up with a new sense of environmental responsibility. There was a lot of guilt around garbage by 1991, and Capital Regional District board members felt the shameful significance of destroying a natural wonder, even a dilapidated one, to make room for more trash.

No more, they vowed. From that point on, the region would reduce, reuse and recycle as never before, and the flow of garbage to Hartland would be halved by 1995. Facing unrest elsewhere over other dumps and landfills, provincial politicians made similar commitments around the same time in B.C. and across the country.

It didn't happen by 1995. It still hasn't, except in a handful of areas that are composting the huge flow of food waste and other organics that account for the heaviest component of any municipality's garbage stream. More than 10 years into the dream, less than a third of all the garbage in B.C. gets diverted from landfills or incinerators. The capital region has been stuck at 41 per cent since 1999.

**Update: I couldn't find current diversion rates anywhere after flipping through a number of CRD reports on its website, but I see that the City of Vancouver has a diversion rate of 63 per cent now, so let's presume we're similar or someone would probably be yelling at us by now. The trend these days is to measure per-capita waste production, which was 412 kilos per person/year in 2002 in the Capital Region when I wrote this piece and is now 348. Looked at another way, our population has increased by 25 per cent since 1990 but the waste we generate has decreased by 27 per cent. 

But while the dramatic forecasts of waste reduction may not have been borne out as quickly as expected, there are heartening signs that we're well on the way. We're generating less garbage and getting increasingly innovative about making use of what we've got. We're finally seeing our governments hold industries accountable for the waste their products create, which in turn builds markets for recycled commodities to help pay for the high cost of collecting them.

And while finding other uses for waste is still not as cheap in the short-term as throwing something away, the day when that may be so no longer seems quite so distant.

"Every year, Canada and the U.S. continue to capture more recyclables," says Jerry Powell, editor of the Oregon trade publication Resource Recycling. "We roared through the '90s catching the low-hanging fruit, and it's not going to be that easy anymore. But we're going to keep on growing."

The brewing industry was an early entry into recycling, having found during its infancy 150 years ago that it made economic sense to collect beer bottles for refilling. B.C. brewers followed suit in 1924 and continue to do so, encouraging participation by charging deposits and asking the province's 43 participating brewers to use a uniform style of bottle. The average bottle of B.C.-brewed beer is filled 15 times before it's retired.

Steel recycling caught on across the country during the Second World War, when the federal government was desperate for steel to make weapons. Motor oil, lead-acid batteries, paint and tires were banned from B.C. landfills several years ago, necessitating recycling industries around those products as well.

"Blue-box" goods -- plastics, tin cans, newspaper and office paper -- have been melted and pulped into new products for many years. But it wasn't until communities started collecting them in large amounts as part of recycling programs in the last decade that they came into their own as commodities on the world market.

The capital region launched its blue-box program in the late 1980s and now sells almost 16,000 tonnes of recyclables a year into the global market. More than three-quarters of British Columbians have access to a curbside recycling pickup, a major reason why the province generated 400,000 fewer tonnes of garbage in 2000 compared to a decade earlier, even while the population grew by 24 per cent.

In the early days of community recycling, the vision was of glass bottles turned back into glass bottles, of old newspapers pulped to become new ones. Waste would be eliminated and the environment spared; 20 recycled aluminum cans, as recycling advocates have noted, can be made new again using the same amount of electricity and water needed to make a single can from scratch.

But aluminum proved to be the exception, the only blue-box recyclable that pays for itself when collection costs are factored in. The reality for other blue-box commodities was more complex.

Reused newsprint doesn't have the same strength as "virgin" newsprint, making it an unpopular choice in large quantities for the high-speed presses of the newspaper industry. There also weren't enough de-inking plants in North America to handle the glut from the rapid expansion of community recycling in the 1990s, and markets are only now recovering.

Glass broke so often in the process of being collected that it was impossible to keep one colour of bottle separated from another, making it useless for future batches of bottles. Only domestic beer bottles, hand-sorted by colour by the brewing industry, return to use as bottles.

Plastic pop bottles were durable enough, but so cheap to make in the first place that the industry cared little about getting the old bottles back. Health laws in various locales often prohibit "post- consumer" plastics from being turned back into bottles anyway, unless it's certain that the consumer's mouth won't come into contact with the recycled material.

So while markets have developed as blue-box programs proliferated, the recycled use is almost always in something of lesser value. Newspapers become ingredients in cardboard. Glass is ground up for use in road aggregate and fibreglass. Plastic pop bottles are flaked and shipped primarily to China, to be turned into T-shirts, fleece jackets, sleeping-bag fill and carpet.

It was a harsh learning experience for many communities. Having envisaged a nice little nest egg from selling recyclables, they instead found themselves dealing with wildly fluctuating markets disconnected from the cost of collecting the goods.

In the capital region, costs have improved in the past two years since collection methods changed. Glass, metal and plastics are now sorted at recycling plants rather than curbside, making it easier for contractors to pick up more material on a single run and keep collection costs lower.

Even so, it still costs almost twice as much per tonne to run the region's blue-box program as it does to throw garbage in the landfill, $84.49 compared to $45.66. Of the almost $10 million spent last year on waste management (funded by the $75-a-tonne charge to dump at Hartland), $4 million of it went toward diverting recyclables. If profit were the measure of success, we'd be failing. **Update from CRD’s 2016 annual report, the most recent available: The region now spends $19.6 million on waste management, of which $6.1 million goes to fund recycling collection and another $3 million goes to other diversion efforts. It now costs $110 a tonne to dump waste at Hartland.

The goal, however, is garbage reduction, and on that count the program is working. The region has dumped less garbage into Hartland every year since the blue-box program began; last year's total, 135,000 tonnes, is the smallest amount generated since 1987, and less than half of the 300,000 tonnes that was expected to materialize by the early 1990s. **The amount of garbage going into the landfill got as low as 112,000 tonnes in 2015, but jumped to 133,000 the following year, mostly due to an increase in construction waste. There are no figures more recent than 2016 on the CRD website.

The landfill that was once forecast to be full by 2000 has at least 50 years left, and even more if a long-awaited composting facility finally gets built. That's good news in an era when building a new dump would cost tens of millions of dollars and almost certainly prompt a non-stop series of confrontations with unwilling neighbours, First Nations and environmentalists.

But if diversion rates are to hit the ambitious levels set in the years when Heal Lake could still call itself that, there's much work to be done.

“We haven't begun to scratch the surface of what we can do," said Prospect Lake resident Gary Moonie in the runup to the draining of Heal Lake, arguing for more aggressive recycling policies.

In fact, people in the capital region and across North America have proven resistant to recycling unless it's either very easy for them or worth their while, which is why areas with curbside pickup and bottle deposit programs have the highest recycling rates.

(In B.C., which has deposits on most beverage containers, three- quarters of all plastic pop bottles are returned for refunds. In the U.S., where only 10 states have deposit programs, barely a fifth of the 1.6 million tonnes of plastic bottles sold every year are returned.) **2016 figures: The US recycling rate for plastic bottles has inched up to 29 per cent.

So communities wanting to reduce their garbage stream face the challenge of keeping it easy -- curbside blue-box collection, numerous bottle depots -- without going broke paying for it.

Finding markets for recycled goods that will offset at least some of the high price of collection is critical. Glass has turned out to be the worst of the blue-box commodities, bulky to transport and worthless on the market.

"It's fused sand," says Resource Recycling's Powell. "There's no worth in that."

One industry insider says that if he was choosing, he'd grind up waste glass and dump it into the ocean, where he contends it would be virtually undetectable. Blue-box scroungers, who can be fined for stealing goods at curbside that rightly belong to the regional district, do the CRD a favour when they take glass, one staffer quietly admits.

Newsprint has held its own, although its price on the market has been as low as $5 a tonne at times in the past decade. Recycled aluminum can sell for as much as $2,000 a tonne; the Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat buys almost two-thirds of the 2.1 billion cans discarded in Canada every year. Cardboard is selling for $220 a tonne right now, a high.

Plastic, however, has been a disappointment. There's a hungry market out there willing to pay as much as $400 a tonne for pop-bottle plastic and HDPE, the heavier plastic used for shampoo and detergent bottles. And there's a load of plastic out there: Between 1995 and 2000, the amount of plastic beverage containers manufactured in the U.S. alone almost doubled to more than 600 billion.

**2018: Surprisingly little change in many of the prices for recycled goods. Here’s an estimate out of Alberta from June 2018. Aluminum cans now fetch considerably less than in 2002, with rates in the US just over $1,300 a tonne. Newspaper sometimes doesn't even reach $1 a tonne.

But many of those bottles were single-serving -- bottled water, in many cases. They were bought and consumed by people on the go, who threw them away instead of bringing them back home for recycling. As well, consumers are forgetting to recycle "household industrial" plastics, used as containers for things like hair products and cleaners.

The result: recycle rates of plastic beverage bottles in the U.S. fell to a low of 22.3 per cent in 2000, down from 40 per cent five years earlier. In B.C., the Recycling Council estimates that 87 per cent of the 7,000 tonnes of household industrial bottles we use every year end up landfilled.

The stats are less grim for B.C. pop bottles, as the province collects a deposit of five or 10 cents per bottle from consumers that's paid back upon return. The recycle rates last year of that type of plastic beverage bottle -- PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate -- were around 72 per cent.

But there's still more demand for used PET and HDPE than there is a ready supply, even while communities across the country lament the flow of plastics into their landfills.

"When the big overseas markets like China are buying, there's a tremendous volume accepted," says plastics broker Dave Smith, of Sarnia's Canadian Plastic Recycling Inc. "It competes with cotton, so when the cotton crop's bad, the demand for PET is big. I'd say the demand always exceeds the supply."

What's the solution? Recycling markets often need a push from government to establish themselves: the banning of a certain item from landfills; recycled-material quotas for producers; government- led purchases of new products made from recycled goods. Little of that has happened yet with plastic.

"Once government mandates that something is banned from a landfill, we have something to base our business on," says Doug Stevens of Metro Materials, the Victoria firm under contract with the CRD to process all blue-box items and ship them out for remanufacture.

His co-worker Matt Dupuis notes that "it's still cheaper to cut down trees" than to manufacture plastic two-by-fours.

"We may actually need artificial markets for a while, where a municipality commits to buying x-amount of plastic lumber for a building project, or to using plastic road dividers," says Dupuis. "If governments at various levels coordinated things like that, you'd start to see those costs go down."

Improving plastic recycling rates could reduce the cost of blue-box programs, but the biggest hope for shrinking the garbage stream lies in composting. Organics -- everything from restaurant waste to soiled disposable diapers -- account for about 38 per cent of the weight of all garbage in the capital region and other jurisdictions, the single-biggest source of waste. **Food waste has been prohibited in household garbage in the CRD since 2015 and has to be separated into a "green bin" for pickup. However, organics still account for 21 per cent of the waste stream as of the last study in 2016.

But only a few thousand tonnes of yard waste are diverted into composting at Hartland in any given year, and only two B.C. towns, Mission and Cobble Hill, have easy access to a compost facility for food waste. Interestingly enough, this is still true.  Since banning kitchen scraps in 2015, the CRD ships "green bin" waste to these two facilities.

The province and the region have talked about the need for composting for more than a decade, but the long-promised regulatory framework is only now being drafted. The considerable resistance of neighbourhoods fearful of smell and noise will no doubt hamper the search for a plant site for several more years.

Yet in areas where composting is already underway, the results are dramatic. The Cowichan Valley has seen its waste rates fall to among the lowest in the province since a privately run composting facility opened in the area two years ago, a situation admittedly helped along by the $125-a-tonne cost of shipping remaining garbage to Cache Creek after the town dump reached capacity around the same time.

Edmonton anticipates cutting its waste stream by 70 per cent at a new plant that makes topsoil out of organic garbage and sewage sludge. Nova Scotia banned organics from its landfills in 1998 and has cut its waste stream in half.

This month in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto, residents began separating their garbage into "wet" and "dry" at the curb in a pilot project that the city believes could end the need for a dump by 2010 if eventually expanded throughout Toronto.

"Because we haven't got our organics out, we're stuck at 41 per cent diversion," says CRD staffer Brenda Phillips, manager of environmental education. "And there are still a lot of regulations and land-use questions that will have to be addressed before a facility can open."

Ongoing involvement from all waste-generating industries is also essential in cutting the flow of garbage. Product stewardship -- the "cradle to grave" responsibility of an industry for its product -- has barely been tapped in B.C. The bottling industry leads the pack, having taken over the collection and recycling of beverage containers in B.C. through the Western Brewers' Association and four-year-old Encorp Pacific, a not- for-profit set up at specifically for the task.

Encorp even ended up with a $5 million surplus last year, albeit largely because of the $16 million worth of unredeemed deposit on containers that people threw away and another $12 million from non- refundable "recycling fees" consumers have paid on every beverage container since 1998. Encorp says the fees are necessary to cover the high recycling costs -- and poor markets -- for certain containers, and notes that all profits are put back into recycling efforts. Encorp's surplus was $7 million in 2017, $19.6 million of which came from unredeemed deposits. Read the annual report here

Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Gatorade have all recently given in to government and environmental pressure to begin using between 10 and 25 per cent recycled plastic in their new bottles. These beverage giants are now promising to use 100 per cent recycled materials by 2025 or so. 

But other stewardship programs could be started for any number of products, says a study done four months ago for the Liberal government. Belgium requires stewardship of beverage containers, disposable razors and cameras, pesticides, paper and cardboard, while Taiwan goes after the manufacturers of electronic appliances, computers and vehicles.

B.C. currently targets tires, oil, pharmaceuticals and lead-acid batteries as well as beverage containers, but the programs could all use a little work, the study notes. Electronics can now be dropped off for free at Return-It depots in BC. An environmental handling fee of anywhere from five cents to $10 has been added onto purchase prices of some of these items to cover the cost of recycling them. 

"Product stewardship in B.C. today does not appear to be the result of a disciplined strategy. Rather, it appears to be the result of a combination of history, politics, revenue opportunity, and ad hoc industry and ministry initiatives," says the report.

Such a hodge-podge can be unsatisfactory for both industry and consumers, the report's author notes, citing the example of the government collecting $4 million every year in "eco-fees" for disposing of lead-acid batteries when the actual cost is only $1 million.

Whatever the strategies, any endeavour to reduce waste will live or die on people's willingness to participate.

Garbage diversion rates are highest when people need only shuffle their blue box to the curb, but so are collection costs. A little extra effort from the populace to recycle goods that aren't accepted in the blue box would go a long way toward saving both money and waste.

As well, the litterbug generation that learned as children in the 1970s to put garbage in the trash now needs to teach a new generation to put it in the recycling box instead. The beverage containers with the worst return rates in B.C. are the 126 million drink boxes and "gable-tops" consumed every year, almost exclusively by school children. Almost 60 per cent continue to be thrown away. We're still throwing away 40 per cent of drink boxes in 2018.

Encorp communications manager Malcolm Harvey says education is essential. But so are blue boxes and drop-offs in as many locations as can be provided.

"The only thing that really makes recycling work is that people want to do it," says Harvey. "We just have to make it easy for them."


Did you know:

- Every tonne of recycled steel saves 1.4 tonnes of iron ore and 3.6 barrels of oil.

- Five plastic pop bottles are used to make one extra-large T- shirt.

- 55 million plastic bags are taken home by Canadians every week. Yikes, this has now increased to 2.86 billion bags.

- Six million tonnes of glass are thrown away in Canada annually.

- A tonne of recycled newspaper saves three cubic metres of landfill space and 17 trees.

- 35 two-litre plastic pop bottles make enough fibre fill for one sleeping bag.

Beyond the blue box: End uses of locally recycled goods

· Cardboard: Shipped to mills in Vancouver, Washington and Taiwan to be made into cardboard boxes, liners, and cereal boxes.

· Newspaper: Shipped to Vancouver, Oregon and Taiwan to be made into newsprint.

· Mixed Paper: Shipped to Vancouver, Washington and Taiwan for use in duroid shingles, packing material, corrugated cardboard liner and Gyproc paper.

· Tin: Shipped to tin and steel smelters to be remade into tin cans.

· Glass: Ground for use in road aggregate and highway marker beads.

· Plastics: Divided into one of seven categories and sent to Merlin Plastics in Vancouver to be pelletized, eventually shipped overseas for use in clothing, carpet, drainage pipe, car parts, polar fleece and more plastic containers.