Ontarians need to know the truth about their popular Blue Box system. Yes, it did win a United Nations award (decades ago) and it continues to divert a lot of material (mostly paper of one kind or another) from landfill. We can all pat ourselves on the back for this collective effort over many years.
The problem is that we think dear old Blue is doing far better than it actually is. Because of the way we measure success.
There’s a huge difference between what the province holds out as a “waste diversion” target (say 80% to be achieved some time in the future); with what’s collected from households and sent on for recycling (60%); and with what actually ends up in a new product (just over 30%). These are three entirely different ways of measuring performance.
And we tend to speak only about the first two, which are higher and make us feel better, and not about the third, which is a lot lower, and a truer measure of what’s really going on. The fact that most of us know very little about the technical difficulties involved in turning used products into new products (remanufacturing) doesn’t help.
When you look at the numbers, the major problem with Ontario’s Blue Box system is glaringly obvious: it doesn’t capture enough printed paper or packaging. Only 60% of the Blue Box material that ends up in Ontario homes is collected and sent on for recycling. This means that right from the start some 40% automatically goes to trash, and is lost forever. Much (but not all) of this trashed material is perfectly recyclable. It’s printing and writing paper, cereal boxes, milk and juice cartons, plastic bottles, steel paint cans, aluminum foil. All these materials are recyclable.
While throwing everything together into one container (called commingling or single stream) certainly does have some advantages (it’s easy for the householder and lowers collection costs), it has unfortunately turned us all into lazy participants where we now throw everything together and let someone else sort it out. Sure, it is convenient. But it makes it easier to lose sight of the fact that recycling is a remanufacturing process: that contamination, yield losses, and residue go hand-in-hand with making almost anything.
The consumer’s simple flick of the wrist determines whether something ends up in the recycling bin or in the trash. And without consumers wanting to make the effort, recycling just won’t happen. Smart and targeted consumer education to reduce the 40% we ditch up front, is vital.
Processing and yield losses
That’s not all, though. The initial flick of the wrist towards the recycling bin is only the beginning of a long journey towards successful recycling. Removing stuff that shouldn’t be there in the first place (like shoes, umbrellas, and sports equipment) is followed by further processing that’s required for a material to meet the specifications of the marketplace.
Paper mills, for example, don’t like plastic mixed with their paper. And plastic plants don’t like paper labels or other paper mixed with their plastics. No one (including glass recyclers) wants crushed glass. It’s even more specific than that. While a paper mill that recycles old boxes can tolerate a certain tonnage of old newspapers in its production process, a mill recycling old newspapers doesn’t want any old boxes or cartons, thank you very much. It all depends on what type of new end-product the paper mill is making.
Another feature, specific to paper, is what’s called shrink. When paper fibres get wet in the repulping process they shrink by as much as 10%, so for every 10 tonnes of used paper that comes in the door for recycling maybe only 90% is incorporated into a new paper product leaving the mill.
Other materials have even higher yield losses. You can chop maybe 30% off the reported polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle “recovery” rates since PET yields range, at best, between 60 and 70%. That means PET recyclers have to manage 100 tonnes of material to yield only 60 to 70 tonnes of usable product. This is one reason why recycling plastics is more expensive than using virgin plastics.
And any coloured glass in a flint (clear) glass operation will ruin the whole batch. Normally coloured glass is separated using optical sorters at a material recovery facility (MRF) or at the glass plant. Mixed coloured glass by itself is not necessarily an issue as long as the glass is not so crushed that the optical sorters can’t differentiate between the materials.
These few examples illustrate why contamination and the supply of clean material to end-markets are such big issues, especially since several Asian countries have tightened up their waste material import rules.
When you put it all together, yield losses at paper recycling mills can be as high as 35% and at plastic facilities, 50%. Together, paper and plastic represent a significant portion of all Blue Box materials sent for recycling, so 25% is assumed to be a reasonable average yield loss for the Blue Box as a whole.
One-third makes it into a new product
When you add that 25% to the 40% of Blue Box material that Ontario householders already send to garbage instead of recycling, you have a whopping 65% that’s trashed. That means that only about a third of the Blue Box material that ends up in the home actually makes it into a new product.
The general public is not aware of this. Politicians prefer to talk about “diversion” rates, with a keen eye to announcing targets that are higher than the previous administration or a neighbouring jurisdiction. Ontario, for example, has an unofficial Blue Box “diversion” target of between 75 and 80% with more official (and sometimes higher) targets for specific materials. Then there are the reported “recovery” rates (meaning what was sent on to the end-markets). The Blue Box is currently reporting a 60% “recovery” rate.
But the “real recycling rates” (what actually gets recycled into a new product) are far lower, between 32 and 35 per cent. There’s a political conundrum here. Do you pursue and report on real Blue Box recycling rates (say 35%) with all the bad and ignorant press that comes with that knowledge? Or do you continue to promote higher and higher “diversion” targets because people “love their Blue Boxes” and you want them to feel better about “doing something” for the environment?
This is where what you measure, and how you measure it, feeds into the choices that governments make, and what they tell the public. The current ambiguity and confusion over “diversion,” “recovery,” and “recycling” rates opens the door to the telling of many little (and not so little) green lies. Ontarians deserve to know the truth.
This is an excerpt adapted from John Mullinder’s book Little Green Lies and Other BS (From “Ancient” Forests to “Zero” Waste).