Opinion

Our new information system and other news

by Guy Crittenden

I thought readers would be interested to learn that I spent much of yesterday in a meeting with the IT people at our company -- and other editors of our company's environmental products -- to develop a common terminology for how we editors encode articles and news items (to make them fully searchable across different products and websites offered by our company). I'll spare you the technical details, but what this means to you, as industry people and readers -- is that in the near future, when you visit our website, or when you subscribe to our "topic alerts," even more information will be available to you. Furthermore, you'll have the option of subscribing to a new EcoLog website that will be announced soon, that will provide "one-stop shopping" for all your environmental information needs, including legislation updates and news on all kinds of environmental topics. I'll update you about this interesting project as it unfolds. I also met with our publisher and our IT department about some soon-to-be announced modifications to our website, that will include new offerings, some of which will be free and others that will be paid services (via an online "shopping cart"). My goal is that over time everyone working in the solid waste and recycling business in Canada will visit our website regularly (even daily!) because of the robust content available here, and only here, and subscribe to our unique web-based services. On another note, I received an email today from Rod Muir, founder of "Waste Diversion Canada." Rod asked me to post a web link to a website where a conference presentation he gave on waste and climate change is posted. You can click there and view or dowload the presentation in different formats. Please find the link below.

A change of pace

by Guy Crittenden

Just for fun I'd thought I'd liven things up today by sharing with you all a copy of my sister Danielle Crittenden's blog entry from today. She's something of a political pundit who lives in Washington and is a regular contributor to the well-known website and blog, The Huffington Post. I've pasted her hilarious entry below, but you can see all the blogs there at Visit http://www.huffingtonpost.com/theblog/ Her blog entry is a send-up of what we might find if we eavesdropped into a secret internet chat room discussion hosted inside the White House. What does this have to do with waste management? Well, nothing really, but we can have some fun here. I chose this entry because it pokes some fun at the Canadian scene and the recent federal election outcome. Which is also the topic of our new Speakers Corner survey (see the blue box on our home page). Does that count as a tie-in? Hope so! Now, enjoy...

New Year's predictions

by Guy Crittenden

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: