Poor data and contamination challenge the paper recycling industry
There was an ad running on radio recently with kids asking a series of real simple questions like: If the Earth spins, why don’t we fall off? Why are snails slippery? What’s hail? What are stars made of? What’s with negative numbers?
Similarly, we thought we had a relatively simple question: How much paper is generated province by province, how much recovered, and how much ends up in landfill? This seemed straightforward enough, but the answers weren’t as easy as the those to the kids’ questions.
We started with Statistics Canada and its national surveys both of waste management service providers and municipalities (Waste Management Industry Survey: Business and Government Sectors or “WMIS”). The latest data is for 2004.
What we found raised major questions about the current data gathering process and methodologies used, especially as it relates to the industrial, commercial, and institutional (IC&I) sectors.
For example, according to WMIS, some 1.2 million tonnes of all types of paper was diverted from landfill in Ontario in 2004. However, if residential data gathered by Waste Diversion Ontario and Stewardship Ontario is in the ballpark (and we have a lot more confidence in the veracity of residential data because of the auditing and verification processes involved), this would mean that the whole IC&I sector diverted only 375,000 tonnes of corrugated and boxboard.
That just doesn’t make sense. We know of one large supermarket chain that diverts over 500,000 tonnes of OCC every year, just on its own! Clearly there is a huge leakage in data gathering methodology, and substantial under-reporting of IC&I diversion in particular. (We are not the first to comment on this. Rob Sinclair of NRCAN and Maria Kelleher both made similar statements back in 2006, but little seems to happen.)
What we really probably need is a national solid waste database, similar to (but possibly not as comprehensive as — nor as expensive to maintain) as the US EPA’s database on solid waste. Without that, provincial environmental policies are driving blind, especially for commercial waste. We can’t even tell you what the national recovery rate for paper packaging is any more. We could back when we had national packaging surveys (it was at 69 per cent in 1996) but you wouldn’t believe how quickly the $1 million set aside for the next survey disappeared when – oops! — Canadians actually met the 50 per cent national packaging diversion target ahead of time. Waste diversion, with its climate change implications, clearly needs a higher profile to attract federal taxpayers’ money.
But let’s not fool ourselves either, that diversion means recycling.
To some people, diversion itself has now become the mantra, the Holy Grail, just like the blue box became a symbol of feel-good environmentalism. Just throw it in the box: out-of-sight, out-of-mind (like landfills).
Diversion is a temporary state. A municipality may “divert” material from landfill and proudly claim it has performed “better” than another municipality; a provincial minister of the environment may trumpet the “success” of a particular “diversion” program or system, but has the material actually been recycled into something else, or has it just been passed on to the next player in the chain who has had to pay to landfill a portion of what’s been passed on because it’s unusable? Is this some sort of fake environmental shell game being played for its political optics?
The paper industry relies heavily on recycled fibre for its feedstock, so quality has always been important. A recent survey completed by PPEC and the Paper Recycling Association produced some disturbing information: the average newsprint recycling mill surveyed was sending about 9,000 tonnes of reject material on to landfill; containerboard mills were sending between 6,000 and 21,000 tonnes. The cost to the mills in downtime and repairs to equipment were $200,000 per newsprint mill and between $60,000 and $250,000 for the containerboard mills surveyed. Landfill fees for the rejected material averaged $536,000 for a newsprint mill and ranged from $167,000 up to a whopping $1.2 million for a containerboard mill. This is serious money when the mills themselves are in a deadly fight to survive as domestic and international suppliers and recyclers.
A high Canadian dollar, increased energy costs, and cheap competition (from companies that don’t have to meet Canadian labor and environmental standards) have led to mill closures, machine shutdowns and global rationalization by owners and shareholders. (See “MRF Optimization” article, page 34.)
More is coming. Further contamination of the fibre supply, and the political thrust to “divert more” (almost regardless of its impact on the quality of existing materials being recycled) is forcing the paper recycling industry to make some stark choices: to go high-tech with automated equipment to counter the cheap labor of its competitors for the fibre feedstock, or to just let the export markets handle the increasing contamination of the fibre supply.
Why bother? Why invest if the return is not going to be there? The industry is at a major crossroads!
John Mullinder is Executive Director of the Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC). Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org