Solid Waste & Recycling

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Brave New World

It's ironic that private industry, in seeking to externalize the cost of its products and packaging onto ratepayers (and the environment) turned to a central-planning model represented by the blue box...


It’s ironic that private industry, in seeking to externalize the cost of its products and packaging onto ratepayers (and the environment) turned to a central-planning model represented by the blue box as its solution. Now that the limits of this solution are becoming evident, industry will no doubt complain if it’s forced to re-internalize certain costs. However, an EPR economy doesn’t have to be a return to the Stone Age. Perhaps it would look like the society of our grandparents, with a modern technological twist. Think “steam punk” here — you know, the kind of Neo-Victorian trend that’s popped up recently and was celebrated in the film The Golden Compass. (If you didn’t see it, it marries things like dirigibles and Victorian clothing with iPod-era gadgetry. Who says a sustainable economy can’t look cool?) Here are a few ideas of what might occur in the society envisioned in the discussion paper Toward a Zero Waste Future.

Disposal bans: No good will come from making industry 100 per cent responsible for end-of-life management of product and packaging waste if the option exists to simply cart it to a landfill or waste-to-energy incineration plant. Ontario’s declining permitted landfill space is no secret, and has been described in painful detail in this very magazine. The situation will become more dire with closure of the US border to waste export. Any serious reduction in waste will help.

Zero Waste poses more of a challenge to incineration proponents; any municipality seriously considering construction of a large purpose-built waste incinerator must now consider that the anticipated waste fuel may decline precipitously during the operating lifespan of the project. Environmentalists certainly hope so. Ontario is in a policy quandary on this at the moment. The Liberal government made an election pledge to close the province’s old coal-fired power plants and has been scrambling to find replacement sources of “calories” for the grid ever since, including “green energy” from wind farms, heat exchange systems and waste-to-energy projects. If the government goes full tilt with waste reduction, WTE megaprojects may not be viable, but (to be non-ideological) thermal applications may be appropriate for certain niche applications (e. g., autoclave for medical waste, cement kilns or gasifiers for certain wastes).

Simply put, there wouldn’t be a lot of landfills or incinerators in a Zero Waste society, but there would be lots of recycling and composting plants (or a few large ones).

Government procurement: After years of talking about it, it’s ridiculous how little the government (at all levels) has done to implement green procurement policies. Consultants have identified numerous significant opportunities for the government (a huge buyer) to “lead by example” and reduce waste and duplication, reuse items and buy recycled products, and require high post-consumer recycled content in office paper and countless other materials. A sustainable Ontario government would stop talking and take action on this.

Materials regulated by application: Ontario could establish a formal policy task force to link with British Columbia and emulate the approach taken there, which regulates waste diversion by application rather than simply by material. For example, BC is establishing a product stewardship program for used detergent containers. This has the advantage that the government can work with one industry group led by a small number of companies whose packaging constitutes the vast majority of waste materials in that sector. The packages generally use the same kind of plastic resin. In this instance, having the detergent companies design and implement a product stewardship program for their containers makes more sense than, say, implementing product stewardship broadly for a particular kind of plastic. Ontario and BC (and other provinces such as Nova Scotia and Quebec) could cooperate in rolling out a series of programs to deal with various materials/applications, and this would benefit brand owners who sell their products nationally. It’s difficult to imagine “laggard” provinces not following suit once such programs are established. Perhaps the fast food industry could be next? Or pharmaceuticals?

Market-based systems: The government could establish an authority in the province similar to the Dualles system in Germany. At the recent AMRC fall conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, consultant Usman Valiante (a contributing editor to this magazine) outlined a well-received scheme in which Stewardship Ontario would be tasked with responsibility for the materials managed in the blue box. Something like this makes sense, given the “bench strength” within Stewardship Ontario in understanding waste and recycling issues. No doubt various safeguards would have to be put in place to make sure that anti-competitive “combines”-type activities do not occur or become institutionalized. In a sustainable economy, government would eschew central planning and command-and-control legislation and (alongside a clear set of rules) let the market figure out the most eco-efficient ways to achieve “clean production” and closed-loop systems. Call it “the free market” meets “industrial ecology.”

Alternative distribution systems: It wasn’t long ago when people’s milk was delivered door-to-door in glass bottles. They took refillable soft drink containers back to the store to recover their deposit. Although the containers might be made from new-age plastics (and the deposits would be adjusted higher for inflation), a sustainable future would likely see the return of these kinds of distribution and container recovery systems. This might not benefit the market share of the major soft drink brands and their central filling and distribution hubs, but it would certainly be a boost to any number of small “mom and pop” producers who could compete in smaller localize markets (where recovering one’s bottle “float” is paramount.) Or perhaps the free market would favour the major soft drink brands. (Coca-Cola won major market share in Germany by being the first to build a high-tech system for refillable PET containers once it realized the government was serious.) We needn’t be concerned with who the winners and losers will be in the new economy — only that pollution is prevented and subsidies are ended (including the municipal subsidy wherein local governments cart away the growing mountain of stuff foisted on consumers).

Retooled waste jobs: The job of “sanitation engineer” was invented in the era when waste haulage was a matter of public hygiene and cholera epidemics rampaged in crowded inner cities. While today’s waste managers might fear unemployment in a Zero Waste economy, they should consider the boom in alternative next-generation jobs that will spring up when industry has to redesign its systems to eliminate waste, and recycle the tons and tons of material it currently ships to landfill at relatively low cost. Like the workers in smokestack industries who traded in their shovels for laptops, savvy haulers and waste processors will re-envision their jobs for the high-tech future (heck, with its optical sorters and star screen filters, the waste industry is already high tech!).

Perhaps the “garbage truck” of the future will look more like a courier taxi of today.


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