The City of Calgary, Alberta has been a bit anomalous in Canada in terms of how it collects recyclables. Most other major Canadian Cities use curbside collection systems, while Calgary uses a voluntary depot system. That’s about to change, as the city recently voted to adopt curbside recycling and organics collection after staff performed a “triple-bottom-line” analysis of various options.
The recycling concept isn’t new to Calgarians. Calgary citizens already participate in product stewardship programs for such things as used electronics, scrap tires, used oil, plastic milk jugs and milk cartons. They’ve recycled used beverage containers for decades via a return-to-depot system. But Calgary does differ from other major Canadian cities in how it collects residential recyclables.
Where other cities have used curbside collection for recyclables, Calgary uses what it calls a voluntary Community Recycling Depot (CRD) system. The current CRD system has operated since 1992, when it was selected by city council after an earlier pilot project compared drop-off depots to curbside collection. The depot system was less expensive, but over time achieved lower diversion rates compared to curbside. Currently Calgary’s residential diversion rate (using the CRD system) is about 15 per cent (32,000 tonnes). When other programs are added in, that number increases to 20 per cent. The cost to operate the program is approximately $4.8 million per year and the revenue received is about $2.3 million per year. It should be noted that unlike Ontario, Alberta municipalities do not receive 50 per cent of their program costs through a third-party funding model.
Curbside pilot project
Things changed on January 12, 2004, when the city council endorsed a new goal of 80 per cent waste diversion by the year 2020. This decision was the catalyst in deciding to revisit the potential impact of residential curbside recycling. To address this challenge, Calgary’s Department of Waste & Recycling Services prepared a curbside collection pilot proposal, which council approved.
The pilot project identified three residential areas in Calgary that represent relatively “typical” communities. They comprise roughly 2,000 households. For a one-year period commencing in the spring of 2004, city staff collected household recyclables at curbside in these areas. Collected items included newspapers, magazines, mixed paper, cardboard, metal cans, glass containers, plastic milk jugs, milk cartons and plastic bags. During the main growing season (May to October) organics (including food and vegetative yard wastes) were also collected. Pilot project participants were required to sort their recyclables into one of three different storage containers. A 65 gallon blue cart was used to collect paper products, a 65 gal green cart was used to collect organics, and a blue bag was used to collect the containers. A combined diversion rate of 39 per cent was achieved (21 per cent organics, 16 per cent paper and two per cent containers). Adding in the five per cent diversion from the other recycling programs gives a total of 44 per cent.
In the pilot project, staff also tested a variety of automated and semi-automated equipment, as well as a variety of storage containers. Because a tender process is required, specific companies can’t be named at this time, but the pilot worked very well, so Calgary will use a combination of fully automated side-loading trucks, semi-automated side-loading trucks, semi-automated rear loading trucks and rear loading split body trucks. There will be two 65 gal carts per household and blue bags for the containers.
A typical collection schedule will be as follows: organics in green cart collection every week during growing season (eight months). Garbage collection once a week year round in the split body truck along with recyclables (containers and paper on alternating weeks). The exact details of the processing infrastructure are yet to be determined but an industrial-scale composting facility and MRF will be required.
When the field operations portion of the pilot project was completed in May 2005, preparation of a summary report kicked into full gear.
The City of Calgary has developed an approach to decision making that integrates environmental, social and economic objectives. The idea is not to just look at costs in isolation from such ideas as the maintenance of a high standard of living, social harmony and environmental quality. In fact, in the fall of 2005, city council formally adopted a triple-bottom-line policy. This policy impacted the assessment of the recycling pilot program. Along with the traditional assessment of the results of the pilot (e.g., tonnage, operations issues, costs, etc.), city staff conducted a triple-bottom-line assessment. Waste and Recycling Services prepared four options that best represent the spectrum of choices for residential recycling. Option A is the least comprehensive and Option D is the most comprehensive. (See Table 1.)
“It is clear from our TBL analysis that if cost was the only consideration then we should continue using the depot system,” says Mike Saley, manager of strategic planning and diversion for the Waste & Recycling Services Department. “However, if other social and environmental factors are given similar weight to economic factors, then a change in direction is required. It’s very encouraging to see our city council not only support the concept of TBL thinking but actively act on it.”
All the options would advance recycling in Calgary; however, the impacts of each option vary. The goal was to select the option that best represents a balanced decision when considering social, economic and environmental factors. To help manage the triple-bottom-line assessment of the four options in Table 1, staff selected five primary factors for the three categories. These factors best represent the elements that influence the decisions on recycling programs. (See Table 2.) Those five primary factors are:
* Diversion Rate (Environmental Factor)
* Net CO2e benefit (Environmental Factor)
* Convenience (Social Factor)
* Participation Rate (Social Factor)
* Cost per Household per Month (Economic Factor)
Obviously, if the city only looked at cost, Option D would have been rejected, because it’s the most expensive, and Option B would have been accepted as the least expensive. However, by giving environmental, social and economic benefits equal consideration, Option D (full curbside recycling) is the preferred choice. It is the most expensive of the four options but results in the largest increase in residential diversion rates, participation in recycling, environmental benefit and convenience for citizens.
This approach to evaluating decisions that have environmental and social impacts could lead to different outcomes if adopted for a range of policies and issues in municipalities across Canada. In Calgary, implementation of curbside recycling and organics collection will start in 2009 and be completed by 2011 (i.e., one third of the city per year or approximately 100,000 single family households per year). The key elements that are being worked on between now and 2009 are the development of a sustainable funding model for the program, acquisition of collection carts and vehicles, route design, providing processing infrastructure (composting facilities and likely a MRF), and facilities operations contracts. It will be interesting to see how the program ultimately reaches its waste diversion goal, and how the curbside program impacts such items as recovery rates for used beverage containers collected on deposit, and landfill life.
To view tables in this story, click here.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine.