Solid Waste & Recycling


Fun with Numbers (September 01, 1998)

Okay, kids, today's editorial is about "fun with numbers."You know what numbers are, don't you? They're those tricky little digits that make writing about curbside recycling so tremendously challengin...

Okay, kids, today’s editorial is about “fun with numbers.”

You know what numbers are, don’t you? They’re those tricky little digits that make writing about curbside recycling so tremendously challenging. To us non-experts, two plus two equals four. Simple, right? But, in the hands of an expert–particularly a waste management expert–they quickly add up to a pile of contradictions!

So, let’s not try and tackle inherently complex packaging waste issues today–things like volume versus weight or deposits versus curbside collection just make our heads hurt. Instead, let’s just have fun!

Here’s game number one. A press release states that, in the past year, more aluminum has been available for recycling in Ontario than in the previous year. Now, don’t think too hard about the fact that certain industries have a lot at stake in calming municipal fears of valuable aluminum pop cans being replaced by cheap PET plastic bottles. Let’s just think, “more aluminum entering the market, not less.” And more is better than less, right?

The press release neglects to mention that even more PET plastic beverage containers flooded the market in the same time period so that, as a percentage of containers sold, aluminum’s share actually declined. And this fact wasn’t lost on the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC). Even though more aluminum was “available” (technically) for recycling, a lot of people consume single-serve beverages in cans away from home. Translation? The AMRC’s members noticed more 2-litre PET bottles in the residential waste stream last year. But thinking about things like that is just no fun at all, so let’s move on!

Here’s game number two. Pretend it’s May, and you’re a staffer in the City of Toronto’s public works department. It comes to your attention (because you’re reading about it over your morning coffee on the front page of The Globe & Mail) that someone has leaked an internal spreadsheet which shows the breakdown of the city’s garbage and each material in its curbside recycling program: prices, tonnages, the works! And the news isn’t too good. Of the total 859,282 tonnes of residential garbage collected each year, the spreadsheet suggests that less than 15 per cent is diverted from landfill via the Blue Box.

The spreadsheet suggests that less than 40 per cent of PET plastic is captured in the Blue Box, and then only half of that is actually recycled. It’s just a technical glitch in the MRF that can be fixed, but isn’t it funny how no one was told before? Likewise, only 20 per cent of HDPE is diverted. The spreadsheet estimates that the 23 per cent of aluminum captured through curbside recycling (1,543 tonnes) generates a net profit to the system of $461 per tonne (Phew! That’s good!) But (uh oh!) the spreadsheet also shows that way more aluminum cans are sent to landfill (5,077 tonnes) at a cost of $238 per tonne which means that in Toronto, instead of subsidizing the waste system, the full impact of aluminum is that it costs taxpayers roughly half a million dollars. PET plastic collected for recycling is estimated to cost the system an amazing $929 per tonne. The spreadsheet suggests that PET recycling and landfilling incurs a net cost of $3.39-million. That indicates some kind of big loss, even if the PET estimates are drastically wrong.

As coffee streams out of your nose, you run to answer the questions of the municipal councilors. Now, it’s tough to remember you’re having “fun with numbers” when elected officials start asking difficult questions, but you do your best! One councilor notes that roughly half the city’s glass is collected for recycling. (So far, so good…this guy’s not known for being the “sharpest tool in the shed!”) But now the councilor asks you what actually happens to that recyclable glass. Oh dear! Confronted by that meddlesome little spoilsport–reality–you’re faced with some tough choices. Do you:

a) Admit that half the glass is used as “road bed aggregate?” (Though not a high-end use, this still sounds pretty good.)

b) After more questioning, admit that the particular road beds are located not under some fancy highway but in the local Keele Valley landfill? (Things are getting tense.)

c) After even more questioning, fess up that the “roads” will eventually be covered with garbage, but it’s still a form of waste diversion? (Ugh. Now the councilors are all laughing. Hopefully it’s just because they think you’re a funny guy.)

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you simply haven’t learned to have “fun with numbers” yet. Didn’t you ever learn about President Nixon’s really cool idea: plausible deniability? It’s something you can almost always find in municipal reports if you look hard enough. That spreadsheet was just made up of estimates, silly, and the revenues were averaged over five years! Never mind that a five year revenue average is prudent for planning purposes, given the historic highs and lows of recycled commodity prices. Do you think the media thinks of things like that? Get outa town!

Here’s game number three. (You’ll have to play this one at home, since we’re out of time.) Forget about the pesky bottles and that boring old spreadsheet! Through an iterative process, issue a request for proposal for a materials sorting plant for the City of Toronto. Since approval has been granted by the province for the Adam’s Mine landfill near Kirkland Lake, launch a new disposal RFP, too. While you’re at it, help your municipal council with its plans to place beverage containers on deposit. Mega-recycling! Mega-disposal! Mega-deposits! Sound contradictory? Don’t worry! This game isn’t about solving waste problems; it’s about “fun with numbers!”

Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. Send your letters to:


04 Solid Waste & RecyclingAugust/September 1998

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