Blue box curbside recycling programs are about 30 years old now. Widely embraced by the public, the blue box was a game changer that increased people’s awareness of environmental issues and gave them a convenient way to do something positive. But today the beloved blue box is the catalyst for an economic issue about which many people are oblivious.
While it’s been part of the daily routine for a generation of consumers, and curbside recycling programs exist in most North American communities, the eventual fate of the materials collected via the blue box and the prices paid for those commodities is largely unknown to the residents who dutifully sorting their waste each week.
The issue of concern relates to missed opportunities to create “value-added” products and local markets from recycled materials, rather than simply ship them as raw materials to developing countries, as is increasingly occurring. (See Cover Story on recycled paper exports, page 8.) As the mix of materials placed in the blue box changes, and especially as plastic packaging increases, new end-uses for those materials is critical for the program’s future success.
Blue box programs typically cover a wide range of materials, including newspapers, cardboard, plastic and metal beverage containers, detergent bottles, food cans and a host of other packaging types. Even packaging once considered “unrecyclable” (like juice boxes) is accepted in many programs and successfully recycled. (For consumers, acceptance in the blue box is perhaps the main measure of a package’s environmentally friendliness, regardless of its overall environmental or carbon “footprint.”)
The visible components of the system for residents/consumers relate to the collection side, where municipalities arrange for the pick-up of materials via a system that’s municipally owned and operated, or in which collection is contracted out. Residents normally don’t see the inside of transfer stations or material recovery facilities (MRFs). And they certainly don’t see the places to which the sorted and baled materials are shipped, usually at the direction of brokers.
The blue box is often referred to as a “basket of goods” in which money earned from the sale of higher-value recovered materials like aluminum cans offsets losses from the sale of less valuable materials. (We must remember that, in the end, even a commodity that sells for very little may still be worth recycling if it avoids disposal fees at a landfill or incinerator, and preserves valuable landfill space.) Programs have worked best in the case of easy-to-recycle items like fibre, used beverage containers and soap bottles. However, the mix of what’s placed in blue box bins and carts is changing, in ways that may make the programs more costly. The use of certain kinds of plastic is increasing, while printed newspaper (for instance) is going down. The future mix of materials may not bode well for blue box economics.
One organization that recognizes and is concerned about these risks is Stewardship Ontario (SO), the industry funding organization (IFO) that represents the various stakeholders who fund the province’s blue box program.
“We’ve been talking about these trends with municipalities, waste management companies and entrepreneurs,” says SO’s Vice President Lyle Clarke. “We’re trying to get everyone to recognize that successfully recycling plastic packaging is critical to the future success of the blue box.”
Clarke says that recycling this material is both practical and economical, if managed correctly, and that SO has invested millions of dollars in innovative new processes that are today turning once hard-to-recycle plastics into new consumer products.
“We’ve barely touched the business opportunities that recycling has to offer,” says Clarke.
Demand (and prices) for polymers of all kinds is rising, and will remain high as long as oil prices stay up. You’d think high prices for recycled plastic would be a godsend for the blue box; unfortunately, offshore buyers are scooping up as much of the material as they can get their hands on and domestic producers are experiencing difficulty securing supply – at any price. Municipalities that pressured Stewardship Ontario to create markets for plastics shrug their shoulders and claim they’re simply selling to the highest bidder.
This short-term thinking could prevent a sustainable new industry from developing. Offshore buyers aren’t stupid; they see the value in this material and are no doubt using it in consumer products that eventually get shipped back here. Ironically, ratepayers and companies that fund the blue box locally are inadvertently subsidizing the raw material costs of foreign competitors.
Is that what we want?
A tremendous opportunity is being missed to create wealth and jobs locally when we export materials and jobs to the developing world. Instead, we must create added-value products in Canada and support a sustainable local market for recycled commodities. Recycling is not about “garbage men”; instead, it’s a knowledge-based industry that will help drive the green economy, if we pay attention.
James Sbrolla is Chairman of Environmental Business Consultants and Entrepreneur in Residence in the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation’s Business Accelerator Program. Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org