Our annual online survey confirmed many of our suspicions about what readers think, and offered a few surprises. Even allowing for the fact that a few of our questions were a bit leading (as one reader noted), it’s useful to discover there are quite a few issues about which waste management people (and some of their customers) are in almost total agreement. Even the areas of mixed opinion are interesting.
The results should be of interest to anyone active in the municipal waste management, recycling and composting business, as well as people in the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) sectors with an interest in waste management, diversion and so on. The survey distills the opinions of more than 200 people (an excellent response rate, by the way), with slightly more than half of them from the IC&I sector.
We’d like to again thank our co-sponsors — the Municipal Waste Integration Network (mwin) — for helping with this project and the development of questions. And we’d like to thank our iPod prize sponsors R.J. Burnside. (See announcement about winners in the Up Front section, pages 6-7.)
Our first batch of questions was targeted at municipal readers and concerned waste diversion, but also included the IC&I perspective. We asked readers if their local municipality or organization is formally committed to diverting 50 per cent or more of the waste stream from landfill. Roughly three quarters of you (73%) said yes, and just 23% said no. Fewer people thought the 50 per cent diversion goal would be achieved soon, with 59% feeling optimistic, and 41% thinking the goal is still far off.
We were interested to learn that more than half of you (52%) have adequate local landfill and other disposal capacity, with 48% saying they do not. Digging further into how to preserve landfill capacity, we found that three quarters of survey respondents (75%) support landfill bans for recyclable materials like paper, glass and certain plastics. The feeling was the same (74%) about keeping plastic shopping bags out of the waste stream by slapping a small charge to them in grocery stores (as they did in Ireland). This was an interesting finding.
We asked who should administer and who should deliver municipal waste services. A very high 80% of you agreed you’d like to see the system administered by the government, but would like strong competition between public and private entities for the provision of the services.
We got an interesting response to our question about a possible closure of the U.S. border to Canadian waste exports. If the border closed, 81% of you said it would be a good thing, because it would force the development of domestic treatment and disposal options. Only 19% said it would be an unacceptable violation of U.S.-Canada free trade agreements against which we should potentially retaliate with sanctions.
Who pays for what
The result was mixed with our suggestion that the municipal waste authority should adopt a user-pay “Bag Tag” or similar system to charge for each garbage bag set out at curbside in order to encourage waste reduction and recycling/composting. A thin majority (54%) agreed with this idea, although a further 18% already have this in place, so the majority (72%) isn’t really so thin. 28% disagreed with this idea. The breakdown was similar for bag limits, with three quarters of you agreeing there should be a strict limit on how many bags or containers people are allowed to set out; opinion varied on how many. In a user-pay system, 44% of you thought the weekly bag limit should be two bags, 32% of you thought it should be just one bag, and 24% felt that three bags are okay.
Used beverage containers
There’s no doubt about it, you are in favor of deposit-refund systems for used beverage containers (UBCs). 71% agreed with the statement that “used beverage containers for soft drinks should be collected and recycled primarily through a deposit/refund system (return to depot), not curbside collection. About the same (73%) agreed with this for glass UBCs, and milk containers. (40% strongly agree and 32% somewhat agree.)
We asked you if making soft-drink cans from aluminum with its large “environmental footprint” (bauxite mining, energy and emissions from smelting) is an acceptable trade-off if it boosts the revenues of curbside recycling programs. Only a few thought it was “highly acceptable” (13%). The largest number (43%) said it was “somewhat acceptable.” The ones who consider the trade-off either “somewhat unacceptable” or “totally unacceptable” stand at 25% and 19% respectively. Clearly, a lot of waste managers want that aluminum revenue, yet a sizeable number are uncomfortable about it.
IWM and implementation
Our survey explored attitudes toward how programs should be implemented. One offbeat question we asked was whether or not clear garbage bags should be used to assist enforcement of what’s allowed for recycling/disposal. Interestingly, 70 per cent of respondents said yes. Program designers take note!
One of the most overwhelming positive responses we measured was in response to this statement: “I support an Integrated Waste Management approach that examines jurisdictional waste treatment needs based on economic, environmental and social sustainability (a holistic view of waste management) and not any preconceived treatment strategies such as divert as much as you can first.” 46% strongly agreed with this and 43% simply agreed, for an 89% “yes.” Only 8% disagreed and just 3% strongly disagreed. It looks like people want a balanced approach, not arbitrary diversion goals.
When we asked readers if solid waste services should be removed from the property tax base and funded as a separate utility via service fees, the breakdown was this: strongly agree (29%); agree (37%); disagree (23%); and strongly disagree (12%). There’s clearly an appetite for the utility model, but the mixed results suggest opinions vary, in part (we guess) because of according to local circumstances. We phrased the same question a bit differently in question 19 and got roughly the same answer: 25%, 45%, 22% and 8% respectively.
The environmental assessment and approvals process has been a hot-button issue in recent years, especially in Ontario where many projects are hung up. We asked readers if the government should allow proponents of waste processing and disposal undertakings to proceed as long as they can demonstrate compliance with environmental regulations and standards and local bylaws. In other words, the “need” for the project should simply be a risk assumed by the proponent, not something they have to prove before being allowed to go ahead. 78% of respondents agreed (34% strongly, 44% just agreeing). Just 17% disagreed, and only 5% disagreed strongly. Hopefully the government will pay attention to this discovery.
Having found some support for a utility model for waste management and a more straight forward approvals process, it was interesting to also find overwhelming support (83%) for the idea that waste management facilities like recycling operations, modern waste-to-energy plants and landfills are “just another form of infrastructure like roads, power plants and sewage treatment facilities” and that the ministries that govern such infrastructure should be in charge of approvals. In other words, waste infrastructure should not be the purview of environment ministries, which should more or less “stick with their knitting” (i.e., pollution prevention and control). This is a significant bit of opinion measurement.
We pursued this topic further and asked if we have fallen behind in making adequate investments in waste treatment and disposal infrastructure. A loaded question, admittedly, and 91% of respondents agreed. An astonishing 96% (one of our highest numbers) agreed that waste management facilities should be highlighted as “critical infrastructure” in all p
rovincial planning processes.
Opinion was evenly divided over whether or not the federal government should play a much larger role in setting waste management policy. 54% agreed and 46% disagreed. We asked readers to rate the Canadian Council for Ministers of the Environment (CCME) in terms of its performance addressing solid waste issues (e.g., harmonization of standards). The folks at the CCME should make note that only 1% of waste management professionals rate the organization’s performance as “excellent.” 34% rate the CCME as “satisfactory” but the majority (53%) rate it as “unsatisfactory” or even “completely inadequate (12%).
Composting, waste-to-energy and innovation
In 2005 we noticed that organics diversion and composting emerged as a major trend. With Toronto and some other cities adopting source-separated organics (SSO), it could even be named the “story of the year.” Not surprisingly, 75% of you believe every urban jurisdiction should implement source-separated organics (SSO) collection and composting programs for residents. 68% of respondents support the use of the CCME Class B guidelines to allow the sale of compost from mixed waste processing or from a “dirty” multi-family SSO stream.
Although organics diversion will persist, we think the “story of the year” for 2006 might be the re-emergence of waste-to-energy as an option, especially in IWM schemes. In our open answers section, you told us this again and again. 55% of respondents “strongly agree” and 35% “somewhat agree” (for a 90% total) with waste-to-energy as a treatment/disposal option (assuming most organics and recyclable materials are diverted first, and assuming the latest pollution control technology is employed). Only 2% strongly disagree.
We wanted readers to look beyond straight incineration and consider other systems that utilize waste-to-energy (e.g., methane). Our survey stated that California has embraced the concept of “biomass” that views energy recovered from solid waste as a “renewable resource” and therefore positive. Respondents replied that Canadian jurisdictions should more or less adopt California’s approach (68%) or at least adopt California’s approach for such things as energy from methane/composting, but not conventional waste-to-energy (25%). Only 7% of you said we should reject the concept that waste is a renewable resource.
In fact, respondents overwhelmingly support the idea (97% — a very high number) that government energy policy should recognize the potential contribution of waste management facilities in generating renewable or “green” energy (e.g. methane from landfills or in-vessel composting waste-to-energy plants). You can draw your own conclusions, but we think our data suggests that politicians could turn this into a winning issue.
Despite interest in alternative systems, most respondents rate their municipal government’s efforts to encourage the testing and adoption of innovative technologies for waste disposal either “medium” (45%) or “poorly” (44%). Only 11% scored “highly.” Interestingly, respondents rate the provincial level much worse on this subject: 60% “poorly,” 37% “medium” and just 2% “highly.”
We asked you what sort of system should be used to manage electronics waste (“e-waste”). 65% agreed that manufacturers and brand owners/first importers should directly fund the management of their e-waste themselves or through contractors, with no industry organization setting a fee and/or handling the material. That’s an interesting result. Only 35% agreed that e-waste should be recycled through an “industry stewardship/funding organization that sets fees and approves contractors to do the work.”
We asked you about the visibility of fees. Some replied that product stewardship programs should display a stewardship fee at the cash register (58%). Only 6% agreed that fees should be “hidden.” Yet 37% agreed the programs should have no explicit fees (i.e. to encourage the producer to internalize costs). Interesting.
The statement “my province/territory needs to invest in anti-litter campaign” was almost a no-brainer: 84% agreed, 16% disagreed.
Our survey concluded with a range of other questions, some of which we asked on behalf of our co-sponsoring association — the Municipal Waste Integration Network (mwin), and some of which were internal questions pertaining to what people like or dislike about our magazine and website. We don’t have space to report the full results here, especially because some were open questions where respondents could write at length. But a few highlights are worth mentioning.
A majority of you (to oversimplify the data breakdown) would like your trade associations to focus their lobby efforts on product stewardship/EPR, deposit-refund systems for beverage containers, EA reform and compost standards. Executive directors will be pleased to learn that 68% of respondents feel their trade association(s) are doing at least a satisfactory job representing their interests to government.
In terms of our magazine, 70% of you pass along to at least one co-worker or more after reading your copy, so our actual readership could easily be double or triple what’s reported in our media kit and audited circulation statements. You read most of what we publish, and score most of the contents highly. You indicated you’d like to see more coverage of certain topics, including waste-to-energy, and more coverage of rural issues, and issues outside Ontario (all of which we will certainly do). Many of your comments will help us tweak the magazine and website, and improve our services to you.
Advertisers should note that 82% of you said the advertising you encounter in our magazine helps you learn about and select waste management products and services. And 77% of you are people upon whom your organization relies when formulating decisions about what waste management products and services to buy. (Our publisher Brad O’Brien was pleased with these numbers!)
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine.