Size and distance matter. Canada’s large size and population distribution have major implications for its ability to practice recycling in a sustainable manner. Canada doesn’t have Europe’s high population densities and short freight distances to end-markets. Recycling strategies, especially for the Prairies and Atlantic Canada, must reflect these realities.
This is why the paper industry did pioneering research in the early 1990s into the composting (rather than recycling) of waxed corrugated and old boxboard (OBB). It did not make environmental or economic sense in many places to collect and then truck these used materials hundreds of kilometres to recycling mills just so politicians could say that they were being recycled. There is a major infrastructural difference between Ontario, which has 21 paper recycling mills, and Saskatchewan, which has none. (It tends to limit what you can do!) Composting used or soiled paper materials is an option in other provinces and in many rural communities. Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia currently compost more OBB than they send for recycling.
Another option that PPEC explored many years ago (with Environment Canada and Industry Canada) is converting some of these “far from market” materials into cellulosic ethanol (an “environmentally friendly” alternative fuel).
Most Canadian trade is north/south rather than east/west, which means that in some cases US end-markets and US suppliers of used materials are more important than local (Canadian) end-markets and suppliers. The global trade in recyclable commodities really knows no borders, being driven by price, quality and freight distance. Currently, the Chinese market is hot. How long it will last is anybody’s guess.
There is a world beyond municipal borders (really!)
Much of the debate around recycling in Canada is municipal-centric, as if that’s the only recycling happening. Untrue. Recycling of used materials into paper products in Canada is now 200 years old; residential recycling is generally around 25 years old. And there’s a major difference in scale. Just one supermarket chain in Ontario, for example, recycles four times as many old corrugated boxes as all the municipalities of the province put together! (And OCC has a residential recovery rate of 72 per cent.)
Another example: Ontario households provide only 20 per cent of the used paper or “furnish” that Ontario paper recycling mills need to meet the demands of their regional, national and international customers. The other 80 per cent comes from industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) sources and/or is imported from the United States. Canadian mills, in fact, import 2.3 million tonnes of used paper or board from their southern neighbors each year because they can’t get enough from Canadian sources — and it’s likely they never will; there just aren’t enough Canadians to provide what’s needed to keep the mills going.
Municipal staff and politicians also need to understand that the paper industry does not control prices; these move according to global supply and demand, the current business cycle, and even the weather. Most paper materials are high in recycled content (paper packaging averages 57 per cent overall) and are worldwide commodities like wheat or barley. Quotations of spot market prices for residential materials across Canada therefore have to be treated with extreme caution; they don’t reflect long-term contracts and the minimum floor pricing that most recycling mills (or their agents) currently provide. In some cases, the ability to move recyclables to market (to avoid the cost of warehousing them) is a higher priority than the actual price received.
The cost of landfilling (whether zero or $5 a tonne or much higher) is also a determinant of economic recycling activity. Humans tend to react to financial incentives. Some provinces (such as Nova Scotia) have actively worked to both regionalize and to upgrade their landfills (effectively forcing the bad dumps to close and landfill fees to increase), thereby encouraging the recycling alternative.
Stewards ‘R’ Us
One could debate for hours the pros and cons of visible and invisible “stewardship” fees, levies or taxes. Yet the ultimate payer is the same (you and I) whether as municipal taxpayers or consumers or both. Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR is a wonderful academic theory, but in practice, in most Canadian provinces, it’s nothing more than a disguised tax or user fee. Governments do not have the guts to be honest with the people they supposedly represent.
Ontario Minister of Environment Leona Dombrowsky, for example, rarely misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of EPR. She has made statements that her government is “shifting (its) emphasis to ensure that good environmental players are rewarded and bad players penalized” and that “good performers will be rewarded with incentives while polluters will pay for their actions.”
The problem, where recycling is concerned, is that the blue box funding program she has endorsed does the exact opposite. The Ontario government doesn’t want the fees to be perceived as a tax so they have gerrymandered the fees to be so closely linked to the costs of managing recyclable materials that they actually penalize the increased diversion of those materials (a perversion of true EPR).
In the case of paper packaging, even if none is recovered from households it still attracts a “steward fee” of $63.67 a tonne (because it enters the residential marketplace). Recovering 60 per cent of that packaging, however (which is presumably a good thing and what the Waste Diversion Act says it’s promoting) bumps up the “stewardship fee” by 31 per cent to $83.45 a tonne. In other words, the formula penalizes those extra recovery efforts.
It’s similar for plastics packaging. What possible incentive is there for a plastics “steward” to recover more plastics when zero recovery costs only $31.40 a tonne compared to a $249.76 a tonne fee for 60 per cent recovery? What would you lobby for if you were a plastics steward?
Ontario is not the centre of the universe.
Ontario got into curbside collection some 20 years ago when the soft drink industry and retailers were faced with a provincial regulation mandating a minimum 30 per cent market share for refillable used beverage containers and a deposit/return system for the remainder. And we’re proud to acknowledge that the blue box has certainly worked for paper. Currently, some 61 per cent of paper materials are recovered from Ontario households (already meeting the minister’s 60 per cent diversion target for 2008) with paper mills providing 65 per cent of total blue box revenues to municipalities ($42 million in 2003).
But today’s blue box in Ontario ain’t what she used to be (i.e., what she was designed for). It doesn’t collect just five mandated materials anymore; it collects up to twenty four. And changes in collection methods over the years have meant that one of the originally mandated materials (glass) that used to go back into new glass containers pretty much doesn’t anymore. (Most is currently heading to landfill or to be made into road aggregate.)
Then there are the hugely different recovery rates between materials: 61 per cent for paper, but only 16 per cent for plastics. Some 75 per cent for old newspapers, but only 41 per cent for aluminum cans (yet both have been mandated for collection for 20 years). In other provinces, under deposit-refund schemes, the recovery rates for glass, PET plastic and aluminum cans are much, much higher. Why is that? What are the cost factors?
A system that rewards success
It was the paper industry that pioneered the “paper box” concept in Ontario back in 1994: a separate curbside box for all paper materials. By and large, most Ontario municipalities gradually adopted this approach (whether the paper box was green, black, gray or red). It is set out beside the blue box. So what are the economics of the blue box becoming
exclusively a paper box? Some 75 per cent of the blue box system is already paper material of one kind or another. What would happen to the other 25 per cent that’s not paper?
Are deposit-refund systems with depots or high-tech reverse-vending machines in retail parking lots the answer? We don’t know, but we’d like to find out. Throwing everything into the blue box just because it exists doesn’t seem very logical anymore. Innovation is needed to collect more materials and make the economics fair, in line with true EPR. It’s time to reconsider what the blue box does best and not just blindly accept Ontario’s status quo.
John Mullinder is executive director of PPEC (Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council) in Etobicoke, Ontario.