Solid Waste & Recycling

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Taking on Packaging

It's said that the first "R" in the waste management hierarchy is "reduction" but few follow that thought with the starting point: packaging. In January 2001, when I first started my journey of solid ...


It’s said that the first “R” in the waste management hierarchy is “reduction” but few follow that thought with the starting point: packaging. In January 2001, when I first started my journey of solid waste discovery, one of the first fortunate things I read was Rubbish by William Rathje. If you have not already done so, I strongly suggest you read this entertaining and highly informative book.

Among several points the book brought into focus for me is that waste isn’t about tons or percentages but, instead, roughly 60 fairly simple categories of items. Understand waste composition and the solutions, as I like to say, fall like rain from the sky.

It’s actually quite simple.

Slightly more than 40 per cent of municipal solid waste is recyclable (e. g., wood fibres and containers made from glass, metal, or plastic). A very similar per centage is organic material (food scraps and leaf & yard waste). Therefore, 80 to 85 per cent of the waste stream is comprised of just these two recyclable or compostable material streams, that we discard each and every day.

It makes sense to start our waste reduction effort on the recyclable stream and, in particular, containers (more specifically: plastic containers). The public agrees. In the past 7.5 years I’ve never gone to a discussion on municipal waste where the issue of packaging has not arisen. Residents want action.

We could quite easily reduce the packaging portion of the waste stream, lower greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change. We would also save money. In his book The No Nonsense guide to Climate Change, author Dinyar Godrej reveals that the average American consumer pays $225 per year or four per cent of their total purchases for product packaging. Roughly calculated that’s over $400 in pre-tax Canadian dollars per consumer per year. Further, it’s said that landfills get fat, not heavy. The burying of bulky yet lightweight material wastes valuable landfill space.

Such appears to be the thinking of the City of Toronto, which recently held a Packaging Reduction Forum to gain stakeholder input. (See item, page 37). Yet when one see the city’s list of priority items, litter seems to be the main focus.

Toronto has targeted hot drink cups (why not cold as well?), single-use plastic bags (SUPBs) and take-out food containers. It appears to me at first blush that going after “in-store” packaging (i. e., filled at the store) instead of “factory” packaging (i. e., packaged at a central location), the city has missed the boat on one immense source of EPS packaging: meat/ vegetable trays and egg cartons. (See photos page 38.). (Not to mention the truckloads of EPS used for shipping TV’s and other items.)

The big problem that few people appear to understand is that plastics are derived from the “waste” by-products of the cracking of oil for gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel, etc. The reason we have so much plastic is because we’re cracking so much oil. The oil companies no doubt wish to keep this source of valuable revenue flowing.

Bags

On the issue of SUPBs, levies are in place in much of Europe and are gaining ground throughout other parts of the world, resulting in a signifi cant reduction in bag use. (See article, page 32.)

In North America progress is somewhat slower. While San Francisco and Oakland have bans, the City of Los Angeles recently voted only to ban plastic shopping bags (by 2010) if a statewide levy is not in place. LA staff estimate that the population of 3.85 million consumes 2.3 billion plastic bags per year. In Seattle, an eco-fee of 20 cents on both plastic and paper is going to a city -wide referendum after being opposed by the grocery industry and certain trade organizations.

Using the City of Toronto’s population of 2.45 million, it’s likely that residents consumer 1.5 billion bags annually (or over 400,000 bags per day). Returning to San Francisco, staff there recently calculated the cost to collect and process plastic bags at $4,000 per ton!

Interestingly, the lower price grocery chains in Ontario (No Frills, Price Chopper and Food Basics) all already charge five cents per bag. To extend this price to higher-end Loblaws, Sobey’s and IGA stores should not be difficult.

What else can be done? I personally don’t see many soccer moms purchasing 24-bottled-water skids, then driving down the road pitching the empties from their minivans. I can’t say the same for 25-year-old male construction workers on their lunch break. At the provincial level what’s needed is a deposit-refund system not so much for chains like Loblaws but more for the 7-11 type of store.

At the federal level the only hope we have against imports from overseas is Canada-wide regulations on packaging. The Sierra Club of Canada is one of the stakeholders in the current CCME work on EPR/ Packaging. What we would like to see is this: limits on the amount of packaging (the first R being reduction); standardization of packaging types (to facilitate recycling); the elimination of PVC and other toxins (the last things you want to burn) and, finally, maximum amount of recyclable content (to stimulate recycling markets).

Rod Muir is Waste Diversion Campaigner for Sierra Club Canada and founder of Waste Diversion Toronto in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Rod at rodmuir@sympatico.ca

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“I personally don’t see many soccer moms purchasing 24-bottled-water skids, then driving down the road pitching the empties from their minivans.”


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