Our ancestors’ daily lives were guided by extensive mythologies; modern people have developed their own myths that, while not as profound, impact our lives in subtle ways.
We’ve all heard urban myths or legends at one point. A common source is the oral story-telling tradition of the schoolyard. Who can forget such favourites as the tale of the child who ate so many pop rock candies that he exploded, or the ubiquitous story of Mikey, the Cheerios’ ad boy, who met an unseemly demise?
I was recently confronted by an apparent urban myth. I was told that large amounts of the glass placed in recycling blue boxes are sent to landfill. Aware that even the Environmental Commissioner for Ontario had reported earlier that ground glass was making its way to Michigan landfills, I decided to conduct a brief investigation of the matter.
From calling around I learned that significant amounts of glass are actually recycled. One large instance had nothing to do with the blue box: beer. Given the monetary incentives, glass collected through bottle refunds such as those charged for Ontario beer bottles makes it back into the glass production system, and at a rate that exceeds that of the blue box.
This is why many people favour the deposit-refund systems for beverage containers that are in place in most Canadian provinces, including freedom-loving, market-oriented Alberta.
According to Stewardship Ontario (the body responsible for implementing the Blue Box Program Plan under the province’s Waste Diversion Act), 179,400 tonnes of glass was sold to Ontario households in 2002. Of that, approximately 106,100 tonnes (roughly 60 per cent) was recycled through the blue box program around the province. Of that total, 27,000 tonnes was made into new clear containers while 10,000 tonnes was made into green or brown containers. The remainder, approximately 69,100 tonnes by my calculation, was used for blasting media, water filtration, and for aggregate blends. To be sure, these last are “low-value” uses that don’t command significant market prices compared to higher values such as new glass containers.
Still, that’s 60 per cent that doesn’t go to landfill. (See Commodities Corner article, pg. 20.)
In Ontario, half the net cost of the blue box program is borne by the municipalities, the other half by industries (i.e., the “stewards”) whose materials are found in the box (e.g., plastic, aluminum, glass, etc.). Since it’s the organization mandated with funding half the net cost, it’s in the interest of Stewardship Ontario to find higher-value uses for glass. Revenue from the sale of glass collected via the blue box would be higher, and the net cost of the program would be lower.
Glass in the waste stream
My research led me to conclude that large amounts of bottles are not being deliberately taken out of blue box system and placed in the waste stream. That being said, a grey area remains for certain tonnages and it’s hard to tell whether they’re counted in the 60 per cent that’s recycled or the 40 per cent that’s disposed. In some places, blue box glass ends up in the landfill, but is still counted as “diversion.”
The story goes something like this: Adam Chamberlain and his wife place their empty wine and other bottles in the blue box, then head off for work. The City of Toronto collection crew comes by and dumps them along with the rest of the blue box contents into the truck where many are broken, crushed and commingled with other recyclables (that are now contaminated). The bottles that do not break (especially the clear ones) may potentially be used to produce new clear glass containers. The broken bottles — and some of the coloured glass — have a different fate.
Leaving my cozy downtown street, the broken/coloured glass is taken to a plant where it’s sorted for use as part of an aggregate blend. This aggregate blend is then taken and used by a road-building company. Okay, this is low value, but better than landfilling, right? However, some of the roads don’t pass through the quaint community from which the bottle originated but rather, in certain cases, are built in the landfill. This is counted as “diversion,” since the glass offsets other aggregate that would otherwise have to be brought into the landfill.
As they fill up, landfills require many such roads that are built and then covered over. To some people’s minds, this is hardly “diversion from landfill.”
Moral of the story
Many myths and legends have a moral lesson. I’m not sure what the moral of this story really is. It appears that more glass than I’d been told is recycled. But the interesting question is whether glass used as aggregate for road building in a landfill is diversion? It’s difficult to know for sure how much glass meets this fate.
In any case, for the blue box program to function economically, Stewardship Ontario must find higher-value end-uses for the glass and refine the foggy data. I’ve heard that some companies may soon announce new facilities in Ontario that will use high-tech equipment to sort more glass (even broken) by colour and so recycle more glass for higher-value uses.
Let’s hope that such facilities are a cost effective reality and not another urban myth.
Adam Chamberlain, LL.B. is with Power Budd, the Canadian affiliate of Cameron McKenna, an international law and consulting firm. Adam sits on the board of directors of the Ontario Waste Management Association. E-mail Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org