Solid Waste & Recycling

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We Can Do This!

In January, a report entitled Closing the Loop: Road Map for Effective Material Value Recovery was published by GreenBlue, a nonprofit consultancy specializing in sustainability issues. The research was funded primarily through a grant from the...


In January, a report entitled Closing the Loop: Road Map for Effective Material Value Recovery was published by GreenBlue, a nonprofit consultancy specializing in sustainability issues. The research was funded primarily through a grant from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (known as CalRecycle) and GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition. While the Road Map’s insights and recommendations are directed specifically toward the State of California, they should be of significant interest and utility to any jurisdiction seeking to divert greater amounts of waste from disposal.

The 93-page Road Map provides a detailed systems analysis of international packaging recovery systems, including successful collection, sorting, and reprocessing technologies and infrastructures, as well as the waste management policies that support or limit recycling. This report focuses on material recovery in several EU nations — namely, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands — as well as Australia and Ontario, Canada. A series of “snapshots” are presented of advanced recycling systems and best practices that could improve recovery in the United States and Canada. (Most of the report is focused on urban areas, but a section on rural settings is included). I was only sorry GreenBlue didn’t include British Columbia and Nova Scotia in its research, as I think those provinces have an awesome story to tell.

Each section is interesting, but Belgium stands out as the packaging waste-diversion leader with some jaw-dropping numbers. In 2008, total recovery stood at 96.6 per cent, with 93 per cent recycling and only 2.6 per cent of packaging sent for waste-to-energy. The breakdown of each material shows Belgium far exceeding the EU Waste Directive targets: paper (89%), glass (100%), plastic (39%), and aluminum/steel (94%). And Belgium achieves this without a deposit-refund system for used beverage containers!

It’s clear from the report’s summary of circumstances in the EU that some of the EU’s “top down” approach couldn’t easily be adapted in Canada and the United States where waste management is more of a state/province concern than a federal one. And yet, the report looks at jurisdictions that are not unlike California in terms of geographical size and GDP, the implication being that this is “mission possible.” The report seems to say, “Hey, we could actually do this!” — a welcome message these days when competing strategies confuse and sometimes stymie us.

Summarizing successes within various jurisdictions, GreenBlue identifies emerging best practices that could be adopted in most North American states and provinces. Recommendations include a harmonized systems approach for all packaging materials, formats, and end-of-life options. In other words, there’s too much needless variety of difficult-to-recycle packaging on the market. The report advocates source separation, suggesting four- or five-bin collection systems to yield the cleanest, high-quality materials. Best practices include investments in state-of-the-art sorting technology (e.g., optical sorters at MRFs) and clear, nationally-coordinated waste policies, including extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation. Ongoing public education campaigns need to encourage participation in recycling and composting, and the report suggests “hub and spoke” regional recycling in rural areas.

The great thing about this report is that its recommendations are grounded in real-world observation, and most of its suggestions are happening to some extent anyway. The most challenging recommendations for free-enterprise North America will be greater homogenization of packaging materials and national coordination of programs. (Hopefully our federal government and the CCME will envision a greater role in this regard.)

The Road Map asks policymakers to start by determining the system’s goal: recovery of materials, quality of materials, environmental benefit, diversion from landfill, targets, development of local secondary markets, and so on. Underlying policies must be coordinated and not work against each other, creating conflicting incentives.

A sustainable financing model is needed to alleviate the financial burden on local governments. Of the materials collected and collection method across a state or country are standardized, collection and sorting infrastructure can also be standardized, creating a more efficient system. The Road Map advocates collection and recycling only of the materials that make sense economically.

“Apart from recycling,” the report states, “supplemental waste management options allow for system optimization. Look to advances being made in anaerobic digestion and industrial composting to find beneficial end-of-life options for food waste and compostable packaging. Re-evaluate the use of waste-to-energy technologies for materials that are not economically recyclable and for which landfill is currently the only option.” (For more on advances is mechanical/biological treatment [MBT] in Europe, see the Blog column on page 34.)

The collection of better data is recommended to better assess and enforce recycling targets. “A good recovery label can help,” the authors note. Interestingly, the Recycling Council of Ontario (RCO) has just introduced a recycling certification program for organizations just like this. (See the Cover Story, page 8.)

The authors conclude that there’s no one-size-fits-all recovery system and that there are many ways of achieving success in packaging recovery.

“The vision of this document is a harmonized, efficient, cost-wise system that effectively recovers the value of all packaging materials… It will not happen overnight and it will certainly not be perfect, but that vision can still guide our discussions, policy-making, and investments in making better use of our natural resources.”


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