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Climate change demands that our focus should be on improving paper and organics recovery, not fiddling around with plastic straws

Yes, plastic litter (any litter for that matter) and marine pollution is terrible, and we need to have a long hard look at our consumption habits and to reduce our use of fossil fuels. But when we are warned by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have only 12 years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 C, our prime focus should surely be on achieving some “big hits” that will rapidly reduce current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In waste management terms, those “big hits” are reducing the methane being emitted from landfills; and getting more paper and organics out of them. In landfill, paper and organics emit carbon dioxide and methane. Reducing methane and other GHG, and their causes, should be our prime focus, not publicly announcing vague aspirational goals for plastics somehow getting to 100% this or that, with no penalties if they don’t get there. Excuse the cynicism but we’ve seen this movie before.

Where the focus should be

Focus number one should be capping methane emissions from landfill. These efforts are underway but need to be accelerated.

Focus number two should be addressing the material streams in landfill that emit GHG: organics and paper. Both are sizable chunks of Canada’s waste stream. And here’s the good news. They already represent two-thirds of what Canadians divert from landfill. Let’s build on this foundation.Materials Diverted 2016

Organics

Many provinces and cities now have active “green bin” organics recovery programs. And the national diversion of organics has climbed steadily in recent years (up 11% since 2008 to 2.6 million tonnes).

The leader in this effort has been Nova Scotia, which banned organics from landfill way back in 1996. Nova Scotians diverted 170 kilograms of organics per person in 2016; almost six times more than their provincial cousins in Saskatchewan. If we assume that Canadians consume organics in much the same way across the country, how come Saskatchewan and Quebec are so far behind? Is it geography, population density, rural/urban mix, lack of infrastructure, attitude, government priorities, leadership? All good questions.

And here’s the missed opportunity. If we applied Nova Scotia’s organics recovery numbers to the whole country, we could have expected 3.36 million more tonnes of organics diversion in 2016. That would have raised Canada’s overall waste diversion rate by 6.5% and eliminated some 638,000 tonnes of GHG. While there are new costs in adding organics programs these are somewhat offset by saving millions of dollars in avoided landfill costs and by tax revenues flowing to governments from new jobs in organics processing.

Paper

It’s a similar story with paper, the most widely recovered material in Canada. The leaders in paper recovery in 2016 were Quebec and British Columbia (136 and 130 kilograms per person respectively). Manitoba and Saskatchewan lagged far behind, at 47 and 41 kilograms per capita.

Let’s assume that paper consumption was similar across the country. If we applied Quebec’s 136 kilograms per capita rate to the rest of Canada this would have meant an extra 1.21 million tonnes of paper diversion; would have lifted Canada’s overall waste diversion rate by 2.5%; and would have eliminated some 145,000 tonnes of GHG.  It would also have given longer life to existing landfills, something that seems to be getting more and more attention from governments this year.

Add these two major streams together (paper and organics) and you have close to 800,000 tonnes of GHG reduction from Canadian landfills while boosting Canada’s overall waste diversion rate by almost nine per cent. Aren’t these targets worth setting? And we’re not even addressing other waste streams that could and should be included.

So, how do we get more organics and paper out of landfill? Disposal bans or generator levies. Only two provinces have them: Nova Scotia (which coincidentally has the lowest waste disposal rate in Canada) and Prince Edward Island. Metro Vancouver has shown it can be done with benefits in an urban area. Diversion of Paper and Organics

PPEC, representing the paper packaging industry, has lobbied various provincial governments to ban old corrugated boxes from landfill since 2015. We have seen three different ministers of the environment in Ontario on this issue over the years but there has been no action to date, just statements that “we will consider it.”Focus on Banning Old Boxes From Landfill

We estimated back then that a ban on the disposal of old corrugated boxes in Ontario landfills would reduce methane and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 175,000 tonnes a year (equivalent to taking 33,000 cars off the road or eliminating the annual energy emissions of 70,000 homes).

These used boxes shouldn’t be in landfill. Every single packaging mill in the province uses old corrugated collected from the back of factories, supermarkets, office buildings or from curbside to make new packaging, most of it 100% recycled content. We import similar used boxes from the US when we can’t get enough in Canada. It’s our feedstock. We need it.

In summary: the key to reducing GHG emissions from the waste management sector lies in provincial landfill policy:

  • capping the current emissions
  • ensuring that GHG-emitting materials like organics and paper don’t end up there;
  • and tipping the scales away from landfilling being cheaper than recycling.

Yes, it’s not easy, but it’s doable. And don’t get me started on the BS that recycling is dead!

 

(This completes our series of blogs on Statistics Canada’s most recent data on disposal and diversion of waste. Here are the links to the previous articles: Canada’s ‘worst performers’ in waste management in Canada: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (April 12, 2019); Canada’s ‘middle performers’ in waste management: Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario (March 27, 2019); British Columbians and Nova Scotians are Canada’s best recyclers (March 14, 2019)    Canada’s waste diversion rate slowly inches higher (February 28, 2019); Where’s the garbage coming from? More and more from homes (February 19, 2019); Good news and bad news in dumping of waste (October 11, 2018).

The ‘worst performers’ in waste management in Canada: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta

Canada's worst performing provincesThree provinces lag significantly behind the others in solid waste management in Canada: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. And what’s worse, their low diversion rates (ranging from between 16 and 18%) have not changed much over the last eight years, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada.

The data measures the disposal and diversion of industrial, commercial and residential streams of used paper, plastics, glass, metals, textiles, organics, electronics, white goods (such as fridges and appliances) and construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows and wiring.

Albertans dumped over a tonne of waste per person in 2016, two and a half times more than the average Nova Scotian and 320 kilograms more than the average Canadian. The three provinces were also among the least effective in waste diversion: Manitobans and Saskatchewanians being the lowest ranked of the eight reporting provinces.

As is the case throughout Canada, the major streams of materials diverted here in 2016 were paper and organics, but Manitobans, Saskatchewanians, and Albertans were middle to bottom performers in both. They performed better in recovering used tires: Saskatchewan was tops with Alberta third and Manitoba fourth-ranked per person. Albertans were also number three in the diversion of construction, renovation and demolition waste. But overall, these three provinces have a long way to go to catch up with what’s going on elsewhere in Canada.

The pie charts show the major material streams they diverted in 2016. In my next blog in this series I will try and draw all the strands of data together to present a national picture of what the data tells us and outline where the major opportunities for greater diversion seem to lie.

The links to the previous blogs can be found here: Canada’s ‘middle performers’ in waste management: Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario (March 27, 2019); British Columbians and Nova Scotians are Canada’s best recyclers (March 14, 2019)    Canada’s waste diversion rate slowly inches higher (February 28, 2019); Where’s the garbage coming from? More and more from homes (February 19, 2019); Good news and bad news in dumping of waste (October 11, 2018).

Canada’s ‘middle performers’ in waste management: Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario

Three provinces sit in the middle of Canada’s waste disposal charts. But because two of them (Quebec and Ontario) together contain 60% of Canada’s population, they basically determine the Waste Management - What are QC, NB & ON Divertingcountry’s overall waste management performance.

According to the latest Statistics Canada data, Quebecers, New Brunswickers and Ontarians ranked third, fourth and fifth-largest dumpers of waste of the nine reporting provinces in 2016, behind the best performers, Nova Scotians and British Columbians. Quebecers dumped 660 kilograms a person, New Brunswickers 670 kilograms, and Ontarians 700 kilograms. The Canadian average was 710 kilograms per person.

The waste we are talking about is used paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics, electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows, and wiring. Some waste streams are excluded from StatsCan’s definitions.

Most of Quebec’s waste was dumped by homeowners or renters. This reflects a recent trend for increasing quantities of waste to come from homes, although nationwide (and in Ontario and New Brunswick) more waste overall was still emanating from industrial, commercial and institutional (IC & I) sources in 2016.

The three provinces were also in the middle of the bunch when it comes to diverting waste. But there are some interesting differences between them, indicating both progress and where future challenges lie. Quebec, for example, led Canada in the per capita diversion of both paper and white goods but was second lowest in organics diversion. Clearly it needs to boost its organics’ recovery.

New Brunswick’s organics diversion, on the other hand, represented 65% of all it diverted in 2016, ranking it second best organics diverter in the country, but its paper recovery was the lowest. Ontario was in the middle: ranked third in paper recovery and fourth in organics. The pie charts show the similarities and differences between these key ‘middle performers.’

This is the latest in a series of recent blogs on waste and recycling data in Canada. Here are the links to the others: British Columbians and Nova Scotians are Canada’s best recyclers, (March 14,  2019); Canada’s waste diversion rate slowly inches higher (February 28, 2019); Where’s the garbage coming from? More and more from homes (February 19, 2019); Good news and bad news in dumping of waste (October 11, 2018).

British Columbians and Nova Scotians are Canada’s best recyclers

Nova Scotia might have the country’s highest diversion rate as a province (44%) but British Columbians recycle more as individuals.

An analysis of the latest data from Statistics Canada shows that the average British Columbian diverted 377 kilograms of waste in 2016. That’s 60 kilograms more than the average Nova Scotian and twice as much as people living in Saskatchewan. The average Canadian diverted 263 kilograms of waste, the equivalent of about one heavy (50 pound) suitcase a month.Diversion rate per person by province

The “waste” includes used paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food scraps), electronics, tires, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows and wiring.

There are some interesting differences between Canada’s two waste diversion leaders. Nova Scotia’s population is quite concentrated within a relatively small area compared to British Columbia, which would seem to give the waste diversion advantage to Nova Scotia. BC’s recycling results, on the other hand, are spread more broadly and thus less reliant on major tonnage diversion coming from just one or two material streams.

For example, while paper and organics are the major material streams diverted in each province, there’s a marked difference in their relative contribution to the provincial total. In British Columbia, paper recycling and organics diversion represent about one-third of the total each. But in Nova Scotia, organics recovery alone is responsible for over half (53%) of the province’s resulting diversion. Without that substantial diversion of organics, Nova Scotia would slip down the provincial rankings.

The data thus indicate opportunities for improvement as well: for BC to boost its organics diversion (it’s currently ranked  third behind Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in organics diversion per person) and for Nova Scotia to focus more attention on collecting materials other than organics (for example, it’s ranked sixth out of the eight reporting provinces in diverting paper).

Of course, better data, particularly on the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC & I) side would help. We believe that the diversion of paper in Nova Scotia is significantly higher than the Statistics Canada numbers indicate.

Diversion Rate for BC and NS

(This is the latest in a series of recent blogs on waste and recycling data in Canada. Here are the links to the others: Good news and bad news in dumping of waste (October 11, 2018); Where’s the garbage coming from? More and more from homes (February 19, 2019); Canada’s waste diversion rate slowly inches higher (February 28, 2019).

 

Canada’s waste diversion rate slowly inches higher

A diversion rate of 27% might not sound too impressive but it’s better than the 24% of a few years back. According to the latest Statistics Canada data, we dumped almost a million tonnes less in 2016 than we did in 2008 while at the same time diverting almost a million tonnes more from landfill.
Waste Diversion Chart
Both industry and residents were responsible for this result, diverting waste in roughly equal proportions (48% and 52% respectively). But there are some key caveats to interpreting this information.

For starters, while the waste categories measured are very broad (paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics, electronics, white goods, and construction, renovation and demolition waste), certain streams that are more likely to be industrial in nature were excluded from the calculations (materials from land clearing, and asphalt, concrete, bricks, and clean sand or gravel). So not all waste is counted.

On the other hand, “industry” doesn’t get any credit in this data for the tonnes of materials diverted by the country’s many beverage deposit-return systems, or for the used boxes and paper that are shipped direct from a retailer to a paper recycling mill rather than through a material recycling facility (MRF). Welcome to the challenge of analysing and interpreting data!

There is an interesting story to be found here though about diversion rates by province. The best performing provinces on a weight basis in 2016 were Nova Scotia and British Columbia. While Nova Scotia’s diversion rate has dipped slightly since 2008 it has consistently been in the 40% range, and in 2016 reached 44 per cent.

Waste Diversion by Province

 

On the other coast, British Columbia, at 35% in 2008, jumped significantly between 2014 and 2016 to reach 40% for the first time, perhaps reflecting the impact of the launch of BC’s new industry-funded Blue Box program in 2014. Quebec ranks next at 31% followed by Ontario at 26% and New Brunswick at 23 per cent. They are followed by the laggards (Manitoba at 18%, Alberta at 17%, and Saskatchewan at 16%).

We’ll be having a look at the specific materials diverted and why some provinces are doing better than others in the next few blogs. Be prepared for some surprises. Nova Scotia might have the country’s highest diversion rate as a province, but Nova Scotians as individuals are not Canada’s best diverters! Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Where’s the garbage coming from?

Municipal politicians love to point to “industry” as the main contributor to Canada’s waste stream. And while it’s true that most garbage today does come from industrial sources, there are clear signs that more and more garbage is being dumped by householders. The gap between the two sources is narrowing.

More and more garbage from homes

A PPEC analysis of Statistics Canada data from 2008 to 2016 shows residential sources of waste tonnages climbing by 9% over the period while at the same time non-residential (industrial) sources of waste fell by 11 per cent. The waste we’re talking about here is paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food scraps), electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows and wiring.

The demographics and urban/rural split in each province and the strength of its industrial infrastructure obviously play a role in each province’s waste disposal history and performance. But by 2016, the residential share of the overall Canadian waste stream defined by Statistics Canada had increased in all but two provinces. In Quebec it jumped from 46.4% to 56.2% or 9.8 percentage points. Alberta registered a 7% increase in residential share of the waste disposed over the period.

Sources of Canada's garbage

At the same time as the residential share of the overall garbage stream climbed in most provinces, “industry’s” share obviously fell, in six of the eight provinces where data are supplied. Data for Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are suppressed to meet the confidentiality requirements of the Statistics Act. The biggest falls in industrial share of the waste stream occurred in Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Food for thought as we design strategies to reduce Canada’s waste pile. Next: what materials are being diverted from Canada’s waste stream? And just how well or poorly are we doing?

How much forest does Canada have?

We start off big. Canada, after all, is the second-largest country in the world. But to define the extent of its forest lands, we first need to remove all the water: the lakes, the rivers, and the streams that together make up almost nine per cent of the country.

Next to go is the large expansive non-forested tundra of the Arctic (26 per cent). Followed by the wetlands, swamps, areas of slow-growing and scattered trees (four per cent), and the treed portions of farms, parks and gardens, trees planted around buildings, and plantations like fruit orchards (one per cent). And finally, there’s a big chunk of other non-forested land that must be removed from the equation too: the 25 per cent of Canada that’s used to grow agricultural crops, plus the land we ourselves occupy: the communities, towns and cities where we live. All told, some 65 per cent of Canada is what is called ‘non-forested.’

forest lands are 34.9% of CanadaWhat’s left is technically known as Canada’s ‘forest lands’: 347 million hectares of forest land divided into 12 distinct terrestrial ecozones, the largest being the Boreal Shield at 131 million hectares, ranging down to the smallest, the Prairies, at one million hectares.

But the shrinking doesn’t stop there. More than one-third of that forest land (122 million hectares) is unmanaged or left in a wilderness state. Which means that the area left for commercial forestry (the harvesting for lumber and wood pulp) is just under 23 per cent of the total. That’s not the end of the story either, since only a tiny portion of that 23 per cent is logged, as we shall see.

(Excerpt from Deforestation in Canada and Other Fake News. Copyright © 2018 by John Mullinder. Reproduced with permission).

Fewer newspapers but more packaging in Ontario households

While the collective weight of Blue Box materials generated by Ontario households has not changed much over the last 15 years, the type of material that ends up there certainly has.

Far fewer newspapers, for starters. Almost 136,000 tonnes fewer, according to a PPEC comparison of Stewardship Ontario generation data between 2003 and 2017.

Magazines and catalogues have also taken a hit (41,000 tonnes less) together with printing and writing paper (down 13,000 tonnes). Telephone directories, not surprisingly, are on the way out. Overall, the generation of printed paper that ends up in Ontario homes has fallen some 35% over the period, mainly because of inroads made by electronic or digital competition. Millennials (and there are many more of them these days) are not known as great newspaper readers.

Counterbalancing these losses are big tonnage gains in both plastic and paper packaging: some 99,000 more tonnes of plastic (mostly the grab-bag of “Other Plastics” and PET bottles); and 89,000 more tonnes of paper (mainly corrugated boxes and boxboard cartons). The spread of E-commerce delivery is expected to boost residential corrugated box tonnages even more in future years.

The table shows the net change in tonnages of some of the materials generated by Ontario households between 2003 and 2017 (with the losing categories highlighted in yellow) while the pie-charts give a graphic comparison by material group.

Household Generation 2003 & 2017

Source: PPEC Analysis of Stewardship Ontario generation data 2003 – 2017 

Ontario Blue Box recovery rate slips again, but paper’s steady

The recovery rate of Ontario’s residential Blue Box system has slipped again, to its lowest level since 2005. According to Stewardship Ontario, the 2017 recovery rate was 61.3 per cent, down Ontario Blue Box 2017almost two per cent on the previous year. The provincial target is 60 per cent.

Almost three-quarters of what’s currently being recovered is paper of one kind or another, the same as it was back in 2003 when industry “stewards” (brand owners and retailers) became legally obligated to co-fund the Blue Box system. Printed paper (newspapers, magazines and catalogues, telephone books and printing and writing paper) has the highest recovery rate overall (83 per cent) followed by glass packaging (70 per cent) with paper packaging at 64 per cent and steel packaging at 63 per cent.

Paper and aluminum packaging are the only material groupings whose recovery rates have either stayed at the same level or improved in every specific category since 2003, with corrugated boxes again being the recovery leader overall in 2017 at an impressive 98 per cent.

The glass recovery rate has dropped significantly from 2015 but the Blue Box laggards continue to be aluminum and plastics packaging at 40 per cent and 28 per cent recovery respectively. Plastics packaging now represents 44 per cent of what ends up going to disposal (on a weight basis). It’s also by far the most expensive material to recover. The net cost of recovering plastic film, for example, is listed at $2,848 a tonne, and plastic laminates at $2,897 a tonne. The Blue Box average net cost is $307 a tonne.

 Stay tuned for further analysis of the latest numbers.

Good news and bad news in dumping of waste

Canadians are dumping slightly more waste than they did back in 2002, but because there are more of us around today, what we dump per person has fallen almost eight per cent since then. So there is good news and bad news in our analysis of StatsCan’s latest waste disposal numbers.

The data measures the disposal of industrial, commercial, and residential streams of paper, plastic, glass, metals, textiles, organics (food), electronics, white goods such as fridges and appliances, and construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) materials like wood, drywall, doors, windows, and wiring. It excludes materials from land clearing, and asphalt, concrete, bricks, and clean sand or gravel.

Canadians dumped 24.9 million tonnes of waste in 2016, down from a peak of 26.4 million tonnes in 2006, but almost 4% more than in 2002. On a per capita basis, given the 12% increase in the number of Canadians over the period, we have improved as waste dumpers from 770 kilograms per person down to 710 kilograms per person. The stats are based on weight and we don’t know to what extent more and lighter weight plastics might be a factor in this result.

Nova Scotia continues its long track record of being the province dumping the least. Its latest per capita rate is 410 kilograms per person, hardly changed from 2002, with the next best performer being British Columbia at 560 kgs/capita. A bunch of provinces follow (Quebec at 660, New Brunswick at 670, Ontario at 700, Manitoba at 758, Newfoundland and Labrador at 760, and Saskatchewan at 820 kgs/person). Bringing up the tail end is Alberta, the only province over one tonne per person, at 1030 kgs/capita.

Quebec, BC and Ontario have recorded the most improvement over the period (down 16, 15 and 13% respectively). The Alberta and New Brunswick per capita trend is in the opposite direction (up 12% and 22% between 2002 and 2016).

Where’s the waste coming from?  See our next blog on trends in waste from industrial and residential sources.