June 02, 2004

Blue Box Blues

If you live in Ottawa and you recycle, you've probably heard about the city's recent change to residential blue-box recycling. In brief, the list of recyclable plastics has been drastically cut. Gone -- barring an outcry-driven about-face -- are the days of recycling yogurt containers, ice cream tubs, styrofoam packaging, and plastic bags (all under plastics 3-7). Gone too, therefore, are the days when I could brag -- almost everywhere I had been in the world -- about Ottawa's relatively progressive recycling program.

The decision was made as part of a budget cut debate, apparently, because it cost the city $1 million/year to ship the plastics to Asia. This does bring up an interesting side question, incidentally. What's worse for the environment: burying that usable plastic or the environmental impact of shipping it to Asia?

I can't answer that question[*] -- although I suspect somebody ought to be able to do the napkin math -- but some smart people have noticed that the existence of a nearby plastics recycler could kill two birds (non-threatened species, of course) with one stone.

Namely, Sierra Club of Canada reports:
Ottawa will instead bury usable plastic in its landfill. Meanwhile, there is a plastic recycling plant in Prescott that can meet only 18% of its orders for lack of recycled plastic.
Michel Jacobs of Haycore Canada confirms that his company would very much like to buy Ottawa's plastic tubs ( yogurt and ice cream containers). There are also companies in Ontario offering to buy grocery bags and foam polystyrene to produce new products.

No doubt, as always, "it's not that easy." Maybe these Ontario companies aren't willing to pay what the city wants or can't handle (quantitatively or qualitatively) the required plastics. But I'm a little suspicious when the city's Manager of Solid Waste Services is denying there's a market while "Haycore Canada: Your Recycling Specialist" lives next door:

"Plastics are made up of many different resins and it's difficult to find a market for them that can deal with them," said Anne-Marie Fowler, the city's manager of solid waste services. "These markets just haven't developed."

The decision seems to be borne out of short-sightedness more than carefully-crafted policy option analysis, although obviously I don't know all the details of the decision. Sadly, there's not much information about the change on the City of Ottawa website. In fact, the only mention of it that I can find comes from this PSA:

Ottawa - The City of Ottawa's 2004-2005 waste and recycling collection calendars will be delivered to all households by May 31.

The calendar includes important information residents need to know, such as changes to the plastics recycling program and yard waste collection program, as well as in the number of items each household can set out for garbage collection. It also contains the dates and locations of upcoming mobile household hazardous waste depots. Residents should check their calendar for more information. [italics added]

I can't find a relevant entry in the Council minutes (yet), and the recycling page has a "NEW!" graphic in the Plastics section but, not surprisingly, doesn't highlight the changes ("NEW! We're cutting back on services!").

On the plus side, some students at the high school I went to are trying to do something about it. You can too. Write to your councillor and, of course, keep recycling (and, perhaps especially when recycling programs are regressing, reducing!).

[*] That said -- and I might look up the specific numbers on this later -- the benefits from recycling are generally very significant. Manufacturing with recycled materials typically requires far smaller quantities of inputs (water, chemicals, energy, etc.) and produces fewer harmful outputs (chemical and other by-products, polluting emissions, etc.). Coupled with the savings in terms of reducing both new resources/materials extraction and landfill build-up and you've got a typically strong argument for recycling under a wide variety of conditions.

Posted by anatole at June 2, 2004 03:27 AM

Not to mention that it undermines the credibility of the recycling program to say that what people were doing before was (no pun intended) a waste.

Posted by: Miriam at June 2, 2004 10:37 PM

I think can fairly call it a waste if we go to all this trouble and expense to set up recycling programs without having somewhere to send the recyclables. It may undermine the effort, but there is a certain validity to the point if they have trouble getting rid of the stuff. Obviously the point of the article is that Ottawa is overlooking a market for the plastics but nowhere in the article is the question answered of why Ottawa isn't selling the plastics to that local market. I have trouble believing that there is enough of a market in the world for all the world's potential recyclables. Something's going to be a 'waste' somewhere.

Posted by: Alasdair at June 4, 2004 12:17 PM

I suppose the way to make this work would be for manufacturers of plastic to use a limited set of "resins" and whatnot in anticipation of recycling, rather than, presumably, in order to maximize production efficiency with no though to where the waste goes.

We need programs like the crafty Japanese fridge thing, or what certain German companies do (I think... notice I post no links because I'm recalling through mists of time and stupidity), where manufacturers have to take back their products at the end of their useful lives. Of course, in Japan people would just chuck their fridges into ravines rather than bother recycling them, for some reason.

I wonder if there are websites where you can see the geographic distribution of dump sites and waste across, say, Ontario?

Posted by: george at June 7, 2004 11:26 PM

Hi again. I'm just reading today's Citizen and it mentions that the city council is now considering options such as charging a 25-cent fee for plastic bags. According to the article, a similar fee in Ireland dropped plastic bag use by 90 percent. This sounds like a pretty reasonable way to do things... the equivalent, in some ways, of charging people directly for the waste they produce, but the charge is upfront so there's no way to cheat. It seems to me the city could generate a lot of civic goodwill if it simultaneously offered a line of "Ottawa recycles" canvas shopping bags for $10 a piece, or something like that.

The link (not sure if you'll be able to read it without registering at canada.com):

Yes, it's a long one, sorry. You can probably trim off the id...

IN other news, I'm realizing the silliness of the fact that most blogs seem to "reset" at the beginning of each month. Anatole, I think you should let your blog continue seamlessly from month to month, since an entry from late May might be quite relevant to one from early June.

Posted by: George at June 9, 2004 11:08 AM

Indeed, George. I changed the settings at koalatree but forgot to for sobersecondthought. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better if I could specify the number of entries to display (e.g. the last 7 entries) rather than the number of days.

Posted by: Anatole at June 9, 2004 09:09 PM