Good ideas: National recycling standards

The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.

Recycling is “green” and it is mostly accepted as important. Most municipalities in Ontario seem to have recycling programs, but each municipality designs and implements its own program and standards. The situation appears similar across the country.

It seems to me about time that a set of national recycling standards was devised to make recycling more uniform, more effective, easier to widely implement, and more visible on a national scale. All my searches for such a proposal led to just one blog post suggesting that the U.S. make uniform its assortment of local recycling policies.

The problem with recycling in places like Waterloo Region is not that it’s not done, but that it’s done in so many different ways. Single-family dwellings and small apartment buildings set out blue bins for pick up by the region. The University of Waterloo and some larger apartment buildings set out the region’s blue wheeled containers, which cover most of what goes into the blue bins — if you can find them all in one place. Offices at UW’s campus might have tiny blue bins that presumably get sorted out somewhere by someone; some places have additional bins specifically for white paper. Workplaces and other apartment buildings may have recycling provided through a private company with different standards for what gets recycled and how it gets sorted — if they recycle at all. Restaurants usually don’t provide any means for recycling, or may provide some place to presumably recycle glass and plastic bottles; but what about paper packaging or other kinds of plastic?

Batteries get collected at sporadic locations, if they get collected at all. Much of the recycling facilities remains esoteric — such as the fact that styrofoam is indeed accepted, if you drive to the landfill. There are no areas accessible without a car where hazardous materials may be disposed of, and no publicized ways to have them picked up.

Both Kitchener and Waterloo have been installing Molok containers on streets in pairs: one for garbage and one for recycling. But what kind of recycling? And why isn’t the signage consistent with the Region’s recycling program? How can I have confidence that it won’t just end up being tossed?

That’s just within Waterloo Region, but what if I go over to Guelph? They’ve got a completely different recycling policy. Same thing for Toronto, or Hamilton, or London. Each municipality has its own recycling policy with its own idiosyncrasies about what is kosher and what isn’t. Each municipality expends individual effort to develop a coherent recycling program and informational material so that its residents can recycle. And in each, there are ambiguous items that may be recyclable but that a resident can’t easily determine as such — and some of these unnecessarily clutter the recycling stream, or unnecessarily end up in the landfill; the only authoritative source for whether something is recyclable is the municipal recycling website, whatever its quality. Prior experience is of little use.

It should be apparent why I am suggesting a national recycling policy for Canada. Recycling is complicated, but it does not have to be so. A comprehensive but simple system that is universal would go a long way toward making recycling culturally understandable. In the areas with good recycling programs it would get rid of the discrepancies between home and work and street. In the areas with bad ones, it would substantially increase the diversion rate. With a national recycling policy there would be a strong marketing and branding capability for it that would likely go far beyond the means of any individual municipality.

A national standard would make recycling more corporate-friendly, in that companies could have their pick of recycling containers, providers perhaps, and even “solutions” that all provide the same national recycling branding and standards. This applies to municipalities as well.

Under such a system the government could force all non-obvious packaging and materials to unambiguously be labelled in concert with the national recycling standards. Anything that is recyclable would have a clear path to a recycle bin anywhere in the country.  Moreover, the program could be partially funded using a tax on non-recyclable material and packaging.

The one challenge that comes to my mind is how to foster innovation in recycling practices in such a system. Municipalities should be allowed — encouraged, in fact — to provide additional facilities beyond the requirements. But once they substitute their independent recycling department for something analogous to a franchise, that may prove difficult to motivate. The innovation would probably need to come from non-profits and the national recycling entity itself.


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6 responses to “Good ideas: National recycling standards”

  1. Gus says :

    While I agree that standards are a good idea, I feel that any discussion of recycling in Waterloo Region should address the fact that a large majority (at least 75%) of our collected recyclables end up in the landfill. (I’m too lazy to look up a source.) To ignore this issue is to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic: why waste resources developing a national standard when it all ends up in the dump anyway?

    The sad truth is that the demand for recycled material is dwarfed by the supply — nobody wants the stuff. (An exception to this rule is aluminum, especially aluminum pop cans.) In an ideal world, we wouldn’t generate all these recyclables in the first place. I worry that the prominence of recycling gives people the false impression that it’s somehow okay to generate a huge amount of recyclables because “it doesn’t go to the dump” and it’s therefore “good for the environment.”

    • Michael D says :

      Citation please. According to this article, 45% of waste in the region is diverted from the landfill. I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise.

      I highly doubt anyone produces more waste just because it can be recycled — though they might be more likely to choose the recyclable version of a product. And in Waterloo Region I think we’re beyond recycling being a “feel good” thing, and on to it just being a fact of life. Which is great, because it is a useful habit for the future — where recycling may be more coordinated, and made more industrially useful through the right kinds of carrots and sticks.

      So why spend resources on this? Because it’s fewer resources than are currently being spent over all the individual municipalities and companies reinventing recycling, and because for less resources it would be a more coherent and effective recycling rate overall. You say the market isn’t there? I say non-recycled natural resources could be taxed. The market is not a monolith, and the market forces of today do not look like the market forces of tomorrow.

      • Gus says :

        Okay, so it turns out that I’m probably wrong. My original claim — that a clear majority of recyclables collected in Waterloo Region end up in the landfill — was based upon two independent conversations: one with a fellow who works at the ReStore donation centre at that Erb St. landfill, and another with my friend Ian. Ian claims to have heard this rumour floating around, but can’t pinpoint a source. The only thing I could find on the internet about this issue is some propaganda from the region.

        Ian’s wife Candace did some poking around and discovered the following, which I quote directly from her message to me:

        I called the Region this morning to ask, I hadn’t heard anything about
        this. Their response was that approximately 5% of the products
        collected are landfilled. This material includes: non-recyclable
        items, items that are contaminated with food waste, bottles filled
        with garbage, etc. She said the rest of the materials after
        segregated are sold to recyclers, some local and some overseas. She
        unfortunately couldn’t name the names of the companies that are buying
        the product to be able to find out what happens after this. She was
        doubtful that much of this would end up in the landfill since
        companies are paying for the product however. I would think however
        that aside from metals I’m sure at least a small portion that is
        ‘below-grade’ (or would lead to a lower quality plastic, paper) is not
        being recycled.

        From my experience working with the waste exchange in Calgary, most of
        the paper and metals stay fairly local but most of the plastics were
        being sold to China. For me it seemed like the issue with recycling
        was not that product was ending up in a landfill when claimed to be
        recycled but that the product was going such long distances to be
        recycled. I guess it is saving lots of raw materials but it is pretty
        hard to compare.

        The shipment of plastic recyclables to China is well documented in the Record. See for example:
        (Keep in mind that most of the recycling articles appearing in that newspaper are written by a “reporter” with questionable neutrality)

        So in closing, I retract my claim. And if I ever see that ReStore guy again, he’s going to get an earful from me.

        P.S. – It would be nice to have a “preview” feature so I can see what my XHTML comment will look like before I submit.

      • Michael D says :

        Thanks for the investigation! (As for comment preview, I’d love that too, but I don’t believe currently provides it.)

  2. Heather says :

    A federal program would have to be willing to pick up a pretty hefty tab. Most recycling programs operate a break-even point for processing materials. Curb-side pickup is costly, and that bill is generally footed by the taxpayers. But generally recyclable materials will only be sorted and processed if it can be sold a at price to cover the effort.

    The real issue here is that municipal tax payers are subsidizing the disposal of packaging for companies. Forcing companies to take back their own packaging isn’t always reasonable, but where feasible, it would go a long way to convince manufacturers to design packaging that is easy to dispose of. Or even better, reuse. Of course, tipping fees would have to be raised quite substantially to discourage landfilling… Providing the nice side benefit of prolonging landfill life and raising some money for other municipal projects, like transit perhaps.

    • Michael D says :

      I agree that the underlying issue is that companies do not cover the costs — financial or environmental — of disposal of their products and packaging. There are baby steps in this direction for electronics in Ontario, but it would be good to see some broader applications.

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