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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.


Green power is cheap

Electricity in Ontario comes predominantly from nuclear, coal, and hydro (in that order). For historical reasons people refer to it as “hydro”. Well, I just recently got my bill, which is actually for wind and low-impact hydro – via Bullfrog Power. The bill is for $102, which is for a two-person household for two months (with little A/C use and no lights left on all day). Sounds like a lot? Well, how much more do you think I’m paying to get certified low-impact hydro and wind versus nuclear and coal?

The answer might surprise you: all of $18 extra, out of the total bill of $102. Less than $5 per person per month.

Fully half of the bill is for delivery, regulatory charges, and a debt retirement charge. The regular Ontario hydro rate is currently 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while getting electricity through Bullfrog Power costs 8.7 cents per kWh. Which makes a 34% premium for the power itself, or 17% of the total.

The way this “offsetting” works is that you still pay your local utility, which provides power from the general grid, checks your meter, and bills you accordingly, including the 3 cent per kWh premium. (Or in some cases you pay the premium directly.) On the other end, electricity generating sources sell their power at the fixed Ontario price (5.7 cents) to the grid, getting their additional compensation from Bullfrog. There can be issues with such schemes in general, but Bullfrog looks to be running a professional and well-audited operation.

Unlike generic carbon offsetting, however, this is very concrete: you pay for the certified low-impact generation of just the electricity you use, with little or no hand-waving. In Ontario demand for Bullfrog Power is being met with the creation of new wind farms.

What about businesses that use electricity? In my case above, a 34% premium on one level became a 17% premium on the next level. But in the context of products or services, you have to add in the cost of materials and the cost of labor. Considering that electricity is a relatively small proportion of the cost of most products and services, that 17% premium would be a vanishingly small portion of the end result. I think plenty of people would be happy to pay an extra 1% to ensure that a business was powered by clean electricity. Plus, if that percentage is perceived to be large, there are likely energy savings that can be made to mitigate or eliminate the hit.