Trash Talking

The three “R’s” – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – are drilled into children as soon as they learn their ABCs. Edmontonians have mastered recycling, but haven’t conquered the whole equation.

Connie Boyce at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre

Photo by Darren Jacknisky

On the outskirts of Edmonton lies the place where garbage goes to be reborn. The Edmonton Waste Management Centre covers 233 hectares of land – roughly five times the size of West Edmonton Mall. The centre holds all of the secrets to Edmonton’s highly regarded waste-management process, including the processing area where everything gets sorted, and composting and recycling facilities.

The Waste Management Centre’s been here since 1999 – the same year the city started its blue bag recycling program. Since then, Edmonton’s recycling system has evolved to include three options: Blue bags, blue bins and recycling depots. But as the City’s recycling program has grown and evolved, it’s caused people to turn a blind eye to a growing national epidemic – an enormous waste stream with no sign of an effort to reduce consumption.

The Conference Board of Canada recently handed Canada a dismal “C” overall on its environment report card, due in large part to the fact that Canada “throws away more garbage per capita than any other country in the developed world.” In addition to ranking 15th out of 17 peer countries, Canada also received a “D” in municipal waste generation – in 2008, we produced 777 kg of waste per capita, or twice the amount of the category’s best performer, Japan.

The report points fingers at Canada’s “overconsumption.” Canada uses more energy per unit of GDP than any other developed country in the world and our overall efforts haven’t improved at all in recent years – we’ve stayed at the No. 15 spot since 2009.  While Edmonton’s waste levels have levelled off in the last few years, we haven’t managed to actually cut down our waste stream; we’re still contributing to Canada’s shockingly poor statistics. 

There’s no shortage of material for North America’s largest waste management centre to handle – Edmonton produces 230,000 tonnes of residential waste annually, with 20 per cent of that stream being recycled and about 35 per cent composed. While some cities encourage residents to reduce their waste by charging to pick up any additional garbage bags over the set limit – for example, Toronto charges $3.10 per bag that doesn’t fit in a resident’s grey garbage bin, which is emptied every two weeks – Edmonton has a completely voluntary system.

City bylaws allow an average of four bags or containers of waste per household per week, but it’s not enforced due to seasonal variations in the amount of garbage residents produce, says Connie Boyce, director of community relations for Waste Management Services with the City of Edmonton. No enforcement? No problem. Call it a Jedi-mind trick, call it reverse psychology – whatever it is, it’s working – according to the city’s surveys, 93 per cent of residents in single-family homes recycle. Edmontonians may not be reducing their consumption enough to solve Canada’s waste problems, but they are recycling. In fact there’s so much waste ready for recycling, some of it is sold both locally and internationally.

Exchanging waste for money is not a new concept. Most of us can recall childhood memories of trading in a bag of pop bottles and juice containers (or, in later years, empty bottles of merlot and dented beer cans) for a handful of shiny change. Having financial incentive to save containers from ending up in the trash ingrained a positive association between being eco-friendly and cash-rich in our minds at an early age.

Rosy-cheeked children with bags – reusable, no doubt – full of Coke cans and apple juice boxes aren’t the only ones profiting from recycling. Recyclable materials are traded at market as commodities, available to whoever pays the best price. Waste is sold to around six Edmonton companies including BPCO, that transform paper into shingles. Meanwhile, some materials, like plastics, go to companies in B.C. and some waste is shipped to overseas countries.

Metals are most precious because they’re expensive to extract and in limited supply, but paper also brings high prices, with countries that lack Canada’s vast forests shelling out a premium for our old class notes and grocery lists.

Edmonton’s Waste Management Centre reduces the amount of waste going to landfill and makes money (which it puts back into its programs) selling recycled material to countries that need it more than we do. Other cities and private companies also do it, but they don’t all believe the current system is win-win.

Since Alberta started its blue-bag program, it has put potential revenue streams for recycled materials at risk, claims Jeff Hebner, manager of Capital Paper, a private paper recycling company that receives recyclables from both commercial and residential sources. Part of the problem is caused by single-stream recycling – the kind where all recyclables are tossed together. Materials are easily contaminated, which means they’re more difficult to sell.

And the more we waste, the more material there is to recycle, resulting in a glutted market and lower prices. In turn, brokers need to sell to whoever can afford to pay the highest price. But increased competition also sends prices plummeting and may cause facilities like the Edmonton Waste Management Centre to sell more material overseas, simply to cover the cost of processing a huge amount of waste materials. Capital Paper sells less than half of its material to countries such as China, South Korea, India and Chile. Waste Management Canada, which manages the Edmonton Waste Management Centre, sells an amount that varies from month to month (sometimes it could be two per cent, sometimes 10 per cent) to wherever the demand is the highest.

“If China is paying the best prices for paper, then we will send our paper to China, because that’s where we will get our best return, in terms of selling material,” says Boyce.

Connie Boyce at the processing facility, where waste is sorted at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. Photo by Darren Jacknisky.

Eco-enthusiasts might be happy we’re recycling as much paper as possible to diminish the amount of trees the world needs to chop down, but those keeping their eyes on air quality and carbon footprints may be concerned about the extra emissions caused by transporting recycled goods around the world. Sometimes freight costs end up being more than the commodity is actually worth, says Hebner. There’s also the negative effect the extra transportation has on the very planet recycling is supposed to save. But making products out of recycled goods is “such a huge reduction in resource extraction and manufacturing energy needed that it usually comes out as environmentally positive, even though you’re shipping it [elsewhere],” says Boyce.

But recycling has to be more beneficial than simply chucking things aside – or burning them in an incinerator, like the City did up until the 1970s.  It often depends on the item. Pro-recycling experts always go straight to the aluminum argument – it takes about 95 per cent less energy to make an aluminum can from old cans than it does to extract the ore from the Earth to produce completely new cans. There is also a strong market for aluminum, guaranteeing that there will always be a buyer for products. But some recycled materials, such as glass, are as common as grains of sand on a beach – and recycling glass is only 33 per cent more energy-efficient than making glass from scratch. 

It’s hard to measure if transporting overseas negates the positive effects of recycling but the City can hardly afford to stop selling – the money required to run recycling programs doesn’t grow on trees. It costs big bucks to efficiently recycle the huge amount of waste we’re producing, which is perhaps the real reason Edmonton is such an over-achiever when it comes to being green. 

In Edmonton, recycling is operated as a utility – every month, residents pay a fee ranging from $21.58 (for multi-family dwellings) to $33.20 (for single-family homes) to cover the cost of picking up and processing their waste and other services. In 2012, it cost $18 million to collect and process Edmonton’s recycling, but the program only brought in $3.3 million in revenue. There is no tax levy funding for waste management, says Boyce. But cities don’t run recycling programs for financial reasons. “Recycling does not pay for itself, economically. We’re reducing the consumption of natural resources, we’re reducing greenhouse-gas emissions – so lots of environmental benefits, more than economic,” says Boyce.

Just how much waste do Edmontonians actually save from going to landfill? A little more than half of all garbage produced, according to Boyce. That means for every bag of waste you toss that can be reused in some way- composted, recycled, et cetera – another bag ends up adrift in a dirt pile of refuse. But at the moment, other cities consider that the standard to match or beat, leaving plenty of room for improvement.

Once completed, the biofuels facility will convert waste into feedstock for biofuels such as ethanol and methanol. Illustration provided.

The Future of Recycling?

You go to all the trouble of recycling your old Playboys but it’s all for naught, simply because you threw an unwashed bottle of salad dressing in the blue bag. According to Connie Boyce, director of community relations for Waste Management Services with the City of Edmonton, 15 per cent of material meant for recycling goes to the landfill instead, because it’s been contaminated in some way – the perils of single-stream recycling.

Recyclers with good intentions but poor follow-through can soon relax – there’s a new way to take care of contaminated recycling. Edmonton will soon have its own biofuels facility, possibly a huge game changer in the way we deal with waste.

The facility will convert residential waste, meaning everything that can’t be -composted or recycled, into feedstock for biofuels such as ethanol and methanol.

The facility, owned and operated by the Montreal-based firm Enerkem Alberta Biofuels, and located at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre, is scheduled to open later this year and should be fully operational by 2015.  

The partnership agreement between the City and Enerkem ensures that Edmonton’s Waste Management Utility will share in future net revenue generated from the sale of the biofuels produced by the facility.

The City’s goal is to divert 90 per cent of waste from landfill by 2015 – ideally, 20 per cent will be recycled, 40 per cent composted and 30 per cent transformed into biofuels.

That’s good news for everyone stuck with broken lawn furniture, old toys and cracked laundry baskets – unlike the City’s recycling centre, the biofuels facility will accept all kinds of plastic.

At the moment, the biofuels facility is just a skeleton of a building, an unfinished sign of changes to come, meaning the material collected at the centre that can’t be composted or recycled is hauled out to a landfill near Ryley, 80 kilometres from Edmonton (the landfill at the Waste Management Centre closed in 2009).

While landfill space is relatively cheap to come by, hiding our garbage in plain sight isn’t a solution to Canada’s infamous waste stream, which is why Waste Management Services plans on focusing its education strategy for Edmontonians on waste reduction this year.

What’s the Alternative?

If you think you’ve got a lot of trash, just imagine how much an entire building, like a hotel, hospital or corporate office, produces each month. Greys Paper Recycling Industries Inc. takes care of some of that waste. Greys picks up old cotton sheets and towels from hospitals and hotels, as well as used paper from local companies, and turns them into paper made from 100 per cent recycled material.

Paper can only be recycled a handful of times before the fibres become too weak to be used again. Generally, virgin fibres are added to recycled ones to ensure the mixture is strong enough to make paper. Instead, Greys adds old cotton to its paper mixture, ensuring that the finished product is made up of 100 per cent post-consumer recycled materials.  Using no new material in the creation of a product is called closed-loop recycling, and Greys is the first company to make paper this way, according to Maria Gutierrez, marketing and sales coordinator.

Greys recently started operating- in the world’s largest industrial monolithic dome  – at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. The plant, a result of a partnership between Greys and the City, can currently process five tonnes of material at a time, but eventually their 40-ton machine will be up and running.

It takes about half a day to turn old, shredded paper into post-consumer recycled paper, depending on the paper-cotton ratio used – the more cotton a blend has, the longer it takes to make, explains Greys executive assistant Sylvie David. Greys doesn’t use any chemicals in its process, so the ink from the paper affects the colour of the recycled product (hence the company’s name).   

The varieties of recycled paper produced by Greys, including envelopes and folders, are in the same price range as non-recycled paper, an abnormality in the recycled materials market. At big retailers, recycled paper items costs a pretty penny – Staples sells 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper for $71.96 and regular paper of the same kind costs more than $20 less.

Recycling Programs for Cosmetics

Cosmetic packing, such as lipstick tubes and eyeshadow containers, are generally not accepted in residential recycling programs. These stores go out of their way to help your makeup be a little greener:

MAC: The Back to MAC recycling program is simple but rewarding – bring back six empty makeup containers and take home a free lipstick of your choosing (some locations will let you pick an eyeshadow instead of lipstick).

Origins: Origins accepts cosmetic tubes, bottles or jars of any brand and recycles them. The Return to Origins Recycling Program has recycled more than 34,000 pounds of cosmetic packaging since its inception in 2009.

Kiehl’s Since 1851: At least once a year, Kiehl’s at West Edmonton Mall holds an event allowing customers to return cosmetic -containers. In return, they receive a gift.

Cargo Cosmetics: Cargo’s PlantLove line features innovative, award-winning -packaging made entirely from corn.

Aveda: Aveda collects plastic bottle caps and recycles them into pellets that are formed into new caps for its products, ensuring they don’t end up in a landfill or water source.

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