Archive for the ‘Waste and Recycling’ category

Should Cities Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags?

June 29th, 2015

As Montreal debates whether or not it should ban plastic bags, it’s an opportunity for me to express my opinion on the subject, yet again. Toronto began charging a 5¢ fee for all plastic bags in mid-2009. A few years later that ever-forward-thinking mayor, Rob Ford, decided to eliminate the bag charge.

In mid-2010 I did some research to see what effect the policy had had on single-use plastic bag consumption within Toronto (you can read that article here).  In a nutshell, the 5¢ charge reduced plastic bag use in grocery stores by 70%. It was an effective policy mechanism that allowed consumers to make a choice about whether they wanted to pay for bags or bring their own.

Last year when New York City was debating charging 10¢ per single use bag, not surprisingly, the American Progressive Bag Alliance was outraged and sent out a press release saying:

Denying that this legislation is a tax is disingenuous to the hardworking residents of New York City. This proposed ordinance will drive up the cost of already expensive groceries for New Yorkers while failing to achieve any environmental goals.

In California there will be an outright ban on all single use plastic bags introduced through bill SB 270 which comes into effect on July 1, 2015. Now, it should be noted that the bill permits alternatives to single-use plastic bags such as multi-use bags made with a component of post-recycled plastic content and post-consumer recycled paper bags which can be purchased for 10¢ each. It also appears that certain types of stores (such as convenience stores) aren’t included in the bill until July, 2016.

The website notes: “In 2010, 300 million tonnes of plastic will be made – about half of this will be used just once then thrown away.” According to this site, over one million plastic bags are used around the world every minute. The negative effects of plastic bags as waste are tremendous. They clog city sewer systems and cities such as New York deal with over 1700 tons of plastic bags per week and cost more than $12.5 million to dispose of them. When they get into the aquatic environment, they can also be mistaken as a food source. [source]

The point of this information is to show that regardless of what route a city decides to take, the epidemic of plastic bag use needs to be addressed, and quickly. So, should a ban be placed or should there simply be a charge per single bag? And should it be all single bag types (plastic and paper) or just plastic?

We need to look at the consequences of banning bags with respect to the larger picture of its effect on the retail environment — and a healthy retail environment is good for cities’ bottom lines. In cities such as New York and Montreal which not only cater to residents but also to significant numbers of tourists, banning single-use plastic bags may do more harm than good. While I carry a convenience fold-up bag in my purse at all times, I’m not about to stash a few more bags in my purse when I travel. If I’m a tourist in New York and I want to purchase some items — and let’s face it, it’s hard to leave New York without purchasing something — I need something to put them in.

What about reusable plastic bags?

In an age where reusable bags are being given out more and more often, I find myself with more durable bags than I know what to do with. In fact, these bags can completely off-set the intended environmental good of the bag ban in the first place since it takes about 28 plastic bags to make one reusable bag. Case in point: the SAQ (the Société des alcools du Québec — where you buy decent wine and liquour) no longer carries any single use bags, paper or plastic, and instead offers empty wine/liquour boxes or reusable bags for purchase. While I have never bought a single bag, our house now has over 15 of them. Sure, it might point to the need for an intervention, but beyond that, what am I going to do with all these bags? They are beverage specific and only allow four bottles max. I use a few of them for groceries and stuff concentrated frozen juices, condiments, and sparkling water bottles in them, but that’s about all they can handle.

A charge per single use bag, on the other hand, while unpleasant and may have tourists rolling their eyes, at least provides the opportunity for people who either forgot to bring their reusable bags, or tourists who don’t want to bring along bags when they travel, to purchase their items and have somewhere to put them.

Given the fact that a simple 5¢ fee had the effect of shrinking plastic bag use by 70% within a year, I believe that a small fee per single bag is the most effective method of reducing plastic bag consumption, regardless of the type of bag offered as the alternative.


The Problem with Incinerating Waste (and it’s not what you think)

November 14th, 2014


By Utilisateur Jyoccoz (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Utilisateur Jyoccoz (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While in Poland, we attended Poleko 2014, Poland’s largest environmental protection trade fair. I had meetings with many people around the subject of construction waste management. Europe in general and Germany in particular are known for its progressive waste management policies, so I wanted to find out what they do and how they do it.

Anyone involved in the waste sector, especially on a global level, already knows how they do it — the phrase “burn baby burn” comes to mind. Incineration is a big part of European waste management, whether you are in a Scandinavian country, Germany or Holland, all rely on incineration.

I spoke with Peter Meinlschmidt a physicist with the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research about how Germany handles waste. He told me that all organic material (including plastic) is forbidden to go to landfill.

» Read more: The Problem with Incinerating Waste (and it’s not what you think)

PPHU Polblume Recycling Plant — An example of the emerging circular economy

October 31st, 2014
A view inside the sorting department of the recycling center

A view inside the sorting department of the recycling center

While in Poland, our Canadian delegation was invited to tour a new state of the art electronic recycling facility, PPHU – Polblume. It is one of 158 similar recycling and recovery companies within Poland.  It is here that old appliances, computers, TVs, and batteries will be separated into their individual materials, bundled and/or shredded and shipped off to be reused into new products. As part of its mandate in joining the European Union, one Poland’s requirements was improved waste management.

So far, however, this recycling facility is processing about 1000-1500 tons of e-waste per day. It does have a capacity of up to 10,000 tons per day, so there is plenty of room for increased volume.  The company is developing two areas of specialty, recycling batteries and research into rare earth metal extraction from circuit boards, in particular, yttrium and europium.

Metal and circuit boards from old electronics

Metal and circuit boards from old electronics

Polblume has an agreement with Panasonic to provide it with the used black matter (the battery’s juice) from batteries, but because it doesn’t have enough input products right now, there is more demand than supply. I asked the owner if the problem was because there weren’t enough batteries being used in Poland, or because too many were being thrown into landfill. He told us that it was a bit of both. Currently, they take old batteries from countries throughout the EU, but he admitted that more has to be done within Poland to encourage people to recycle their batteries.

In a perfect world, batteries would be 100% recycled and the old, used black matter from dead batteries would be retrieved and reused in new batteries. If material can be extracted, reused and recharged infinitely without having to extract virgin material from the ground, it saves an enormous amount of energy in the retrieval and processing of new material while continuously using materials already extracted. It is an example of what the EU is striving for: the circular economy.

Another area that is still in the research phase at this facility is the extraction of rare earth metals for computer circuit boards. Because the metals are used in such small amounts and need to be extracted from circuit boards using high heat or highly corrosive materials, it hasn’t yet been considered a viable option. However, extraction methods are improving and becoming increasingly cost-effective. This facility is doing research to improve techniques, but is banking on success in this area. Sufficient extraction and sales of rare earth metals would make this recycling business highly profitable.

Used appliances, materials separated.

Used appliances, materials separated.

Plastic casing from electronics.

Plastic casing from electronics.

Finally, leaded glass from TV screens used to find a home in cathode ray tubes — but since the dawn of the flatscreen TV the need for leaded glass has plummeted dramatically. It has found a new home as an aggregate in concrete. Although concrete is pourous, the leaded-glass is stable does not leach into the soil or ground water near where it is used.


The Rogers Cup Montreal Tournament Diverts Mountains of Waste from Landfill

August 15th, 2014

I confess that I’m a bit of a tennis nut. It is my favourite pastime and I play as often as I can when I’m not injured (current injury is an annoying pulled calf muscle that just won’t heal!!). I also attend the Rogers Cup every summer and until this year, always as a spectator. This year, however, I decided to combine my two loves: environmental action and tennis. I volunteered for the green committee.  As I suspected, the Green Committee volunteers’ job was to help spectators choose the right waste receptacle for their used food and drink containers. Right up my alley!!

» Read more: The Rogers Cup Montreal Tournament Diverts Mountains of Waste from Landfill

Mission 2030 Sets An Ambitious Goal: Striving for Zero Waste from Construction and Demolition by 2030

January 16th, 2014

Photo By Ashley Felton (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In December while attending the ConstructCanada show, I went to a few seminars that I really enjoyed. At one in particular, I was so enthusiastic, I got a bit carried away and, er, interrupted the panel with my own stories, questions and conumdrums. The panel was about waste produced by the construction industry, and, if you’ve followed this blog at all, you know waste is one of my biggest pet peeves. In fact, it’s not really a pet peeve, it’s a down right BIG peeve, a major peeve, one I find so frustrating, I just want to fix it all, right now!

Anyway…one of the panelists was Renee Gratton. She is the President and co-founder of the Construction Resources Initiative Council, a group of non-partisan volunteers from the construction industry who have come together to address the growing waste problem in construction and demolition. Here’s something you may be surprised to hear: In Canada, while consumers have been doing an increasingly good job at reducing the amount of material they send to landfill, industrial, commercial and institutional operations have not fared so well. In fact, they have been progressively increasing the amount of material going to landfill. Since industry accounts for two-thirds of all waste, this is a pretty important area to address. On top of that, Canadians may generate the most garbage per capita in the world. Wow, there’s a statistic we should  want to reverse!

According to the CRI Council website, Stats Can noted that in 2008, of all the waste sent to landfill, 75% of it still had value — as in it could have been reused, recycled, repurposed or repaired. When you read a number like that, the goal of zero waste by 2030 doesn’t seem quite as unrealistic as you might have originally thought.

Achieving zero waste in the construction industry isn’t going to be an easy task. However, as Renee recounted at the seminar, a lot of waste reduction has to do with changing our mindset and perspectives. It’s about designing buildings better, increasing resource efficiency and using materials that can be reused or recycled at end of life.  The council’s short-term goal is to get three things going:

  1. Defining the goal — aiming for zero construction renovation and demolition waste to landfill by 2030,
  2. Overcoming inertia — engaging, educating and enabling people and their businesses as to why change is important, and
  3. Taking the first few steps. In this case, the council is calling to action all stakeholders to take the Mission 2030 Pledge and play their part in how building waste is viewed and dealt with, through a fundamental and strategic change management framework.

As the organization is newly established and completely volunteer-run, the website is continually being updated. It provides information on why reducing waste is critical to our planet’s future, along with support on how and where to begin. As the council becomes more established it will also begin to offer its members workshops and educational material on how to implement change. The latest support tool is an app called Waste Saver for your mobile phone (iphone or android), to help you locate companies in your neighbourhood who will   recover it, who is supporting this initiative as well as provide references and address frequently asked questions. While the app still being populated, the more people use it, the more valuable a tool it becomes for everyone.

If you are a contractor, building owner or manager, I encourage you to take a look at the website and start thinking about how you can reduce the amount of waste you send to landfill. It might be as simple as stopping by the ReStore on your way to the dump and dropping off usable construction materials, or using Craigslist or Kijiji to find someone who wants what you don’t. There are plenty of ways to prevent materials from ending up in landfill, but until you’re used to it, it takes some planning, effort and a little research. If you don’t have a resolution yet for 2014, why not make it waste reduction?

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