MUSKOKA – Only about 45 per cent of recyclable items from households across Ontario ever make it to waste recovery plants. More than half of municipal garbage goes to landfills instead.
But if households started recycling more, municipalities could strike deals with a new breed of entrepreneurs who understand that garbage equals dollars.
BFI Canada’s Bracebridge branch collects Muskoka’s municipal waste but it also picks up its recyclable materials and turns them into cash.
Paul Wills, division manager for BFI Canada, said collected recyclables are trucked to a facility in Bracebridge where they are sorted, processed and sold.
“Everything we sell goes back to the manufacturing of a product,” said Wills. “There are all sorts of stuff you buy every day that is made of recycled plastic.”
Fibers also get revamped into a number of different products such as newsprint, boxboard and even the backs of roofing shingles, he said.
The company has a contract with the District Municipality of Muskoka to collect waste and recyclables. About 70 per cent of the revenue from processed recyclables goes back to the district.
Last year the district saw about $500,000 in revenue from the sale of processed recyclables, which it used to offset the cost of its waste management program, according to staff.
The North American waste stream contains about $8 to $10 billion worth of valuables, said Wes Muir of Waste Management Canada, a private recycling and disposal company.
A major challenge for municipalities is finding markets for recyclable materials.
“Recycling has been around for three decades, but the problem is that end markets have not been established for many materials,” said Muir.
Thirty to 40 per cent of North American recycled materials are going to China, India and South America, where demand is growing.
But where processed recyclables go depends on the market, said Wills.
A company in Ontario, for example, takes much of Muskoka’s refurbished polyethylene terephthalate plastic for water bottles, he said, while much of the high-density polyethylene plastic goes primarily to two companies in Quebec.
Tin cans go to a company in Ontario, mixed plastics with codes three through seven are shipped to a number of companies in North America, and aluminum is sent to a melting and shredding facility in New York state, said Wills.
Muskoka’s recycled paper has a further reach. Wills said paper brokers buy the recycled materials and sell it to mills throughout North America and the Far East.
“Two and a half years ago it was so difficult we had to pay companies to take it off our hands,” he said. But Wills said supply and demand has changed.
The more waste a municipality can sell, the fewer taxpayer dollars it has to spend to manage garbage. If consumers buy in as well it could lead to higher recycling rates and less pressure on landfills.
The push to view waste as a resource instead of as a problem has also seen companies convert trash into new products, a model known as up-cycling. Other companies are taking regular household consumer waste and flipping it. But these industries are in their infancy and municipalities need solutions now.
Incineration may be a route more communities are willing to take, said University of Toronto professor Philip Byer.
Only about one per cent of waste in Ontario is incinerated now. The only residential incinerator is the Algonquin Power Energy From Waste Facility in Brampton. The plant burns about 500 tonnes of mostly residential waste and generates nine megawatts of continuous energy – enough to power 5,000 to 6,000 homes.
Tony White, commissioner of engineering and public works for the District Municipality of Muskoka, said energy-to-waste facilities such as incinerators are a controversial subject.
The facilities use heat to extract energy from waste. The energy produces steam, which drives turbines and produces electricity.
“It’s a bit like a gas- or coal-fired power station, except the fuel is garbage,” he said. “The problem that energy from waste faces is the same problem with any thermal process – people are suspicious of the byproducts.”
One concern is air contamination, which can be caused by several chemical byproducts, including something called fly ash, said White. Fly ash is a light, hazardous material that travels up chimneys and needs to be captured. But he said he did not want to oversimplify the issues.
The district considered incinerating its municipal trash when working on its long-range solid-waste management plan about five years ago, but White said such a facility would need more waste than Muskoka generates and would have hefty financial requirements.
“Unfortunately, these energy-from-waste systems are usually so expensive to buy, build and run that small municipalities really have difficulty with the financial end of things,” he said. In the meantime, the waste management plan concluded landfills were the best option for Muskoka.
Experts say one of the most important solutions to today’s landfill problems is to force manufacturers to create more reusable products, an approach known as extended producer responsibility.
“EPR is effectively making what goes into the waste stream the problem of the people who put the products into the market in the first place,” said York University environmental studies professor Mark Winfield.
This is done by forcing manufacturers to redesign products so they can be reused or requiring manufacturers and businesses to pay a government-imposed fee on hard to recycle products.
Winfield said Ontario could legislate extended producer responsibility policies similar to the European Union, which forced producers to make cars and packaging easier to take apart in pieces that can be reused.
But there is no move toward that kind of policy in Ontario.
‘Recycling has been around for three decades, but