Just over a year ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I wrote a three-part series for TVO.org looking at waste management in Ontario. I am weirdly emotionally invested in waste management. Part of it is family history — waste collection, sorting, and transportation was one of my father’s businesses when I was younger, and it was good to our family. (He’s still involved in it today, but I no longer have any direct financial stake, if you’re wondering — though I wish I did!) But part of my love of waste handling is rooted in its symbolism. It is one of those overlooked gems of modern civilization — overlooked because it’s gross, because the work is physically demanding and unpleasant, and also, bluntly, because we take it for granted.
The garbage truck has come around once a week for every week that I’ve been alive. Hauling away trash rapidly and efficiently is a big part of what made our urban revolution of the last few centuries possible. We have made a miracle of modern life and urban logistics so mundane it’s become nearly invisible. But without the swift and reliable removal of wastes — garbage, sewage, industrial byproducts — life as we know it would simply not work. And we lose sight of these truths at our long-term peril.
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In Ontario, our system is struggling. And Monday’s announcement by the government addresses the wrong problem. The entire financial underpinning of our waste-management system took a body blow that it hasn’t recovered from, and it’s not clear that it can recover from it. Not while retaining anything like its current form.
The announcement has a feel-good vibe to it. Producers of recyclable materials will now cover the full cost of Ontario’s blue-bin program, saving municipalities a total of roughly $135 million. The list of items that can be recycled will be standardized and expanded. The blue-bin program will be broadened out to include more Ontarians, including those in remote communities.
What’s not to love? Cheaper for taxpayers, better for the environment. Right?
No, not exactly.
Set aside for the moment the fact that making the manufacturers pay the full cost of the program will drive up the cost of their materials, which the public will pay for. It’s a bit weird for a conservative government that’s big on the notion of there being only one taxpayer to have overlooked that: it hasn’t lowered the cost — it’s shifted it. But, whatever, that’s not the real issue here today. The issue is that Ontario’s blue-bin program is struggling. And the steps announced Monday will actually make things worse.
The problem is complicated and was explained at some length in the third part of my series a year ago. It’s difficult to summarize that entire article in a few sentences, but in (very) short, what most Ontarians don’t realize is that the contents of a blue bin — things you consider waste to be disposed of — are actually commodities. The materials are taken from your curbside or building to a sorting facility, where a largely automated process divides the recyclables into general categories: paper, plastics, glass, etc. (I’m simplifying a complicated operation, because there are many different types of material within those broad categories, but bear with me.) Once sorted, that material is then sold for use as raw material for producers. Paper manufacturers, for instance, buy the recycled paper to turn it into new paper. The revenue earned from this sale (and others like it) underwrites the cost of operating the blue-bin program. It doesn’t cover the whole cost, but it partially covers the total. The municipalities and producers paid for the balance; Monday’s announcement will shift the municipalities’ share onto the producers.
This is what makes recycling different. Trash is a sunk cost — quite literally — when it’s put into a dump. (The other option is to burn it, which also costs money, though some incinerators generate power or byproducts that can be sold. Like I said, this stuff is complicated.) Organics are disposed of through natural biological processes, but there are still costs involved in the collection and transportation of the material. But your blue bin was supposed to be a treasure chest, full of valuables.
The problem is that most of the purchasers of the blue-bin materials are based in China, and they’ve stopped buying. There are a lot of explanations for this change in Chinese policy; getting into the details isn’t necessary for the purposes of this article. But the result has been a massive shock to blue-bin programs around the world. China’s decision to limit, or in some cases entirely ban, imports of blue-bin material has left jurisdictions everywhere scrambling. North America has some domestic processing capacity for the material, but not nearly enough. Our domestic capacity was scaled to suit the economics of a system in which China bought up the bulk of the goods. We don’t have nearly enough capacity to handle all that we produce.
Again, this is simplified, but there’s one more point to make. Not all material in your blue bin is equally economically desirable. Some of it is valuable. Some of it is so soiled that it’s been ruined by the time it’s picked up. Some of it, while technically recyclable, costs so much to reclaim that it’s cheaper to just make new stuff than to recycle the old. And since Ontarians are sloppy about what they throw into their bins, a lot of waste gets mixed in with the recyclables, adding costs and complexity to the efforts to sort the good from the bad. This was a major reason China shut the door — a lot of what was being sent overseas, at enormous financial and environmental cost, was honestly just garbage. It was burned on the spot in China. We’d be better off burning it locally and sparing the environment the economic toll of the shipment.
The net effect of all these factors is that our blue-bin programs have had a huge hole blown in their bottom lines. The market for our waste has dried up, and the costs of processing — in hopes of finding the real valuable stuff amid the rest — are driving up costs. Some U.S. jurisdictions have scrapped their programs altogether. The economics don’t make sense. In Canada, much of what goes into the bin ends up burned or buried eventually, even if our governments have been more reluctant to officially abandon the effort.
This is a crisis for our waste-management systems, but it’s not one addressed, in any way, by Monday’s announcement. Adding more materials to the program will only add to the complexity of a system already struggling to sort useful materials from useless ones; if anything, we should be trying to put more limits on what goes in, so that what actually gets put in the blue box can be profitably sold. It will strain the already reeling domestic-material processors. And it doesn’t do anything to fix the major problem with the funding model — higher costs, lower revenues. It just dumps the problem onto someone else.
In a year of pandemic and political upheaval, it’s hard to care too much about your blue bin. But that’s the problem with all the mundane things that make our lives pleasant and sanitary. You never miss them until they’re gone. The blue-bin program is in trouble, not just here, but everywhere. We can fix that now or scrap the whole enterprise later. There may not be any other viable options.