ENVIRONMENT

The recycling boom

Successful programs have produced gluts

HOLGER JENSEN February 19 1990
ENVIRONMENT

The recycling boom

Successful programs have produced gluts

HOLGER JENSEN February 19 1990

The recycling boom

Successful programs have produced gluts

ENVIRONMENT

By his own admission, Thane Cochran is “not out to save the environment.” Still, although a businessman in search of profits, Cochran is also helping the city of Mississauga, Ont., to deal with its household garbage. Last August, when Mississauga expanded its recycling program to include plastics, Cochran, a 41-year-old businessman who owns a metal-recycling plant in Vancouver, launched Super Wood Ontario Ltd., a company set up to manufacture articles out of waste plastic. So far, SuperWood has bought about 180 tons of discarded plastic for just under three cents a pound from the municipality and used it to manufacture such articles as park benches, picnic tables and road signs. Next month, Cochran’s company, which will

employ 27 people in Mississauga, will begin manufacturing a new line of agricultural fence posts. Last month, Cochran signed an agreement in principle to recycle plastic food-and-drink containers from 11 McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada outlets in Mississauga and use the material to manufacture seats and playground equipment for the fast-food chain.

During the past 10 years, more than 250 Canadian municipalities have launched recycling programs to collect and reuse discarded glass, plastic, metal and paper. Still, even though environmentalists, civic politicians and ordinary citizens are usually quick to endorse the idea of diverting reusable items from overflowing landfill sites, many communities are

discovering that there is more to recycling than putting out blue collection boxes. While a growing number of entrepreneurs like Cochran have begun to develop firms that use waste products as raw materials, public enthusiasm for curbside collections has created a glut—temporarily, at least—of some recyclables. As a result, oversupply has driven down prices for plastics, newspapers and glass in some regions of the country.

Because recycling involves separate handling of the waste materials that householders put out for collection, it is much more expensive than ordinary garbage collection—and municipalities can only hope to cover some of their costs by selling the salvaged materials to industries. Typically, Lee Chamberlain, who administers a municipally operated curbside collection program in Surrey, B.C., told Maclean’s that declining prices for glass and newsprint had put the future of some of Surrey’s recycling program in doubt. Said Chamberlain: “We are fighting for our lives right now.”

Despite that, experts say that recycling still has a promising future. In Canada, municipal recycling programs have quickly won popularity with householders ever since Kitchener, Ont., set up the nation’s first “blue box” collection system in 1983. Since then, Ontario has become the province most committed to

recycling, with 1.9 million households in about 200 municipalities depositing 226,000 tons of carefully sorted bottles, cans and other rubbish into recycling bins in 1989. As well, scores of other Canadian municipalities, including some in the Vancouver area, Edmonton and Halifax, have begun recycling programs. And recycling has experienced an explosive growth in the United States. About 600 U.S. municipalities, mostly small or medium-sized towns, are currently operating curbside recycling programs. Some larger cities, including New York and Washington, are planning to begin recycling programs. At the same time, 11 states have passed legislation setting goals for the recycling of up to 40 per cent of garbage within the next few years.

Still, growing stockpiles of some recyclable materials have created problems for some recycling programs. The price of newspaper in Canada dropped to $35 a ton in 1989 from $55 in 1988, while the price paid for virgin resin (a basic plastic component) fell to 30 cents a pound by the end of 1989 from 75 cents a pound at the beginning of the year, wiping out the market for used plastic bags. The Vancouver-area municipalities of Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, which launched multimaterial recycling programs in the early 1980s, discov-

ered last year that only China was interested in their used plastic—and only if the materials were delivered free of charge. Instead, the two communities stockpiled the used plastic. Six Montreal Island municipalities, which had planned to launch a recycling program last October, postponed the start of their curbside collections until they could find a market for their recyclables. The municipalities subsequently signed contracts with four firms that will take plastic, glass, metal and newsprint

from the blue box program _

that is scheduled to begin on March 5.

Despite declining prices for some waste products, supporters of recycling contend that the problems are only temporary. “There are both domestic and foreign markets for everything being recycled today,” said John Hanson, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario. “Prices for some commodities are low right now, but I expect sharp increases, even shortages, as the recycling industry gets into high

gear.” According to some experts, that will happen as conservation-minded governments in the future start ordering industries to use recycled materials—and as enterprising businesses find new uses for used materials. Indeed, there are signs that stronger demand could develop soon for key recyclables, including:

Paper. Despite a current North American glut, used newsprint could soon become a major money earner. The reason: four American states, Florida, California, Connecticut and New York, have enacted laws requiring from 25to 40-per-cent recycled content in all newsprint sold within their jurisdictions. The City of Toronto in November passed a resolution requiring newspapers published in the city to use 50-per-cent recycled newsprint, beginning in 1991. Last year, the Thorold, Ont.-based Quebec and Ontario Paper Co., for one, set up a recycling unit to process newspaper collected in Ontario. The Thorold firm recycled 150,000 tons of newspapers in 1989 and sold the resulting product to North American customers. As well, Montreal-based Canadian Pacific Forest Products Ltd. announced plans in December to install de-inking facilities at its paper mills in Gatineau, Que., and Thunder Bay, Ont., capable of processing 370,000 tons of used newsprint annually.

Metals. Prices fluctuate, but the Ontariobased steel companies Stelco Inc. and Dofasco Inc., as well as the Aluminum Co. of Canada, are in the market for all the steel and aluminum cans they can get. Alcan officials say that recycling aluminum requires only five per cent as much energy as is needed to smelt the metal in the first place, leaving considerable room for profit. Last year, Alcan recycled 218,000 tons of aluminum cans in North America. For his part, Alcan chairman David Morton in December described the aluminum beer can as the ideal product for recycling and said that his firm was buying back 55 per cent of all the cans it produced in the United States each year. Alcan officials said that, in Canada, the firm buys back 45 per cent of the aluminum cans it produces.

Glass. Toronto-based Consumers Glass Co. recycled about 150,000 tons of glass in 1989, melting down millions of bottles and jars and manufacturing new glass containers. The firm, which has been recycling glass for more than __ 30 years, is the only purchaser of recyclable glass in Canada and operates eight plants in she Canadian cities. Glass poses the highest labor costs for municipal collection programs because it cannot be contaminated by any other material, such as ceramics, and must be color-separated for recycling. Timothy Michael, recycling manager for Metropolitan Toronto, said that the glass industry’s requirements are so stringent that “they will reject a 25-ton load if there’s a teacup in it.” Currently, City of Toronto

and Consumers Glass officials are attempting to find a way of using the 4,000 tons of glass collected by the city that is contaminated by china and other objects. One possibility is to crush the glass and use it in the manufacture of asphalt.

Plastics. Plastics, which form between five and 15 per cent of Canada’s waste stream, are the most difficult materials to recycle. Still, a growing number of businesses are finding ways to use recycled plastics. Toronto-based Embrace Systems Corp. has developed an insulating material called Puffibre, which is made by spinning plastic waste. Mark Meade, the company’s founder and president, says that Puffibre is pliable, nontoxic and comparable in energy efficiency to glass fibre. Meade said that the company plans to begin marketing Puffibre for residential use in Canada and the United States next spring. In another project, Sarnia, Ont.-based Dow Chemical Canada and Montreal-based Domtar Inc. joined forces in 1988 to develop a recycling project that will use waste plastic.

According to the Recycling Council’s Hanson, such projects are causes for optimism about the future of recycling. Hanson, for one, envisions a vast market for recycled plastics to provide insulation, roofing and wallboard for the construction industry. Said Hanson: “There is no question that, given our population increase and the depletion of resources, what we are calling waste today is highly refined, reusable material. It’s just a matter of diverting money from waste disposal to market development and secondary industry.” For her part, Donna Passmore, executive director of Vancouver’s Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, said that for recycling to work, Canadian society will have to “develop a whole new waste-management ethic. It begins with conserving our resources, reducing our packaging and consumption and starting to treat our waste as a resource.”

Other supporters of recycling argue that profitability should not be the only measure of success for municipal recycling programs. John Nixon, executive director of the Vancouverbased B.C. Coalition for Recycling and Litter Control, said that in many cities, curbside recycling programs are not profitable. “It is a waste-disposal method,” said Nixon. “That’s how people should think about it. It’s not a commodity business to make money.” Indeed, that ethic appears to have taken root among a group of Calgary high-school students. Last month, six members of the city’s Western Canada High School Environment Club collected 750 lb. of waste paper and sold it to a paperrecycling company for $6.80. “The money hardly paid for the gasoline we used,” said Stephen Pearce, 17, a Grade 12 student. “But we are doing it to save trees.” If they are successful, the recycling programs that Canadians have so enthusiastically embraced may serve the dual purpose of saving resources and providing a sound basis for successful new businesses.

HOLGER JENSEN with correspondents’ reports