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Zero waste? Calgary and area recycling has some roadblocks

Contaminants and ‘wish-cycling’ are among the biggest roadblocks to delivering more diverse and efficient recycling programs, say two Calgary-area experts.

Rocky View County’s Jennifer Koole and the City of Calgary’s Sharon Howland both agree that recycling has come a long way in the past two decades, but there’s still work left to be done – including changing perspectives on the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

The pair will be part of a d.talks panel discussion at Calgary’s Central Library Sept. 24 that will focus on a zero-waste future.  

Waste and recycling challenges have been thrust to the forefront after Calgary was forced to landfill 2,000 tonnes of clamshell containers at a total cost of $300,000.

Koole, who is leader of the Rocky View County solid waste team and sits on the executive board of the Recycling Council of Alberta, said municipalities have been guilty of focusing the recycling conversation on too narrow a spectrum.

“This is something that’s been brewing for 15 years. From a municipal standpoint, I think we’ve been too narrow in how we’ve talked about recycling,” Koole said.

“We’ve expanded the definition of recycling or how people use it, but it’s going to take a while to undo those 15 years of how we thought recycling is just, ‘oh, when you’ve put something in the blue bin, I’ve recycled.

“It’s just one small component of this whole big recycling process.”

‘Wish-cycling,’ and recycling contamination

Howland, lead for Calgary waste and recycling services, said wish-cycling is one part of a greater issue with contamination in recycled goods.

Wish-cycling is the industry-coined term that refers to the material citizens put in recycling bins hoping that it’s an acceptable item.

“So, there’s kind of those two types of contamination, the recyclers who have a good heart, you really thought it was recyclable, because it seems similar to another product,” said Howland.

“It’s the gross misuse (contamination) that causes a facility to light on fire – a building full of people – to light on fire on a regular basis.”

Howland said they regularly get car batteries, cell phone batteries, household chemicals, aerosol containers and other hazardous items in Calgary recycling. She said bear spray is a common problem. Once picked up in blue bins it gets compacted and it might ignite in the actual truck, or on the floor as it goes through the conveyor system.

It results in lengthy down time and expensive repairs – perhaps even injury to workers.

Howland said recently a fire was ignited by a guitar amp put in Calgary recycling.

“It was on a conveyor belt, going at 98 revolutions per minute, ripping through this hundred thousand square foot facility spreading a fire along $30 million worth of equipment,” Howland said.

“It’s terrifying for us.”

Koole said people “feel good” about the fact they’ve recycled without thinking about what they’ve tossed into the bins, or whether there’s an actual value to the broken-down product.

She called it the “harm spectrum.”

“So, materials that have more ability to do harm if they were left or to be in the landfill or somewhere less desirable than even the landfill for disposal. How do we make sure that there’s programs in place for those materials?”

Educating Calgary residents on better recycling

The industry is exploring ways to teach residents the types of acceptable materials for the recycling bins, but also extending the life of other products they use. This could divert the waste (and some un-recyclables) and provide other citizens with low-cost options on items they may not otherwise be able to afford.

Koole said they opened a variety of different eco-stations that give a second life to things like recycled sporting goods, tools, games, toys – even clothing. She said Rocky View has also introduced textile recycling.

“That’s an area that we’ve expanded into, because there’s a thriving market with thrift stores and others, and we do get monetary compensation for that. And it goes towards helping charity as well,” said Koole.

Howland said this is where Calgary recycling is behind. She said waste diversion services are scattered around the city, making it something only the die-hard recyclers pursue.

“If you want to be super keen in this city, you need to go to dozens of different locations to divert your materials. That’s not easy and convenient. And people want easy and convenient,” Howland said.

She agrees that instead of focusing on “easy and convenient” blue bins recycling, it’s time to think about recycling in a different way.

“It doesn’t involve a paradigm shift, or an enormous shifting in your thinking. It’s really easy. It’s really about just sorting something into a different bin,” Howland said.

“It doesn’t mean people having to change their lifestyle in any way to adopt more of a mentality where you repair things, instead of buying something new. You find a re-use for something, you share things instead.”

Extended Producer Responsibility

While it’s one thing to encourage citizens to recycle more diligently, both Howland and Koole said hitting the manufacturers and packagers is a critical tool.

The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a tool to pass along the cost / responsibility for a product’s end-of-life – particularly the packaging.

Calgary city councillor Peter Demong pushed the issue into the Alberta election and several of the province’s municipalities have signed on to a plan to lobby the government to enact an EPR.

That’s the framework that’s needed to really move the conversation forward, said Koole. She said passing the responsibility back to the producers will best influence the type of packaging they use.

“Right now, as the municipality, we have to deal with what we get, whether it’s in the recycling or in the waste and deal with it appropriately and in environmentally sound ways. That’s our responsibility,” she said.

“And we can try and influence the consumer chain, but having extended producer responsibility with will strengthen that strengthen that link between what materials are produced and what materials can be – and at the time – have a valuable market.”

Howland said having an EPR in place in British Columbia has helped them ride out the ongoing recycling market crisis.

“There’s all sorts of reasons for EPR. I mean, we’re all already basically paying for EPR when we buy a product, but we’re not actually seeing the benefit here in Alberta,” Howland said.

The future of Calgary recycling

There was a steady stream of users at the 126 Avenue SE community recycling depot Wednesday. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

To start, Howland said one of the things on her to-do list is tackling misconceptions around recycling. She calls them “clickbait headlines” about recycling found in oceans, people burning it for fuel and other uses.

She said Calgary has a very transparent program that logs where their recycling goes and how it’s used. They want to make sure it’s being re-purposed in an ethical way. Howland used the example of crushed glass. Their recycler sends the glass to a western Canada company that creates a product that’s used in Alberta’s oil and gas industry.

“It’s very important that municipalities play that role, and that we’re transparent with citizens about what happens to material,” she said.

Koole said the province’s municipalities are on the right track. They’re trying to accommodate the explosion in the desire to recycle by offering more programs. She said Extender Producer Responsibility is key.

In the end, everyone needs to become more aware of what’s being thrown out. Further, Koole said, municipalities need to be nimble in responding to the changing recyclables market.

“I definitely think we need to work on our ability to be able to respond quicker,” she said.

Details on the d.talks event

Howland and Koole will be joined by three others: Vancouver-based entrepreneur Adam Corneil, Calgary entrepreneur Lourdes Juan and Sumer Singh with MTHARU.

To join in on the conversation you can get tickets by visiting the d.talks web page.