Masters of Diversion: It Pays to Divert

September 1, 1998

9 Min Read
Masters of Diversion: It Pays to Divert

David J.A. Gordon and William N. Hett

When faced with a 50 percent diversion mandate by the year 2000, who in their right mind would up the ante to 70 percent? While even considering increasing such a goal might make other municipalities' blood run cold, the town of Markham in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is well on its way in meeting the new challenge.

Its solid waste department, which serves more than 50,000 single-unit households, 4,150 multi-family units and 432 industrial, commercial and institutional units, has a long track record of diversion success.

In 1970, Markham opened Ontario's first municipally operated recycling depot. By 1988, it had implemented a town-wide curbside blue box program and shortly thereafter was collecting leaf and yard material for diversion through centralized composting.

In 1991, the town surpassed the interim provincial target of 25 percent diversion by 1992 by 4 percent one year ahead of schedule. This achievement won Markham the Recycling Council of Ontario's "Waste Minimization Award."

Developing a Management Strategy By February 1991, the town developed a long-term waste management strategy that included a heavy emphasis on recycling. In 1994, the Model Community Demonstration Project (MCDP) was launched in an area of more than 5,000 households to test the effectiveness of co-mingled recyclable collection and curbside collection of kitchen organics in a three-stream system. Recyclables and garbage were picked up on an alternating, bi-weekly basis.

The pilot system used a specially designed, two-compartment vehicle, which was powered by natural gas, had variable compaction and an energy-efficient chassis.

In only one year, the pilot project:

* achieved an overall diversion rate of 69 percent;

* reduced collection costs by more than 30 percent; and

* registered a public participation rate of more than 90 percent.

Despite these successes, however, the programs tested in the pilot could not be implemented town-wide due to constraints such as:

* the lack of a local, full-scale, automated material recovery facility to process the co-mingled recyclables;

* a regional mandate that required that recyclables be collected using a blue box system; and

*a requirement that the entire collection vehicle fleet must be replaced with trucks designed to collect co-mingled recyclables and organic material.

To address these problems, the town expanded its blue box program. The program's three strategic principles were:

* environmental sustainability;

* economic feasibility; and

* maximum public acceptance and participation.

In 1996, Markham's waste management program consisted of a:

* weekly expanded curbside blue box recycling program that collected all core materials and all paper/fiber products;

* weekly yard organics program that collected brush, grass clippings and other yard materials for centralized composting;

* weekly curbside refuse collection;

* an intensive backyard composting program that distributed composters to residents at a subsidized rate; and

* four permanent recycling depots for residents to drop off blue box materials as well as polystyrene, scrap metal and textiles.

As a result, in 1996, Markham achieved a:

* 38 percent diversion rate (compared with 29 percent diversion in 1991);

* 87 percent participation rate in curbside recycling programs;

* 66 percent capture rate of targeted recyclable commodities;

* 40 percent reduction in waste generation from the 1992 Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Energy benchmark;

* recycled commodity "basket of goods" with a weighted average value of $57.38; and

* sales and distribution of more than 21,000 backyard composting units (a 47 percent market penetration rate).

Although impressive, these achievements still left the town shy of its waste reduction target. The MCDP showed that the key to attaining high diversion was two-fold: high capture rates of recyclables and an emphasis on the diversion of organic material.

Markham sought waste management systems and programs that would effectively meet these two critical objectives. For example, senior management visited Seattle to observe its user-pay program and were impressed with the system's efficiency.

The town recognized the link between high diversion levels and the need for homeowners to assume greater responsibility for waste generation.

Research found that financial incentives could be used to increase diversion by rewarding participants in waste reduction programs and by providing financial incentives to those who do not fully participate.

Source Reduction's Role Markham officials believe that source reduction where the generator disposes of waste without it ever entering the waste stream coupled with recycling, is an excellent means to achieve diversion.

The most successful waste reduction programs include the generator taking part in the disposal process and reaping the benefits. In backyard composting, for example, residents can process a large volume of organic material (in some cases as much as 50 percent of the entire waste stream) in their own backyards. The finished compost then can be used in their gardens.

Other types of source reduction include reducing excess product packaging. Recently, the Canadian Soft Drink Association (CSDA) committed to packaging its products in aluminum containers. Aluminum, the most valuable commodity in the blue box, generates a large portion of recycling programs' revenue.

Although this initiative helps diversion, a system where the packaging costs are handled completely by the producer and its end-user is more sustainable and equitable.

Ontario municipalities also have seen beverage producers shift from packaging of glass and aluminum to polyethyleneterephthalate (PET) containers. Glass historically has been a poor financial performer, while aluminum is the blue box's current "cash crop" because it generates a steady revenue while costing the least per weight to collect and process.

A shift away from aluminum packaging will only place more strain on municipal recycling programs. Because recyclable markets for PET are depressed currently, a shift from any type of packaging to PET is not a solution.

In the past, CSDA has offered a "top-up" to municipalities due to depressed markets for aluminum as this item comprises the bulk of their packaging. Aluminum markets have increased markedly since this time, and the top-ups subsequently have ceased.

However, as soft drink manufacturers begin to split their packaging materials between aluminum and PET, municipalities have not been offered any new top-up proposals from CSDA.

Another important aspect of source reduction deals directly with consumers. Consumers in this case, residents must take the initiative to reduce the amount of packaging they generate. Municipalities can help consumers make educated product choices through public communications programs.

Manufacturers only can provide products and packaging that sells. If consumers choose to avoid certain products due to packaging materials, manufacturers will not provide them.

Maximizing Diversion Due to Markham's aggressive promotion of backyard composting, the program has placed more than 21,000 composter units at residences since 1989. However, as the town approaches the saturation point for backyard composters, they are becoming more difficult to promote and sell.

Despite this hardship, backyard composters remain a cost-effective tool that have the potential to divert vast quantities of organic material.

To further boost diversion, Markham is striving to increase its recycling program capture rate. The current system achieves a weighted average capture rate of 66 percent. The target capture rate is 80 percent by 2000 an amount that is achievable because more than 85 percent of residents participate in the curbside recycling program.

Markham projects that its current system will attain a peak diversion rate of 40 percent. To bolster this number, the town will use legislation in conjunction with its current public education approach.

Following are the two initiatives that will take effect by the end of 1998:

* Reduce the weekly allowable garbage set-out limit from six units to three units. More than 90 percent of residents currently set out less than three units of garbage, but this by-law amendment provides an incentive for the residents who consistently set out large quantities of garbage.

* Ban curbside collection of grass clippings to promote grasscycling and backyard composting.

Although 90 percent of the population generates less than three units of garbage per week, a distinct gap at the four to five-unit range exists, and the bulk of the remaining 10 percent consistently generate six units or more of garbage weekly.

The legislation was designed to target this sector for two reasons:

* they are not making an effort to participate in waste reduction and diversion programs; and

* they are receiving a premium service level compared to the majority of the population while everyone pays the same rate for the service through the tax base.

As Markham's clock ticks down to less than two years remaining to achieve its goal, the town plans to reduce the bag limit incrementally after its implementation and eventually move away from a system that is financed through the tax base to one that is utility-based and is strictly pay-per-use.

The town has implemented the three-bag limit, and the ban on the curbside collection of grass clippings went into effect in spring 1998.

To date, the program has resulted in increased levels of backyard composter and blue box sales, and the achievement of a 40 percent diversion rate.

Refuse separation rates are down by more than 10 percent this year compared to this time last year before the program was implemented.

Although low revenues for recyclables, combined with low tipping fees for refuse, have led to a weak financial performance by recycling programs in 1996 and 1997, this is about to change.

Many industry experts are predicting that paper/fiber markets will undergo increased growth due to a large increase in global demand for both virgin and recycled paper fiber.

The other recyclable markets, such as HDPE, aluminum, steel and glass, remained stable throughout 1996, improved somewhat during 1997, and the upward trend predicted by experts has been steady rather than explosive.

On the other hand, Polyethyleneterephthalate (PET) markets, which were affected throughout 1997 due to an oversupply of virgin and off-spec material as well as a lessening demand from export markets, are expected to continue to be low for at least two years as additional virgin capacity comes online.

Low landfilling prices are on the verge of ending as well. For example, similar to the scenario in other communities, the Keele Valley landfill site, which currently is being used by municipalities in the Region of York and the bulk of the municipalities in Metropolitan Toronto, is scheduled to close in 2001.

The search for new landfill sites in the Greater Toronto Area has not been successful due to the "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome, economics and an inherent public dislike of landfilling.

The search first began in the late '80s, and no viable disposal site has been found. Now, landfilling alternatives are being evaluated, such as rail/truck haul to Michigan, incineration, waste-to-energy, and two and three-stream processing of co-mingled recyclables, organics and refuse.

Any new disposal option will result in tipping fee increases of more than 100 percent to approximately $80 per ton.

Recycling markets perform similar to any other commodity: They are cyclical and are characterized by their volatility.

The sale price of recycled commodities are subject to business cycles and marketplace pressures. A number of factors, including general supply and demand, impact recyclables prices.

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