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It's not what's on the inside that counts: Expanding the list of materials accepted in a recycling system

It's not what's on the inside that counts: Expanding the list of materials accepted in a recycling system

by Calvin Lakhan

Calvin Lakhan

If I were to ask the question, “will expanding the number of items that can be included in the Blue Bin (recycling) increase recycling rates?”, I would expect that most people would say yes. After all, one of the biggest barriers to recycling participation for consumers is the inability to readily differentiate between recyclable/non-recyclable products. Expanding the list of accepted materials will help reduce uncertainty, and as a result, will encourage people to put “more things” in the recycling bin.

Several jurisdictions across North America have adopted this kitchen sink approach to recycling, expanding the list accepted recyclable materials with the hope of being able to find suitable solutions on the back end. Will this approach actually achieve its desired result? At this juncture, the answer remains uncertain, although my personal opinion is that it will likely to do more harm than good (issues surrounding contamination, limited end use applications and processes etc.). However, that isn’t what this post is about – instead, I wanted to (re)introduce the topic of the endogeneity hypothesis, something I have written extensively about in the past, but feel compelled to revisit given recent legislative developments.

Whenever I refer to the “endogeneity hypothesis”, I am often met with blank stares. In its simplest terms, endogeneity (in this specific context) refers to when variables within a system are interrelated – the existence of variable A, impacts variable B, which in turn, affects variable C. This is a gross oversimplification of a rather complex issue, but I do so to illustrate a broader point: What we decide to accept in our recycling bin will not only influence our ability to recovery these materials economically, but also affect the recycling performance of individual materials that make up the recycling program.

What policy makers and advocates of the “Kitchen Sink” approach fail to recognize is that waste management infrastructure (including the development of downstream processing and end use applications) was largely designed around “core materials” – These materials, which are characterized by high levels of recyclability, stable revenue, strong end market demand and are accepted in most municipal recycling programs: Newsprint, Other Paper (Magazines, Office Paper etc.), Corrugated Cardboard, Boxboard, Gable Top Cartons, PET bottles, HDPE bottles, Aluminum Cans, Steel Cans, and Glass. While the proliferation of light weight and composite packaging has spurred innovation in the waste management sector, it would be a gross overstatement to say that these materials are readily recyclable. Recycling of flexible plastic and composite plastic packaging in particular are still in its most nascent form – research for this article could only find a handful of pilot projects (across North America) where recyclers are accepting composite and flexible packaging to be tested for chemical recycling and waste to fuel. 

But what does any of that have to do with the “endogeneity hypothesis”? For every additional “non-core” material added to the recycling program, not only do the costs of the entire program go up, the costs of managing individual materials within the program go up. Materials that are difficult to sort and/or recycle have an adverse impact on all other materials being managed within the same system – this is particularly true of single stream recycling systems. The more materials accepted by a program, the greater the number of types of materials inbound into a material recycling facility. If a MRF is not configured or cannot be readily retrofitted to efficiently sort materials that fall outside of the “core material” categories, it increases both the sort time and cost of managing *all* materials, irrespective of whether it is newsprint or a multi-laminate plastic.

In essence, the decision to attempt to recycle everything not only radically increases the costs of a recycling system that was never intended to capture these materials, but it poses an externality on the materials that were already being recycled. It makes the cost for all participants within the system more expensive, a somewhat perverse outcome given that we are trying to encourage producers who use readily recyclable packaging.

Further complicating matters is that expanding the list of acceptable recyclable materials increases the administrative complexity of producer responsibility legislation. The more heterogeneous the waste stream, the more difficult it is to accurately assign costs and calculate fee rates.

While I will ultimately write a full length report on the concerns surrounding endogeneity, it’s important to remember that what we put in the recycling bin is irrelevant, it’s what happens after that matters most.

Calvin Lakhan is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada.