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Reduce, reuse, revamp?
On a hot and muggy June day, a horse-drawn buggy carrying two Mennonite women in long dresses and bonnets glides down Union Street, in the heart of this southwestern Ontario town's industrial district.
It feels hot enough to melt plastic -- and that's exactly what's happening inside a nondescript factory that's clearly seen better days.
This is the home of EFS Plastics Inc., a cutting-edge recycling company owned and operated by German transplant Martin Vogt -- a man whose knowledge of plastics goes right down to the molecular level.
"Plastic is a hundred years old," he said, settling into an upstairs office and offering water -- in a plastic bottle, of course.
Vogt believes that a century later, he is on the verge of revolutionizing plastics recycling in Canada.
His assortment of large machinery, deceptively low-tech on the outside, has the capability to optically sort all the plastic bottles and containers people throw into their blue boxes and, after a series of processes, transform them into barley-sized pellets that can be re-made into new consumer products.
He's already getting ready to expand after receiving a $2-million grant from Stewardship Ontario.
"This is the technology that exists today in other countries such as Germany and Sweden," Vogt said.
"What we do here was needed four years ago in Canada. Nobody was talking about mixed-plastics recycling. No one did rigid-mixed plastics and post-consumer film plastics. The ability to sort it and bring it back as a high-end material -- that is the difference."
Vogt recently added Kingston to his list of municipal clients prepared to sell the bulk of their plastics to his operation. Also on board are the Ontario communities of Waterloo, Hamilton, York and Ottawa, as well as Rochester, N.Y.
Kingstonians can now throw all of their plastic waste, except bags, into their blue box without having to check the little number inside the arrow triangle to sort out the non-recyclable types.
"In five years there will be no need to pre-sort," Vogt predicts.
"Municipalities should not be in a situation where they're sorting any more. That's not efficient."
Instead, Vogt's one-stop facility can divert the various plastics, grind them into flakes, wash and remove contaminants and pelletize them, all in one location.
EFS, which stands for Environmentally Friendly Solutions in Plastic, took in 6,500 tonnes of plastic waste last year, transforming 65% of it into pure plastic. The remaining 35% is comprised of one particular type of unrecyclable plastic as well as glass, metal, food, labels and moisture.
The operation puts a small dent in the quarter of a million tonnes of plastic Ontarians throw out each year, only 23% of which is reclaimed.
The recently announced deal with EFS prompted several Kingston city councillors to laud the fact that they and their constituents would no longer have to fret over sorting "clamshell" plastics (such as deli sandwich and berry containers) or No. 7 mixed plastics from the overall stream.
That kind of thinking bothers Chuck Hostovsky, a lecturer in the University of Toronto's department of geography and programme planning.
When it comes to the 3 Rs of waste handling, he says reduction and reuse take a back seat to blue and grey box recycling.
"What the blue box does is emphasize the single-use throwaway mentality. Almost all the emphasis is on recycling," Hostovsky said.
"To some extent, the blue box is counter-productive to sustain-ability. A recycling-based system is cheaper for the firms."
Hostovsky considers PET bottles "a sin" and "a scourge," emblematic, he says, of rampant consumerism and wastefulness.
One-third of our waste is packaging, much of it petroleum-based plastics.
"This is all because of our inability to address reduction and reuse because there's too much packaging and consumerism," Hostovsky said. "Recycling is part of the whole consumer-based economy.
"At some point, on a global basis, we can't keep it up."
Each year, Hostovsky sends his students to the shops of Toronto to find the most egregious cases of over-packaging.
The top three this year:
* Bananas shrink-wrapped and placed in a Styrofoam tray;
* Oranges each in their own plastic bag;
* A gift card in an envelope in a box tied with a ribbon, all placed inside a bag with a rope handle.
Recycling everything is unsustainable, says Rick Kool, a professor of environmental education at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C.
"It utilizes vast amounts of en-e rgy to recycle stuff no one wants," Kool said. "I don't want the plastic milk bottle. I want the milk."
The roots of recycling can be traced to the 1950s and a growing concern over environmental pollution. It was also in the postwar era that the North American consumer-oriented lifestyle took root.
We began driving big cars and building bigger homes: the average house size in the U.S. grew from 1,000 square feet in 1950 to more than 2,300 square feet in the early part of the 21st century.
We started filling those big homes with more and more consumer goods. Today, there are entire businesses dedicated to helping people "de-clutter" their homes and workspaces.
One of the main sources of electronic junk, the fastest growing waste stream in North America, is the millions of tonnes of old televisions and stereo equipment collecting dust in garages and basements.
Hostovsky points an accusator y finger at affluent baby boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964, who have plenty of discretionary income to spend.
"We've gotten on this consumer treadmill," he said. "Us baby boomers have become quite materialistic."
Even the 1970s oil crisis, which helped usher a new era of environmentalism, barely put a dent in the shopping spree.
"In the 1970s, because oil prices were high, there were serious efforts by government and business and people to economize. Then it just blew up in the '80s and '90s," said R. Thomas Naylor, an adjunct professor in ecological economics at McGill University.
Naylor traces the roots of our environmental problems to the Cold War.
The final stage of the U.S.- USSR standoff, he says, was fought with economics. The U.S. assumed that the Soviet Union economy relied on oil production and sales so they cut deals with oil-producing nations to flood the oil markets.
Oil prices dropped "precipitously," Naylor said, and we've been living with that legacy ever since.
Cheap energy allows us to mine bad ore and scrape oil from the tar sands, he said, and prevents us from seriously considering sustainable, alternative energy forms.
"The industrial economy is premised on turning nature into garbage," Naylor said.
Kool says we need more responsible leadership. After the 9/11 terror attacks, he recalls, U.S. President George W. Bush told Americans to go out and shop to keep the economy going and show the world they hadn't been cowed.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, announced his government would pour "stimulus" money into roads and bridges.
Kool says governments should have invested in developing alternative energy and rapid transit.
Waste diversion, he argues, also needs to be re-conceived.
"There is an opportunity now to take things beyond recycling and ask questions about stuff," he said. "Recycling is about stuff and the core values of our society. We're very stuck in the ways of thinking that might have been appropriate 100 years ago."
In Ontario, a tipping point occurred in the 1970s with public concern about overflowing landfills. As garbage dumps reached capacity, no one wanted new ones built in their backyards.
In 1981, Kitchener started the first blue-box curbside collection program.
From the start, it was tied to commodity markets. Cities and towns would pay for the collection of metals, papers and plastics and sell them to brokers who would return them to mills and factories to be re-made into more consumer products.
The soft-drink industry was quick off the mark. In the mid- '80s, they cut a deal to help underwrite blue-box programs.
Glass bottles that could be returned for a refund began to disappear from store shelves, to be replaced by plastic bottles. The industry argued that plastics were lighter and would save on fuel costs incurred in transportation but the big savings for the companies would be realized in not having to pick up, clean or store the returned empties.
Cities and towns could also recoup money from the sale of recyclable materials. Therefore, the financial incentive for municipalities not only to participate, but to excel at recycling, was built into the system.
Last year, Kingston's recycling program received $827,224 from the Stewardship Ontario waste diversion fund, an amount based on the city meeting its established targets.
"Clearly it's better to recycle than to not," says Kool. "The downside is you could think it's enough to recycle and not to question consumerism.
"The idea that we recycle should be a kind of 'duh' thing but in the absence of asking larger questions about stuff, we miss the opportunity to engage in thinking about those necessary transformations involving energy use and environmental degradation.
"There are powerful interests. Recycling is good for industry but it may not be good for the environment."
According to Naylor, "the recycling game is a con."
"Economic growth is impossible in a finite world. Everybody knows we've reached the edges of the biosphere," he said.
"There's a point where it becomes sheer, collective lunacy."
According to Naylor, we must assume that nothing should be done if it's not renewable and that the laws governing our behaviour can't simply fall back on the economic theory of supply and demand.
"It's the law of thermodynamics that's the restraint," Naylor said.
A growing number of academics are now looking at new ways to measure the value and risks of so-called "green" programs.
One of them is Naylor's colleague at McGill, Prof. Nicolas Kosoy, a specialist in ecological economics and a skeptic when it comes to recycling.
"When calling for recycling as the green alternative we have to be very careful," warns Kosoy. "It may be just the continuation of business as usual."
Kosoy points to the work of the late-Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who, in the 1950s, began pondering "bio-economics," sometimes known as "thermo-economics."
A trained mathematician and economist, Georgescu-Roegen suggested that there existed a fourth law of thermodynamics -- that economics, too, are ultimately governed by energy.
The accepted second law of thermodynamics establishes that the quality of energy deteriorates over time. This conversion, from usable to unusable energy, is called entropy. Entropy increases as usable energy is lost.
Georgescu-Roegen's fourth law proposes that there are constant material losses, thereby placing limitations on recycling.
Kosoy uses the example of a grain of sand. Low in entropy, it can be converted into a pane of glass.
The resulting glass material, however, with its higher entropy, is more difficult to convert, or recycle, into another type of product.
The fourth law, says Kosoy, proves that any economic model based on recyclability is "a fallacy."
Kosoy adds other important variables to Georgescu-Roegen's theories.
What are the effects on our environment from recycling when we factor transportation, chemicals used in re-treatment processes and toxins inherent in the products themselves?
And what of long-term time scales? It takes millions of years for the Earth to create non-renewable fossil fuels, but very little time for economies to burn them up.
Kosoy invokes Jevons Paradox, which says that while improved energy efficiency reduces the cost of a resource, it also increases demand and accelerates consumption.
In the case of recycling, that means there cannot be perfect substitution for goods when they are recycled -- or the fossil fuels that re-process them.
"That is a very important paradox because it limits that we can substitute products," Kosoy said. "Recycling would mean recycled materials would be added to newly extracted materials. They will be added on top. Instead of reducing consumption we experience an increase in consumption.
"It's very important for our society to analyse recycling and waste management in light of entropy and in light of scarce materials, raw materials, and on top of that we have a problem of toxicity.
"Recycling is not a solution for our society."
Kosoy also questions the promise of economic growth held out by green industries.
In 2008, 31,000 Canadians were employed in the waste management industry in both the government and business sectors, according to Statistics Canada.
"We don't have scarcity of products. We have a scarcity of labour. Recycling won't open more jobs. Recycling is a technological solution," Kosoy said.
"They are real jobs in the sense people work, but the real efficiencies aren't in the system. Those jobs aren't productive. Having those jobs doesn't lead to an increase in GDP -- not to the level they lead us to believe."
Indeed, automation is gaining ground every day. Advanced optical sorting is reducing the number of workers required in the sorting and de-manufacturing sectors.
And what of municipal recycling programs?
Chuck Hostovsky says the costs of recycling -- running a fleet of diesel trucks for blue and grey box pick-up, transferring the material to the recycling plant where conveyors, machines and eddy currents are working at full speed -- all need to be added to the negative side of the environmental equation.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know how much en-e rgy goes into running the place," he says. "There's an enormous carbon footprint to recycling. That's the hidden component to recycling."
At his plastics recycling facility, Martin Vogt, a trained chemical and mechanical engineer, believes advances in science and technology will help solve at least part of our environmental problems.
His family's company in Germany's Black Forest, Vogt Plastic GMBH, recycles 50,000 tonnes of rigid plastics, 8,000 tonnes of film plastics and 3,000 tonnes of PVC plastic a year.
"We want to move forward and make it grow here because it makes sense," Vogt said. "Four years ago I didn't know how Canadians would react to this. I had many negative comments because people couldn't believe it would happen."
Vogt works out the energy savings of recycling plastic on a piece of graph paper.
It takes 30 megajoules of energy to form 1 kilogram of polyethylene which contains 42 megajoules of energy in its oil content.
Throw that polyethylene away and all 72 megajoules are lost.
By applying 22 megajoules of energy in the recycling process, that 1 kilogram of polyethylene can be re-made into another product with a net saving of 50 megajoules.
Included in the 22 megajoules of energy, Vogt says, is the energy required to pick up the plastics at curbside, ship it to his Elmira plant and for the recycling process itself.
Vogt says Ontario needs to double its reclamation of waste plastics to 50% and should consider sending the rest to energy-producing incineration plants to capture the material's last remaining energy.
He also believes in reducing plastics use, especially those plastics that are difficult to recycle.
"I see that in a few years the consumer will see it's easier to collect all plastics and it's possible to recycle them in higher quantities and better quality than today," Vogt said.
"I'm optimistic. We can't just look at recycling to solve our problem but plastic recycling will always be a very important part of that."
Murray Haight, who teaches waste management and planning at the University of Waterloo, is more optimistic than some academic observers.
"Recycling plays a role," he said.
He agrees with Vogt that the 4th R-- recovering the energy from a product at the end of its life through incineration as "refuse-derived fuel" -- has to be considered.
"I'm not pushing thermal but it's an idea that needs to be considered. It's part of the suite of options to think about," he said. "You have to do total integrated life cycle analysis. You're looking for as much efficiency as possible. We look at depletion curves, the use of resources over time. The whole idea of sustainability is to preserve things for the next generations."
Chuck Hostovsky remains adamant that reducing the amount of packaging is the best first step but that requires a change in mindset among consumer, manufacturers and government leaders.
"Reduce and reuse are hard to conceptualize. Recycling is tangible. You can design that at the municipal level and implement it at the household level," he said.
"Government doesn't like reduction and reuse because consumption is one of the drivers of our economy. The blue box program is helping the consumer- based economy but it's not sustainable on a global basis."
At Waste Diversion Ontario, former acting director Dave Merriman agrees that most of the emphasis falls on recycling which tends to be "reactive" to consumer demands, reinforcing the sales of short-lived products such as electronics.
"I'm the first to admit we in the back end of the system are reactive," he says. "It's a cause and effect. There's nothing we in the back end can do to slow the pace of technological advancement."
Merriman isn't throwing in the towel, but he said Waste Diversion Ontario is powerless when it comes to influencing consumer habits.
"It's just not part of WDO's responsibility," he said.
He believes it is possible to raise recycling rates, as well as overall diversion rates.
He recalls 20 years ago approaching municipalities as a waste plan consultant and nearly getting thrown out of offices trying to convince them that they could increase their recycling rates from 5% to 30%.
"Now in these same communities 60% of waste from single-family households is being recycled," said Merriman.
If we're going to tackle the problems that result from the sheer volume of garbage we generate, most agree it will be through legislating manufacturers to take back their goods after the consumer is through with them.
"The next big change has been the green bins. The other one is the concept of extended producer responsibility," Merriman said, but as with e-waste, Merriman warns manufacturers may simply pass the costs on to consumers.
McGill's Naylor believes manufacturers should be required to lease their cars and refrigerators, not sell them. That, he says, will result in longer-lasting, better- quality goods -- and appropriate disposal.
Kool, of Royal Roads, says recycling created a major shift in consumer-producer relations, including the concept of planned obsolescence, the production of cheaper goods, and increased wasteful packaging.
"There used to be a huge incentive for the distributor to make really, really good products. They were responsible for it," he said. "Now we can completely externalize all the costs. There's no incentive to make things with lesser packaging."
Kool has been thinking more and more these days about consumerism and its effect on the planet. He wonders if religion should play a bigger role.
"These become somewhat moral questions about buying stuff and having stuff. How does it relate to us as humans?" he asked.
"No religion really encourages people to be greedy.
"We are so linked to the con-c ept of growth -- even the growth of recycling."