Computer model brings analytics to Blue Box recycling

Governments should be using technology that factors environmental and economic considerations into the waste management equation in order to develop better policies, according to those close to the industry.

In a recent report, the Environment

and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) and Corporations Supporting Recycling (CSR) describe a joint effort called the Integrated Waste Management (IWM) computer model that is being used to deal with waste diversion issues. The computer model not only provides the means to measure and evaluate the performance of municipal recycling initiatives such as Ontario’s Blue Box program, but also allows governments to compare the costs and benefits of implementing changes. 

“We can’t keep putting (garbage) into landfills,” said Randy Cluff, waste management chair with the Ontario Environment Industry Association (ONEIA). “We generate it, we consume it and we demand it. Now we have to take responsibility to deal with it.”

EPIC and CSR started working on the IWM computer model about eight years ago, according to Cathy Cirko, director general of EPIC, a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. The reason the two organizations collaborated, she said, was because of the lack of easy-to-use computer software models at the time that municipalities could use to meet waste management objectives.

“It gives a tool to municipalities to gauge what the environmental impacts will be of different waste management strategies in their municipalities,” said Cirko, adding that Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada are among those examining the IWM computer model more closely. “What we saw was the need for a very site-specific tool…We believe there’s no single solution to waste management. We wanted to develop a model that would (provide) options that municipalities could consider.”

EPIC recently used the IWM computer model to assess the cost and environmental impacts of achieving the 60-per-cent diversion targets for Ontario’s Blue Box program. The two options involved looking at a 60-per-cent recycling rate for each material category – i.e. for plastics, paper and cartons—and looking at an overall 60-per-cent recycling rate that would require that the material categories as a whole, rather than each specific category, meet the target.

The report’s findings suggest that a 60-per-cent recycling rate on each material category of packaging and printed materials would cost about $383 million compared to $227 million for a 60-per-cent overall recycling rate. The extra $156 million needed to achieve the first option, according to the study, would not result in substantially better environmental benefits.

According to the research, a 60-per-cent recycling rate on each material would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a further 266,000 tonnes, or only 0.1 per cent of the 240 million tonnes of greenhouse gas reductions required pursuant to Canada’s Kyoto commitments.

The study also reveals that the second option, combined with using residues to produce energy rather than sending the residues to landfills, would reduce Ontario’s total Blue Box system costs to between $106 million and $207 million. Ontario has yet to respond to the report.

Cases where governments have used the IWM computer model, Cirko added, show how instrumental technology can be in helping governments to formulate sound policies.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the model was used to develop a “before” and “after” case, which led to a shut-down of small landfills that existed throughout the province and a move towards the centralization of landfills facilities. “A lot of these small landfills were just burning the garbage,” she said. “If you just burn garbage without any controls on emissions it’s probably the worst thing, because you do get heavy metals like mercury.”

Geoff Love, its vice-president of technical services at CSR, said the IWM computer model could prove critical to local governments.  

“It’s in our interests to make sure that both economic impact and environmental impact are looked at by municipalities when they make these decisions,” said Love. “Our organization has been around with different names since the mid-80s.

CSR, under a different name, was the organization that helped to develop the whole Blue Box recycling infrastructure in Ontario.

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