Making some green out of blue

The blue box program has made recycling in Red Deer affordable and easy — but the program has not been without its problems.

Robin L’Hirondelle of Waste Management dumps a blue box in Kentwood. Waste from our Blue Box program is being trucked to Tacoma

Robin L’Hirondelle of Waste Management dumps a blue box in Kentwood. Waste from our Blue Box program is being trucked to Tacoma

The blue box program has made recycling in Red Deer affordable and easy — but the program has not been without its problems.

Nearly 5,000 tonnes of recyclable waste avoided the landfill last year, largely due to the 26,000 single-family homes and 130 multi-resident sites using the program.

Often viewed as simply the right thing to do, curb-side recycling programs rely on environmentally-minded citizens to support their existence; but recyclable materials are also a traded commodity. The waste we throw into our blue bins has another life after it leaves our sidewalks; an economic life-cycle that influences what ends up in the landfill and what gets reused.

“You can recycle almost anything if someone wants to take what you’ve got and turn it into something else,” said Janet Whitesell, waste management superintendent at the City of Red Deer.

Whitesell and three other waste management employees make up Red Deer’s sanitation staff: directing garbage collection, landfill, and recycling programs. Almost all the labour for these services comes from private companies, under contract to the City of Red Deer.

Beginning last November, Waste Management of Canada (a subsidiary of Waste Management, Inc., the largest environmental services company in North America) became responsible for picking up, sorting and marketing the recyclable goods recovered from Red Deer’s blue box program.

Waste Management is upgrading its Red Deer sorting facility, so Red Deer’s recyclables are shipped by truck to a third-party materials recovery facility in Tacoma, Wash. — 50 km southwest of Seattle.

“Our options have become limited due to the economic downturn,” said Diane Kossman, corporate communications at Waste Management of Canada.

Kossman said the recession of 2008 caused so many mills in the U.S. and Canada (the end users of recyclable materials) to close that Waste Management had to start looking overseas, to markets in China and India, to sell the massive volumes of recyclables the company handles — around seven million tonnes per year.

As the economy recovers, Kossman said Waste Management is looking again for more domestic partners to sell its recyclable materials to, which would make its operations more cost efficient and reduce its environmental footprint.

The City of Red Deer gets 75 per cent of the profits collected from the sale of its recyclables and Waste Management takes the remaining 25 per cent. It’s a deal Whitesell says keeps the contractor motivated to get Red Deer the best deal.

Like any commodity, buying, selling and trading recycled goods in large volumes is a finely tuned skill, involving close assessment of current market conditions.

Similar to trading stock, knowing when to get in and when to get out can be tricky as the materials’ value can be skewed drastically when supply-and-demand trends change.

“The end users are the key to making recycling successful,” said Wes Muir, spokesperson for Waste Management, Inc.

According to Muir, most manufactures and brokers who buy recyclables will only take certain materials within a limited time frame — paper degrades to near unusable quality after five to six months of storage and most plastics start to break down after just three months.

Plastics are especially problematic to recycle, because there are seven types and only types 1 (PETE) and 2 (HDPE, the only type Red Deer’s program accepts) are in demand with brokers and end users, Muir said.

“We’re really restricted in what we can take by what we can sell,” said Whitesell.

Also limiting Red Deer’s capability to recycle more materials is its size. Calgary and Edmonton populations move much larger volumes of recyclables, so they can afford to ship a load of “crummy plastic” with their good stuff, Whitesell said.

The City of Red Deer will assess its recycling master plan later this year, and Whitesell said new materials (such as household organics and lower-grade mixed plastics) could be added to the program if the assessment determines it’s feasible to do so.

Whitesell also said the new Waste Management sorting facility in Red Deer, slated to open this summer, should improve the program’s long-term sustainability.

syoung@bprda.wpengine.com

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