Category Archives: garbage

Better than a ban

I struggle with whether cities should be banning particular products because they’re deemed environmentally unfriendly.

Plastic bags, for instance.

On the one hand, they represent just about everything bad about a disposable consumer culture. Made of petroleum, given out by the dozen, ordinarily used once — maybe twice if they don’t already have holes in them by the time you get them home — and then deposited in landfills for archeologists to find 10,000 years hence.

On the other hand, lots of things are bad and we don’t actually forbid them.

I like to believe that two pricing innovations would make a difference. First, wadded-up plastic bags take up lots of room in trash cans, so maybe if cities charged residents directly for garbage disposal, more of use would realize the plastic bags aren’t worth. Second, a price for carbon might push up the price of the bags just enough that they’re no longer worth using. If a plastic bag cost even a penny, it would be too much.

Plastic bags are entirely the product of economic externalities, I think — I hope. Styrofoam’s the same way, a product that works only if the real costs are passed on to others.

If you’re buying soup, the cafeteria where I work offers you the choice of a Styrofoam bowl or one made of china, which you can take back to your desk or wherever else you’re eating as long as you promise to bring it back. Normally, that’s what I do. But today I wasn’t paying attention, and the fellow at the counter put my lunch in Styrofoam. Not what I’d ask for, but no big deal this once. Except that apparently they’ve got a batch of bowls in the wrong size. They don’t hold as much as the cafeteria insists is one serving. So over my protests and with the best of intentions, the fellow dumped the chili from the Styrofoam into a china bowl, topped it up, and threw the Styrofoam away.

The worst of all possible worlds: a discarded Styrofoam bowl and a china bowl I had to bring back to be cleaned and sterilized.

As part of an inane conversational gambit, I mentioned this to the woman at the next desk. She, it turns out, is always struggling with servers in coffee shops when she brings in a reusable travel mug — they’re constantly using disposable cups to make drinks in, pouring them into her mug, throwing out the disposables, and handing her mug to her.

Somebody’s doing a bad job explaining the marketing strategy to the front-liners. It’s costing the customers aggravation and the companies money.

Today at Green Options, Gavin Hudson offers up some generally useful tips for greener dining, which includes a call for political lobbying:

Here’s the good news: increasingly, a number of large cities are passing legislation that bans the use of Styrofoam containers in restaurants. Many other cities are considering similar action. Legislation like this is important because Styrofoam is not recyclable in most places and does not quickly decompose so sits in landfills. The more Styrofoam we prevent, the fewer open spaces will need to be converted to landfills to hold this Trash (with a capital T). And not all of trash ends up at the dump: quite a lot finds its way into ocean ecosystems as well. Here‘s a visual. Chemicals in styrene products are also harmful to human health because they attack the central nervous system.

You can encourage your city to pass a similar ban on Styrofoam by contacting your city council. Also, talk to restaurants and stores that use plastic cutlery or bags about biodegradable plastics. If you already live in one of those forward-thinking cities with a ban on Styrofoam, you can help restaurants by letting them know how much you appreciate them following this eco-friendly policy. Supporting restaurants and companies that are doing things right flexes your power as a consumer to make a difference. You can also help the city by letting them know if you come across a restaurant using Styrofoam.

This is what happens when the underlying economic rules are wrong. City councils ban things, business operators violate the rules, nosy citizens snitch on them, inspectors come out, tickets are written …  Surely investing in fixing the underlying economics makes both more financial and more moral sense.

Ontario’s regrettable eco-tax on electronics

I bet the Ontario government will rue the day it thought to impose an eco-tax on electronics that contain heavy metals and other potentially dangerous substances.

The details aren’t sorted out yet — that’s up to an agency called Waste Diversion Ontario, to whom the environment minister, Laurel Broten, seems to have sent a fax with instructions (PDF).

The first words of the announcement from Broten say: “An industry-funded program will provide all Ontarians with convenient, accessible options for recycling electronics.” But it appears that what the government has in mind is a point-of-sale charge of a few bucks on a cellphone, maybe $10 for a computer, $50 or so for a big-screen TV. I don’t see how that’s industry-funded (leaving aside the deeper matter of how “industry-funded” still means “consumer-funded” in the end).

What’s dangerous about this charge is that, to me as a consumer paying an extra $10 for a new computer, I’m going to feel like I’m entering a contract with my government to have this thing disposed of at a date of my choosing. The province doesn’t get to change the rules on this without breaking faith, even if I decide to let the thing gather dust in a basement closet for a decade after I’m done with it. We have a deal akin to the one I get when I pay extra in Canada for a blank tape or CD to cover off the costs of private music copying. The people at the other end of that deal might grow to hate it as circumstances change — as the big record companies did with the advent of MP3s, and as I bet waste-diversion program operators will someday as materials-recovery mandates get stricter — but that’s not my problem as a consumer and fee-payer. We have a deal.

Much better to require these things to be treated as hazardous waste and impose a disposal fee at the other end, which can change as the program requirements do.

Two other notes:

  • It appears the standard acronym for “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment” is “WEEE,” which leads to a minister of the Crown issuing directives on the “management of WEEE” and the “diversion of WEEE.”
  • Premier Dalton McGuinty insists that this thing isn’t a tax. CanWest’s April Lindgren quotes him saying today: “I can certainly rule out a tax. There will be no additional revenues to the province of Ontario that will flow as a result of a concerted effort that, I think, all Ontarians understand we have to make when it comes to divert electronics from the traditional waste stream.”

So a charge imposed by the government on the governed, to pay for a government-mandated program … isn’t a tax? It’s only a tax if the government runs some kind of operating profit? It’s stuff like this from McGuinty — and he’s always saying stuff like this — that drives me up the wall. I can respect philosophical differences, but when the head of the government just talks nonsense, I lose patience.

Opting out of the garbage system

TrashcanToronto’s tentative plan to switch to a garbage system where householders pay an annual fee according to the size of bin they use is, let’s say, controversial. (I wrote about this earlier and attracted some irate attention.)

I repeat that I think the general concept is sound but Toronto’s plan bungles the pricing structure for garbage.

Everybody gets a $209 rebate right off the top, representing the average cost of garbage service to each household in the city; instead, they ought to subtract the costs proportionately to the taxes people pay.

Worse, though, the smallest bin you can order from the city carries with it a fee of $209 a year, so best-case, you come out even. (Bigger bins cost up to $360 a year, for a net extra charge of $151.) If you’re really good with reducing, reusing and recycling, it ought to be possible to pay less than you do right now as a reward for really doing what the city wants of you. Unfortunately, Toronto’s city staff say they’re trying to pull in an extra $54 million for more diversion programs, so nobody’s allowed to come out ahead.

One further option that Torontonians ought to have, which the proposal (PDF) doesn’t appear to give them, is the right to opt out entirely and have someone else handle their trash. Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute points out this is a trend in Britain:

So I was pleased to learn of a new, private collection service called Bin & Gone in Yorkshire, which apparently charges £90 a year to ensure householders get a weekly collection, and has bought its own refuse truck to do so. Meanwhile a friend in Hampshire tells me that a body in Romsey also plans a private alternative to the local authority’s service (or lack of it), and are putting out flyers to gauge the market. The service “will be provided at minimal cost and include the supply of free dustbin and peddle bin liners as well as a free bin washing service” – rather better than the council’s grudging effort.

The private companies, being profit-making enterprises, have to find landfills that will take the garbage they collect and will doubtless pay the going “tipping fee” for the landfill space. Their customers won’t be the city’s problem at all.

(Photo credit: “Bulembu,” Flickr/Miss Heidi B)

Life with a small garbage can

They changed the garbage cans at work, and I’m surprised by how much it’s affected me. We’re probably about the 50-millionth office in the world to have gone from standard-issue office garbage cans, maybe 18 inches high, to tiny little containers that hang off the sides of our paper-recycling bins. You could maybe fit a brick in one, if you had some reason to throw it away.

The change seems gimmicky — we know we shouldn’t throw recyclable things out, or gratuitously fill trash cans with anything and the issue’s particularly important to me personally so I’ve always tried to be extra conscientious about it. Besides, there’s no penalty for overstuffing one of these miniature garbage containers, or for dropping your stuff in a neighbour’s. What difference could it possibly make?

It’s no longer possible to discard anything of any size at all, at least not conveniently. My officemates and I have often wondered whether the plastic containers that the nice lady with the table near the front door sells salads in are recyclable; they’re transparent and made of a plastic that’s hard but flexible because it’s extremely thin, and they don’t have any numbers printed or punched on them. Before, it was a matter of idle curiosity. Well, now it matters — the large size containers wouldn’t fit in the new garbage cans, and the small ones do but just barely. Definitely inconvenient if you’re going to have a banana peel or an apple core to dispose of later in the day.

The truth, in the interests of full disclosure, is that we don’t know yet. With no plastic number on the containers, we need the lunch-seller to do some research for us and she’s thus far been disinclined. So mostly I’m buying sandwiches in saran wrap, which poses no disposal problems at all, and making more of an effort to bring lunch from home in reusable Tupperware.

My point, in this self-indulgent digression, is that a very small change in actual real-world incentives can make a big difference even in the behaviour of someone who believes he’s committed to making environmentally friendly choices.

Garbage fees meet resistance in Toronto

TrashcanTorontonians have had it just about up to here with extra charges for city services, according to a semi-random sampling of city residents by the Globe and Mail, and they’re not terribly keen on paying extra for their trash.

“With the amount of taxes we pay, they want to charge us for extra garbage?” [Anita] Moller asks. “I think that would be crazy because I think that is the only [useful] service they provide to a household.”

She says the city’s policies are fussy enough to begin with – even without people having to adjust to the city’s latest rubbish ruminations. “You’re not putting out garbage for fun,” she says. “It’s garbage!”

Toronto city council is considering following Vancouver’s lead by offering residents garbage bins of different sizes. The smallest bin would be free, while the larger bins would come with a rising schedule of annual collection fees.

This is a totally reasonable way to charge people for a service they consume according to how much strain they put on the system. The more garbage residents put out, the more trucks are needed to carry it, the more garbagemen are needed to work on the trucks, and the faster landfill space fills up. If you paid a private company to take your trash away, this is pretty much how they’d charge you.

Toronto may be botching the sales job, however, by considering the plan a moneymaker. The Globe:

Geoff Rathbone, acting general manager for the city’s solid-waste services, says the plan has two goals: to raise funds to accomplish the city’s goal of 70 per cent waste diversion, and to get people to more readily recycle.

This despite the earlier reporting of the CBC, which said in April that “Under the plan, waste collection costs would be eliminated from the property tax system and replaced instead with a flat annual fee based on the amount of garbage a household produces.” The issue here very much appears to be that even comparatively virtuous trash-generators have the feeling that they’re going to get screwed by the change.

The point of tax-shifting, which is what this nominally is, is to put costs on the people who generate them and withdraw the burden from people who don’t. Shifting taxes and expecting to pull in more from the public’s purses and wallets is a sure way to discredit the idea.

One other thing. Reporter Geoff Nixon talks to one woman who says here family has a standing joke of calling the poor sucker who has to sort the recyclables out of their trash each week the “executive vice-president of garbage.” Why not just have two bins next to the regular garbage, for paper and plastics, and make it everyone’s responsibility all the time? Much less of a chore that way.

(Photo credit: “Bulembu,” Flickr/Miss Heidi B)

E-waste photo essay

Boing Boing points to a photo essay in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, documenting dumps/processing sites handling technology waste mostly from the West. When you hand off a cellphone or an old VCR or laptop to an e-waste recycler with less than impeccable bona fides, most of it probably ends up in a place like this.

I have mixed feelings. Foreign Policy points out that some processing sites in China employ as many as 100,000 people, in — to judge by the pictures — conditions nothing like as wretched as those in, say, a Bangladeshi shipbreaking yard. A big part of what they do in China is physically separate fine components from each other, extracting metals and plastics by hand at a wage that’s adequate there but that you couldn’t find anyone to do the job for in North America or Europe or Australia. Their economic advantage is cheap labour, and they’re using it; if the alternative is that the junk would go into landfills here and the Chinese workers would be unemployed or doing worse work for less money, our current arrangement is preferable.

And then there are images like this one, and the sure knowledge that cheap labour in China is only part of the equation — low environmental and worker-safety standards are the other. It’s one thing to offload work nobody here would choose to do at an economically viable rate, something else to offload work that nobody here would be allowed to do for reasons unrelated to the wage.

Disappointing stewardship from Tim Hortons

A classic case of a company organizing its operations to make externalities somebody else’s problem. Tim Hortons objects to the possibility that Toronto might slap a 25-to-30-cent tax on the coffee chain’s cups, which Toronto can’t recycle:

“This would only polarize people; it’s absolutely the wrong way to go,” said Nick Javor, senior vice-president of corporate affairs for the Canadian chain…

Tim Hortons is trying cups lined with corn starch, but Javor isn’t sure if they’ll hold up or their supply can be assured.

As for the tax, “We’re not a waste-management company,” he said. “Our product is very price-sensitive.”

(Emphasis mine.)

The tax, admittedly, seems steep. It does not cost 25 cents to landfill a single paper cup. But Tim Hortons’ response, if Javor has been accurately quoted by the Toronto Star, is stunning.

We sell the stuff. It’s convenient and cheap for us. You figure out what to do with the crap that’s left over. Don’t you dare try to make that our problem.

The importance of skipping steps

This might be an utterly pedestrian observation to somebody educated as an engineer, but a couple of examples I’ve run across lately have brought home to me how critical finding ways to “skip steps” is to dramatically increasing the efficiency of an industrial process.

The two cases are a clever means of using natural gas to run an efficient air-conditioner, and of using the gases from garbage to make electricity.

First, here’s a clip from James Fallows’ story (subscribers only, I’m afraid) a couple of Atlantic Monthlies ago on Zhang Yue, a Chinese tycoon who made his money in air conditioning:

The air conditioners most Americans are familiar with are compression coolers. They use electric power to compress a refrigerant such as Freon, and when the refrigerant expands, it cools the surrounding air. The nonelectric coolers instead use natural gas (or some other source of heat) to boil a special liquid, a lithium bromide solution, and when the vapors from that solution condense, they cool whatever is near them.

It sounds odd to use a flame to cool a building—and, indeed, when China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, visited Broad Town in 2005, he asked several times to have the principle explained. A company pamphlet that lovingly commemorates this historic visit calls the premier’s persistent curiosity a sure sign of his acumen. “If I spread a drop of alcohol on your hand, you will feel very cold,” Zhang told Wen, describing part of the cooling process. The account continues: “The Premier nodded in understanding and said, ‘Yes! Yes! For it evaporates and takes away the heat.’ The Premier is a specialist indeed.”

Zhang has never wavered from this technology, even when, in the early 2000s, market conditions temporarily turned against it and his sales force begged him to add normal, electric-powered air conditioners to Broad’s offerings. Its advantages all involve energy savings. Compared with typical compression systems, nonelectric air-conditioning as Broad makes it will always require less energy per unit of cooling, because when energy is converted from one form to another, some of it is lost. Electric-compression cooling requires more stages of conversion—fossil fuel to electricity at the power plant, electricity to mechanical power at the compressor, both stages very wasteful—than does using natural gas to boil liquid. Nonelectric cooling will also always be more adaptable to other sources of energy, since it is easier to apply a variety of heat sources, including solar power and biomass burning, to do the boiling than to use them to generate electricity in a remote plant and transmit it to the air-conditioning site. And this method of cooling helps reduce the costly peak loads imposed on the power grid, because natural gas is cheapest and most abundant in the summer, exactly when the demand for air- conditioning goes up. Indeed, since storing natural gas is expensive and difficult, in many countries the available gas is simply burned off—wasted—during the summer, when no one needs it for heating. In China, air-conditioning accounts for as much as 50 percent of the electric load during peak times in the summer. Zhang pointed out to me—as he has noted in countless speeches, and as is emphasized by the Harvard Business School case study—that with all of these advantages, his kind of air-conditioning can make both the electric and the natural-gas networks less wasteful while still keeping people cool in the summer.

And here’s a recording (MP3; there’s no transcript because we’re not made of money, but here’s a news report) of a meeting we had at the Citizen with Rod Bryden, the entrepreneur and former Ottawa Senators hockey team owner whose current project is a plasma-gasification waste-disposal company called Plasco Energy Group.

Plasma-gasification might sound like incineration but it’s quite different. Incinerators burn garbage to get rid of it; if they’re power-generating incinerators, they use the heat to boil water to generate steam to run generators.

Plasma-gasification blasts garbage with, essentially, lightning, and uses all that energy to blow the trash apart into its component molecules, which are then strained apart and separated. The gas is run through combustion engines, which burn it directly to generate power. The result is enough power to run the process for the next load of garbage and then some.

Bryden says Plasco’s plants can generate 1,400 kilowatt-hours of energy from a metric ton of garbage, while even the most efficient incinerators only get 800 kilowatt-hours out of the same trash. The key, he says, is pinching out that extra step of making steam. A process of his type will always be more efficient at generating electricity.

Incremental improvements — a little nip here, a little tuck there — are certainly important, but major advances in green technology are going to require our best engineers to find ways to skip steps.

Garbage user fees

The very day I advocated that Ottawa should copy the Vancouver system of having residents pay for garbage by the bin, Toronto takes up that very cause, the Toronto Star reports:

[Mayor David ]Miller and city staff have been quietly working on a plan, divulged yesterday, that would turn the city’s garbage system into a self-financing utility much like the water system, where user fees cover costs. Depending on their needs, a household could choose to have a small (32 gallon), medium (64 gallon) or large (95 gallon) garbage bin. The bigger the bin, the higher the annual fee. That would encourage residents to reduce, recycle or compost their waste, and help the city reach its goal of diverting 70 per cent of waste from the dump by 2010.

Miller argued that switching to a fee-based system gives residents some control over what they pay.

“The general idea is you try to remove some of it from property taxes, and you pay extra if you produce a lot of garbage. I think Torontonians will understand that if you pay for recycling and diversion programs, that needs to be part of the strategy.”

Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) agreed that user fees are a way to reduce pressure on the residential property tax base, “so people have a choice on how to avoid increases. They can negotiate their (financial) commitment to the city in terms of how much garbage they put on the curb.”

Update: The Star‘s excellent City Hall columnist Royson James disapproves:

Instead of adopting a bureaucratic system of rebating everyone an average $180 and then charging them $180 for a standard bin, why not keep the current system and impose disincentives?

Limit bags (or size of bins) for standard pickup and require residents to purchase bags or tags for extra.

Dump more, pay more. Meanwhile, the city maintains the integrity of a flat-rate service.

Why is that important? Because user-pay systems disproportionately affect poorer residents. Charge everyone $180 to pick up a standard bin and the poor person pays more of his or her wages than the well-off person.

San Francisco votes to ban plastic bags

Specifically, its city council does. From the Associated Press:

The law, passed by a 10-1 vote, requires large markets and drug stores to give customers only a choice among bags made of paper that can be recycled, plastic that breaks down easily enough to be made into compost, or reusable cloth.

San Francisco supervisors and supporters said that by banning the petroleum-based sacks, blamed for littering streets and choking marine life, the measure would go a long way toward helping the city earn its green stripes.

Here’s some background. This probably won’t bug the San Francisco board of supervisors, but it seems wrong to tell large retailers they can’t use plastic bags while small ones can. If it’s a necessary environmental step, it should be good enough for everybody. (That’d help reduce confusion in the recycling bins, too.) Also, again we see people saying that the corn-based alternatives will be great for farmers. Be that as it may, it’s not a reason to ban plastic.

Still, plastic bags are a menace, even if they’re often reused for household garbage and lunches and whatnot: two uses for a thing that lasts pretty much forever isn’t enough.

San Francisco follows the lead of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, whose recent claim to fame is its deal with InStore Products Limited — maker of stoutly constructed plastic bins your grocery store sells for the cost of about 500 plastic bags — to ban plastic bags in favour of reusable alternatives just like those made by InStore.