When, as a student in high school, I was facing an exam for which I was perhaps not sufficiently prepared, my mother would advise me to put the relevant textbook under my pillow the night before. She believed that sleeping on the book would somehow help one do well on the exam.
Many owners and operators of recycling collection bins in commercial and institutional locations seem to subscribe to a similar philosophy, believing that users will access information about how to use the bins in a mysterious way. Why else do they label one bin as garbage and an adjacent bin as recycling without giving the user any indication of what to place in the bin labelled recycling. Those operators who are introducing organics collection all too often present the same challenge to users, labelling the bin as organics or compost without any explanation of which materials should be placed in it. The consumer is supposed to be able to read the mind of the waste collection agency.
It is true that waste diversion in Canada includes a mishmash of collected materials with requirements varying widely among municipalities, locations, and collectors. It is no wonder that confusion reigns. You only have to take a peek into the recycling bin at your local quick-serve restaurant or shopping mall to see how user confusion leads to contamination of the recycling and organics streams. As a result of contamination and the high cost of sorting the good stuff from the garbage, much of the materials that should be sent to recycling or composting end up going to landfill.
Many in industry are calling for standardization of recycling collection across Canada. This is hardly a way to maximize waste diversion. Some waste collection operators recycle only the very basic of materials, mostly cans and bottles. Maybe they are too lazy to do better or maybe in their region there are just no markets for materials from a more comprehensive diversion program. Until markets for recyclable materials become much more mature, a standardized national recycling collection program would collect very few materials.
Another approach would be to mandate collection of specific materials. The Ontario government did this for municipal Blue Box programs in 1994. The problem with a regulatory requirement is that the requirement becomes the target and very few operators choose to collect beyond the minimum required by the regulation.
A requirement that recycling and organics collection bins be properly labelled with pictures and words describing the materials that should be deposited there would likely not be much more successful. If the requirement is too prescriptive and the garbage police actually enforce the rules, then facility operators may choose to give up on recycling programs because they present too great a risk of fines or bad publicity. If properly labelled recycling programs are made mandatory, facility operators will scream about the burden of government regulations and the very next Red Tape Review Commission will likely abandon the effort.
A U.S. non-profit organization, Recycle Across America (RAA), may have found the solution to the problem of contamination of recycling streams. RAA proposes standardized recycling labels for all recycling systems. You can collect or not collect whatever materials you see as appropriate in your location, you can use whatever kind of collection bin you see as appropriate, but to qualify for listing as a recycling leader you must use nationally standardized labels in the RAA format.
RAA offers 28 different types of labels for everything from cans only to mixed recyclables, compostables, batteries, etc. The organization will also work with operators of recycling bins to develop custom labels that follow the standardized system while incorporating the specific or unique features of a recycling collection program. By linking its programs to schools and educational institutions, RAA has recognized, as Ontario discovered in the mid-1990s, that young people can play a key role in educating society how individuals and families can make a difference in reducing our environmental footprint.
RAA and the standardized labels are winning support from institutions that host recycling bins as well as from industry funders. The program has been identified as a world-changing solution by Ashoka Global Innovators for the Public and is being referred to as one of the most important environmental fixes taking root today.
For more information about RAA’s standardized label initiative or its celebrity-led “Let’s Recycle Right!” campaign, visit www.recycleacrossamerica.org. This program might just be what Canada needs to salvage its recycling programs.
Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).