Last week I joined a small group of Port Moody citizens on a tour of Emterra, a local company that sorts the materials collected in single-stream" recycling programs. It was a very sad experience.
The people at Emterra were really nice.
Nevil and Mohamed took us through the entire process, from the "tipping floor" to the bales of plastic and paper that the plant ships off to manufacturers. They let us take photos (very unusual!). They answered all our questions.
They are proud of what they do. They freely admit there are challenges, but they are working hard and "thinking innovatively" to find solutions.
But I think they've been dealt an impossible hand.
Emterra's problem is that they have two customers they have to please, and the needs of these customers are totally contradictory.
One customer is cities. The Mayors of cities like Port Moody, Surrey, Langley and Port Coquitlam -- and hosts of others across Canada and the US -- are insisting that recycling must be "convenient." They tell their citizens not to bother to recycle materials -- and demand that Emterra transform their waste into resources.
The other customer is manufacturers. Paper mills don't have much latitude when it comes to the quality of materials they can use. They can tolerate very small percentages of "out-throws" (the wrong kind of paper) and only a tiny percentage of "prohibitives" (like plastic bags and lettuce boxes) in the paper they use. Paper making equipment is expensive. Downtime to fix it is expensive. Our paper mills are already suffering because of the recession. That's why most of Emterra's dirty paper is going overseas.
Where is the fix? Manufacturers have very little latitude. How hard is it for us to recycle paper and containers separately?
The most successful recycling program in North America is the beverage container deposit program that keeps containers separate. Despite the hassle of separating containers, deposits recycle twice as many containers as curbside recycling programs -- and keep the materials in good condition.
A cash refund trumps "convenience" every time. If we're serious about building a strong recycling industry, let's give the industry resources instead of waste.