What’s happening at Ontario MRFs?

We all know the pandemic is impacting nearly every aspect of daily life. This week, we explore how our collective changes in behaviour are affecting the quality, quantity and composition of materials arriving at Ontario material recovery facilities (MRFs), and what those facilities are doing to address this new reality.

As always, understanding what’s happening at the MRF can provide valuable insights for municipal collection programs. Unfortunately, at a time when so much is in flux at the curb, the ability to perform MRF audits has been thwarted. The following highlights some key information and opportunities for municipal collection programs.

Changes in material quality

Most facilities are reporting increased contamination levels from ‘wishcycling’ during spring clean-outs and higher generation of garbage (including disposable masks and gloves). For programs with enforced pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) restrictions, higher residential garbage generation may result in higher recycling contamination.

There may be an opportunity for heightened municipal promotion and education highlighting specific contamination (e.g., tissue, medical waste, plastic toys, OCC with foil) or use of online “What Goes Where?” tools. The US EPA developed an effective 30 second video explaining the importance of recycling “right” during the pandemic, which includes guidance about placing masks, gloves and other PPE in the trash.

RecycleBC invited residents to take a Recycling Home Tour during the pandemic, encouraging them to use their time at home to become better recyclers. “The online campaign takes residents room-by-room and item-by-item, helping them identify the residential packaging and paper people are least likely to recycle”.

OCC contaminated with foil insulation. Photo credit: Sherry Arcaro

Increases in material quantities

Recycling tonnage is up with some MRFs reporting increases between 4-6%. Higher rates are also being seen in garbage and organics. Watch for more:

  • deposit return containers, particularly glass, from closed/restricted Beer Store redemption depots and increased consumption
  • fibres from home delivery packaging, especially in areas with burn bans
  • containers — some suggesting a 25% increase — due to additional food preparation and snack packages associated with eating at home
  • “wishful” recycling as people complete spring clean-outs to pass the time
  • single-use plastics (such as plastics bags) based on growing demand for protectionist “wrapping” of items.

At least three municipalities have reported increases in litter complaints. It is suspected that stay-at-home orders are resulting in overflowing curbside recycling containers, which when exposed to windy spring weather results in materials escaping the bins before collection. To address recycling capacity issues, municipalities may temporarily distribute additional boxes or reduce purchase prices for extra containers.

Beer Cans Climb

Two Financial Post articles suggested that, in early April, Ontario brewers were starting to struggle to find bottles for refilling, resulting in a shift in the market to produce beverages primarily in cans. Since 2009, there has been a dramatic decline in the use of refillable containers (nationwide market share for beer sold in glass dropped from 59% to 30%). Although this was a known trend, limiting glass container redemption systems during the pandemic could speed up and solidify this shift. With the increased amounts of deposit return in the recycling system, the shift to cans may be beneficial to MRF revenues given the average year-to-date market price of glass is -$35/tonne and aluminum is $1,259 based on the April 2020 Price Sheet.

Photo credit: Emterra

Labour impacts currently minimal

Some facilities found that in the first two to three weeks of the pandemic, they had higher levels of absenteeism mainly due to fear and misinformation. However as things have progressed and more information has been made available, this has lessened.

Communication has been very important to dispel myths and fears. To support their staff, Emterra provided bandana masks as an additional form of PPE to compliment the current gloves and glasses already provided. As Ontario moves towards reopening, these forms of face coverings may be an additional measure taken to protect others as they can be useful for short periods of time, when physical distancing is not possible in offices, coffee shops and lunchrooms to name a few.

Transportation challenges

Initially there were challenges with drivers being concerned about getting stuck on the wrong side of the border. Lower demand for some materials due to manufacturing closures will continue to impact materials moving to markets, securing transport for commodities, and may even affect on-site storage capacity. There is good news for aseptic containers and OCC, as these materials are in high demand to make tissues and home delivery packaging, respectively. This is a good opportunity for municipalities to review compliance and contract documents and develop contingency plans.

Temporary lack of demand in end markets

Sherry Arcaro at the ReMM Group (Material Brokerage and Consulting) suggests that “MRF’s are producing the same or in many cases more recyclables for end markets, but some end markets have slowed down production due to COVID-related labour issues or a temporary lack of demand for their recycled materials”.

Further forecast information on recycling markets can be found in the webcast recording, The Recycling Markets Outlook Forum hosted by NRC, EPA, and Renew on April 30, 2020.