Plastic and paper cleavage

February 22, 2009


There’s an ongoing debate, it seems, about whether Tetra Paks are recyclable. Although most municipal recycling depots insist they are (personally, I’m not sure how the plastic-coated cardboard gets separated from the inner foil lining, but I’ll suspend my disbelief for the time being), what I’m wondering is: What happens to all of those Tetra Paks that come with hard plastic screw-caps on top? Most juice boxes are made from a single material, but wine cartons have what look to be #5 polypropylene caps, presumably to keep them fresher and make pouring easier.

Now, because I’m kind of a recycling nerd, I take the time to find my pair of scissors and cut these things off before rinsing the empty carton and tossing it into the blue bin. I do the same with milk cartons that have this because, again, I don’t see how a paper-based material could ever be properly recycled with plastic attached to it. I even make sure to separate my #5 yogurt containers from their #6 (I think) lids, and harass my parents on a regular basis about detaching plastic handles from paper bags and shoelace drawstring handles from plastic bags (thank-you, GAP) before putting them in their proper disposal unit.

Recently, the city of Toronto began talking about ways to discourage people’s use of disposable coffee cups; apparently, while it is possible to recycle the paper cup, this can’t be done when the plastic lid is attached — this is a big problem at the sorting plant.

So is my anxiety over decapitating every single Tetra Pak of wine, every Ceres juice box, every milk carton and yogurt container justified? Should the government be forcing manufacturers to start offering products in single-material packages? Or do most things get recycled, regardless of whether they’re clean or dirty, separate or joined together? And is there anyone besides me who can be found stabbing juice boxes with a pair of scissors every Tuesday morning before the recycling trucks come?


Cue the Hallelujah Chorus!

January 10, 2009


All my fellow Torontonians, please note: Our fair city now recycles plastic bags and Styrofoam! While this doesn’t exactly mean you can forget about tote bags and coffee thermoses, it does mean that when you screw up, you’ll be hurting Mother Earth a little less… kind of like slapping her across the face rather than punching her in the gut.


Photo courtesy of meckleychina on Flickr.

Fixing other people’s green mistakes (Day 365)…

February 28, 2008


Ugh. Day 365. Today was the day I’d been looking forward to for so long. It was the day when this challenge was to finally be complete, when I could officially say “I did it” and reflect upon a full year of green changes.

Then, someone decided to make it a leap year.

Damn you, Gregorian calendar!!

But that’s fine, tomorrow isn’t so far away, and at least it gives me a bit of extra time to spend with you, my faithful readers.

Anyway, as I was walking home one evening this week, which happened to be the night before collection day for garbage and recycling, I noticed one household had left out a Blue Bin with Styrofoam in it. Not cool! This could very well mean that instead of getting sorted out at the depot, the whole lot just gets tossed out — same goes for pizza boxes, bottle caps and light bulbs. As Alina has mentioned before, there are rules that come with recycling, and if you screw them up it could mean a chain reaction that ends up with everything going straight to the dump.

So I stopped, plucked out the Styrofoam container — which had some gross red substance oozing out of it — and put it in the garbage, where it belonged. While it’s frustrating that, after decades of organized recycling, people still can’t sort things out properly, I can sympathize with the fact that there are so many different materials, and often the City will update their operations to include an item that previously couldn’t be processed.

Therefore, instead of taking the misanthropic route of cursing people’s ignorance and walking by, I’m going to make sure I stop and take the time to right the recycling wrongs in this world.

Image of a car bumper placed most erroneously in a recycling bin courtesy of Mr. T in DC on Flickr

No aftertaste of e-waste (Day 258)…

November 13, 2007


I have a monster in my closet: a gigantic iMac desktop computer. It works, but not that well, and I don’t have a need for it thanks to a new MacBook. But I can’t just toss that beast in the garbage and sleep soundly at night, so I’ve decided that, because it still functions — despite missing a “%” key and a few other glitches — I’m going to Freecycle it, hopefully to someone who really needs a computer.

However, if I weren’t doing that, I’d definitely want to make sure I was properly disposing of my e-waste, preferably by recycling it.

Recently, I got the chance to interview Frances Edmonds of HP Canada about the software company’s views on e-waste and how they’ve partnered with Sims to achieve some lofty goals in terms of sustainability. HP’s environmental program boasts standards for emissions, energy consumption, waste reduction, chemical elimination, materials innovation, recycling and product return. As well, they’re committed to recovering two billion pounds of electronics and print cartridges by the end of 2010.

Their plant just outside of Toronto has the capacity to recycle over 10,000 pounds of electronics per hour, which you can see if you book a tour, or watch the video here.

When I spoke to Frances over the phone, I asked her various questions about everything from the dangers of mercury and lead in e-waste recycling facilities to the profitability of the whole process. Here are some snippets of our conversation:


How long has the issue of e-waste been a concern for HP?

“Well, about 15 to 20 years ago, HP recognized there was going to be a major issue with e-waste. We traced it and it was ending up in China, where recycling wasn’t being done properly, if at all — they were mainly burning and dumping everything. So we partnered with a Canadian company, Sims, and said to them: Look, we’re a leadership company, we want to do all we can, you’re an expert in metal separation technology, what can we do? So it’s a symbiotic partnership.”

What’s the actual recycling process like?

“We developed technology that represents the state of art in processing complex waste stream, something you don’t just want to put through big crushing machines — like batteries, ink and toners, little mercury vapor tubes in the back of laptop screens, which need to be removed and sent elsewhere … Not only does it take time and energy and resources to remove mercury, but we have to send it downstream to another processing facility where it becomes a new commodity again. You have to make sure you know where every last nut and bolt goes.

“Once all the hazards are removed, you can put a piece of equipment as large as a photocopier through the shredder and it will come out in 5 cm square pieces — and that’s for any type of IT equipment, any mix of metals and plastics. Then it gets separated before being sent to resource recovery. It’s a manual separation first, then a mechanical one, where we pull off steel using magnets and pull off aluminum, so in the end there’s a mixture of copper and plastics.

“The aluminum and steel head straight back into furnaces — the copper can be used for energy value — but that burning of plastic needs to be done safely of course, so there’s a special smelter in Quebec for that. We pay a lot of attention to detail, constantly testing the air, testing employees’ blood levels for lead, etc., and all the dust goes into smelter.”

So how does one actually get an old computer to a recycling facility?

“We want to offer e-recycling to all customers, whether businesses or individuals. Through a program called Planet Partners we offer ink jet and laser jet recycling for free, along with rechargeable batteries and for hardware recycling, we charge the customer but don’t make profit. We’ll also send someone to pick it all up at your door.”

What’s the biggest hurdle you face when it comes to this initiative?

“The highest possible recovery rate is our main concern. We need to get customers aware, interested in what happens to their computers after they’re done. We’re currently grappling with how we can collect all this stuff — it’s hard to get people to go into their basements and pull out their old TVs, so there’s a whole bunch of human behaviour in here to consider. TVs, monitors, CPUs, noteboopks and printers. We’re hoping to keep that harmonized. The way it’s funded right now involves putting an invisible seal on new products … I think cell phones are on second phase, PDAs too.”

Are certain parts of electronics easier to reuse or recycle than others?

“Metals are the ultimate recyclable material, they can be recycled again and again. Copper wiring could be recycled indefinitely; it could have come from the bronze age and still be in use now. Plastics are more difficult, there are issues with older products that contain flame retardants. We can separate plastics, though, and mix stuff with plastic water bottles — that eventually becomes a new ink jet cartridge.”

Which takes more energy: recycling those parts or making new parts from scratch?

“It depends on the age of product. We’ll refurbish what we can, but after a number of years, it’s not economically feasible, so it gets recycled.

“Looking at it very holistically, the whole thing of outsourcing and pretending you’re not responsible for your products after you’re finished with them — you have to take a full life cycle approach, and that’s what differentiates us from out competitors. We have a Design for the Environment program where our teams have product stewards on the design team, who act as a sort of environmental conscience, and without those reminders the engineers won’t consider that. So having that voice in there from the design phase, the very first phase, is extremely important and helps set goals about how we’re going to make our products the most energy efficient. We’re in the top 100 most sustainable corporations worldwide, and that’s not just because of our facilities, the largest impact is with our products.”

What would you the average consumer should think about when purchasing new electronics?

“We just recycled a billion pounds of electronics. It’s not just about the individual product when you’re buying something; you should be looking at what kind of company you want to deal with and support. But it’s hard to put all these messages on the box.”

How do you avoid all the toxic substances and where do they go?

“The biggest concern is mercury, which can come from scanners, batteries, vapor tubes. The EU passed legislation about hazardous substances and lead was another thing they banned, so the industry had to go through sea changes in order to meet these regulations. HP meets these, of course, and doesn’t have any of these materials, but the older products will still contain chemicals like this.”

How is this a financially viable operation? Do you extract any valuable metals?

“Metal prices are high right now but the cost of doing things properly is too much. We hand remove mercury tubes and have to ship it as hazardous waste, so we pay other people to handle it properly and there are the associated downstream costs. If you cut corners you cut costs, but it’s not worth it to us. We do track how much we’re recycling. but we don’t reveal the cost of it.”

hardware recycling


Photo at top courtesy of Natalie Behring for Greenpeace on Flickr

Photo of hardware recycling, middle, and a granulator, bottom, courtesy of Hewlett-Packard