Deborah Pearson, RRU Master of Arts in Environment and Management Candidate
Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development, Royal Roads University
Published January 21, 2013
In Canada, recycling and composting is used to divert municipal solid waste (MSW) from entering landfills and incinerators and to improve the sustainability of waste management. This directly contributes to sustainable development by preventing toxins from entering the environment, maximizing the use of raw materials, reducing the footprint of landfill areas and conserving the energy used in the harvest of virgin raw materials for additional consumer products. Many programs have been unable, however, to achieve waste reduction targets, and the per capita volume of waste continues to increase in all provinces except Nova Scotia (Statistics Canada, 2012). This case study examines an innovative, comprehensive, and province-wide waste management strategy in Nova Scotia, and addresses the question: how effective are recycling and composting programs for achieving sustainable waste management strategies?
Sustainable Development Characteristics
The production of waste is a commonality of all species on the planet. In the life cycle of animals and plants, the use or consumption of products for survival, and the output of waste are in balance and naturally sustainable; output from one species provides input for another species. Natural systems produce virtually no waste. At one time, the volume of waste generated by the human species may have been sustainable, however today, as human populations expand around the globe and economic growth increases the consumption of products, the volumes of waste are rising significantly.
Each opportunity we have to reduce our impacts on the planet is a step forward towards the implementation of sustainable development. Recycling reduces the need for virgin resources and using recycled content in manufacturing new products conserves energy. The energy required in the manufacture of products from recycled materials is substantially less than the energy required if the same product was manufactured from virgin materials. In addition, products made from recycled content forgo the pollution or environmental degradation that would occur during the harvest of virgin materials. Recycling products at the end of their first life cycle maximizes and fully realizes the benefit of the initial harvest of virgin resources.
Critical Success Factors
- Mandatory recycling and composting provincial legislation.
- The province’s programs are inclusive, providing a high level of recycling and composting services to all communities including small and rural communities.
- Nova Scotia’s model is a closed-loop system that includes the collection of materials through to the manufacture of new products.
- Sufficient funding committed to implement the collection and sorting of materials, develop infrastructure, and provide incentives to develop markets.
- Integrated community engagement strategy with phased implementation of recoverables to allow for greater adoption and adaptation.
- Extensive education and communications program to encourage comprehensive adoption.
In 1995, the provincial government adopted a comprehensive province-wide waste management strategy, and by 2000, was the first province to achieve the national waste reduction target of 50%. The Government of Nova Scotia’s strategy involved an extensive collaborative effort province-wide between government, stakeholders, municipalities and the public, which resulted in a high level of buy-in and acceptance of mandatory recycling legislation.
A management framework was created to implement the strategy consisting of the Resource Recovery Fund Board (RRFB), the Regional Chairs committee, and seven waste management regions based on demographics and waste capacity. The RRFB, a non-profit organization, was responsible for planning province-wide waste diversion education and awareness programs, promoting local markets and the development of value-added manufacturing programs using recycled goods. New local employment opportunities arose province-wide in the value-added industries created through the waste management strategy.
The strategy focused on a maximum diversion of waste through mandatory recycling for an array of recyclables including yard waste and organics. The implementation was phased in over a number of years, allowing the public and businesses to adapt over time.
What Didn’t Work?
Up until 1990, Nova Scotia’s waste reduction rate was similar to other provinces where provincial spending on waste management varies, as do the types of programs offered, and more importantly, responsibility is at the municipal level.
Financial Costs and Funding Sources
In Nova Scotia, funding for recycling and composting programs is primarily through municipal property taxes and tipping fees, however, a percentage is provided by a “half-back” program on non-dairy beverage containers, which is essentially a tax levied on all beverage containers. For example, the consumer pays 10 cents per 500ml container and receives 5 cents back when containers are returned. A portion of the tax levied is used to fund depots handling the containers and a portion (25%) is used to fund other waste management strategies such as municipal programs, processing facilities, transportation of recycled materials and education awareness programs. The RRFB manages the funds and apportions them to municipalities based on the volume of recovered materials, which can represent 7 to 15% of the municipality’s annual waste management budget. In 2005, the RRFB provided $8.2 million to the municipalities in Nova Scotia to offset recycling and composting costs and $1.46 million was directed towards public awareness programs. Over the past decade, $6.5 million in funding has been used in marketing strategies, development of new products, services, and equipment pertaining to the recovery of materials.
This case study explores the environmental, economic and social aspects of municipal waste diversion of recycling and composting programs, through an extensive literature review and government documents available on their websites. The case study investigates the effectiveness of Canadian recycling and composting programs in diverting MSW and analyzes the potential barriers that impede the effectiveness of recycling and composting programs.
Detailed Background Case Description
The World Bank’s recent study of global MSW reports that over the past ten years, urban populations increased from 2.9 billion to 3 billion, and MSW volumes doubled from .68 billion tonnes to 1.3 billion tonnes annually (World Bank, 2012). On an individual level, this represents an increase in MSW volume from .64 kg per person/day to 1.2 kg per person/day (World Bank, 2012). It is estimated that, by 2025, urban populations will increase to 4.3 billion and the estimated volume of MSW will rise to 1.42 kg per person/day, which equates to an annual global volume of 2.2 billion tonnes of MSW (World Bank, 2012). Traditionally, human waste has been collected and disposed of in landfills or in incinerators. These forms of disposal methods, however, degrade the environment by affecting the land, air and water quality, which in turn results in higher social costs and has the potential to cause adverse short and long-term health effects (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). As a result, more recent waste management strategies focus on environmental sustainability objectives and on reducing the amount of MSW handled through traditional disposal methods by encouraging activities such as recycling and composting.
For a number of decades, recycling and composting has been used in Canada to reduce the volume of MSW. Municipal solid waste refers to the complex mixture of daily waste generated from residential life, and includes everything from food scraps, packaging materials, grass and yard waste, newspapers, clothes, furniture and old computers (Statistics Canada, 2012). It also includes non-hazardous waste from industry, business and commercial sectors, institutions, and construction (Statistics Canada, 2012). In Canada, local governments such as regional districts and municipalities are responsible for managing their MSW including collection and transportation to disposal sites and are also responsible for managing waste diversion through recycling and composting programs (Environment Canada, 2012).
Recycling refers to the process of separating materials from the waste stream such as glass, plastic and paper, which can be processed into raw materials and manufactured into new products. In Canada, the number of recycling programs is increasing and is now a part of waste management practice in most communities (Statistics Canada, 2005). The volume of materials recycled in Canadian communities fluctuates annually and is dependent on economic factors such as population growth, consumption patterns, the market price of raw materials, the availability of markets for recyclable materials and the willingness of consumers to purchase products made from recyclable materials (Statistics Canada, 2005). As well, the volume of recycled materials depends on consumer behaviour and a number of variables are found to increase the intensity of recycling such as the convenience of recycling services and frequency of collection (Ferrara & Missios, 2005; Kaciak & Kushner, 2011). A number of studies demonstrate that waste disposal user fees have a positive impact on increasing the intensity of recycling (Allers & Hoeben, 2010; Ferrara & Missios, 2005; Thogersen, 2003) . User fees may also, however, increase illegal dumping of waste, thereby reducing the benefits accrued from the increased recycling intensity (Ferrara & Missios, 2005). Similar increased recycling intensity and illegal dumping have occurred when recycling programs are mandatory as opposed to programs based on voluntary participation (Ferrara & Missios, 2005).
Composting refers to the process of removing organics, such as kitchen scraps or yard materials from the solid waste stream, which are then processed by micro-organisms into humus material. In Canada, farmers and home gardeners historically have processed organic materials on farms or in backyards and used the resulting humus material to enrich their gardens or farmlands (Statistics Canada, 2005). Over the past few decades, some Canadian cities have established large centralized composting facilities to process organics diverted from households or commercial establishments, however, unlike recycling, these programs are not yet widespread throughout Canada and are often not available in rural communities (Statistics Canada, 2005).
In Canada, the overall regulatory and approval processes of waste management operations, including the licensing and monitoring of landfills, are the responsibility of provincial governments (Environment Canada, 2012). Each province approaches solid waste management differently and waste reduction goals vary in focus and scope. In Ontario and Quebec, recent strategies include increasing centralized composting facilities and a waste reduction goal of 60%, whereas in Newfoundland and Labrador the waste reduction goal is 50% (Government of Saskatchewan, n.d.). Saskatchewan’s focus is on developing performance measures for the collection of materials such as scrap tires and beverage containers, whereas Manitoba’s waste management objective is focused on general planning (Government of Saskatchewan, n.d.). The federal government has little involvement in the details of MSW management, but maintains jurisdiction for sustainable development, toxic materials, and movement of waste across international borders (Environment Canada, 2012).
In 2008, Canadians diverted 8.5 million tonnes of waste by recycling and composting, however, 25.9 million tonnes of MSW was sent for disposal (Statistics Canada, 2012). Ninety-five percent of the MSW was disposed of in landfills (Statistics Canada, 2012), a practice which has the potential to affect the environment in a number of ways. Leachate is produced when precipitation or liquid from waste material percolate through waste picking up toxins and pollutants, which can be carried into soils and ground water. In new landfill developments, federal regulations currently offer some level of environmental protection as they require protection against runoff with the use of liners and collection systems (Statistics Canada, 2012; Kinnaman, 2006), however, this only reduces the potential degradation of groundwater supplies and does not ensure that it will not happen (Kinnaman, 2006). As well, there are a number of older landfill sites still in operation built prior to the mitigation requirement of liner and collection systems and it is anticipated that these sites will continue to have significant environmental impacts long after they are retired from use (Statistics Canada, 2005).
Landfill gas is another by-product of waste disposal in landfills. Landfill gas is primarily methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) that has a global warming potential 21 times greater than carbon dioxide and is created as organic waste decomposes in the landfill. In 2009, methane gas emitted from Canadian landfills represented 22% of national methane emissions and 3% of total GHG emissions (Statistics Canada, 2012) a figure that has not improved since 2002 (Statistics Canada, 2005). In addition to methane, other GHG such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, benzene, toluene and vinyl chloride are emitted in smaller amounts (Statistics Canada, 2005). Some landfill gases are known to be toxic and harmful to human health, while others pose the risk of explosion or fire (Statistics Canada, 2005).
Five percent of Canada’s MSW is disposed of through incineration, which similar to landfilling, creates numerous environmental externalities. Incinerating waste distributes particulate matter and other pollutants such as sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere (Statistics Canada, 2012). Some of these contribute to acid rain, ground-level ozone, and smog (Statistics Canada, 2012). Also, particulate matter may contain metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, zinc and nickel, which can potentially be deposited over surrounding land areas (Statistics Canada, 2005). As well, toxic bio-accumulative chemicals such as dioxins and furans can be produced from improper incineration operations (Statistics Canada, 2012). Although new incinerators fitted with pollution abatement equipment can reduce environmental impacts, they require large capital expenditures. Consequently, old incinerators continue to operate (Statistics Canada, 2005). Economically, there are some benefits, however, to burning waste as it decreases the volume of waste in landfills and produces energy that can be captured for heat and electricity (Statistics Canada, 2012).
In addition to the environmental externalities of landfilling waste, the siting of landfill facilities has ecological, social and economic consequences. Decomposing waste materials in landfills create ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and other organo-sulphur compounds producing foul odours, which people living in close proximity may find offensive (Statistics Canada, 2005). Consequently, a nearby landfill can result in reducing property values (Kinnaman, 2006). The siting of landfills must consider soil conditions and climate, as well as, transportation distances, land use patterns, and other issues; therefore, choosing locations that minimize both environmental and socio-economic impacts is challenging (Statistics Canada, 2005). By reducing waste through recycling and composting programs, the lifespan of existing landfills will be extended and the need and costs of creating new landfills will be reduced.
Another important benefit of recycling is that it reduces the need for virgin resources. The World Bank’s recent global review of solid waste reports that 400 million tonnes of scrap metal and 175 million tonnes of paper and cardboard are recycled annually (World Bank, 2012), representing a significant savings of global natural resources. In addition, using recycled content in manufacturing new products conserves energy. A study by Morris (2005) shows that the energy required in the manufacture of products from recycled materials is substantially less than the energy required if the same product was manufactured from virgin materials. For example, aluminum and plastic made from recycled content requires 5% to 7% of the energy compared to making the same product using virgin material; recycled steel requires 37% energy; newsprint and cardboard, 50%; and glass containers, 65% (Morris, 2005). In addition, products made from recycled content forgo the pollution or environmental degradation that would occur during the harvest of virgin materials (Morris, 2005). When products are recycled at the end of their first life cycle, it maximizes and fully realizes the benefit of the initial harvest of virgin resources.
For the past two decades, Canadians have become more aware and increasingly concerned with the environmental impact of solid waste disposal (Statistics Canada, 2005). In 1989, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment set goals that MSW volumes be reduced 50% by the year 2000 (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). Although Canada did not achieve this level of waste diversion, by 2000 Canadians were diverting 21% of solid waste from landfills (Statistics Canada, 2005). In 2002, the diversion rate increased to 22%, and in 2008, it grew to 25% (Statistics Canada, 2012). Although the average diversion rate increased marginally, the total volume of waste entering landfills and incinerators, however, has increased. Between 2002 and 2008, Canadians’ per capita generation of MSW rose from 769 kg to 777 kg (Statistics Canada, 2012). Based on the small progress to-date of waste diversion, and the per capita increase in MSW, it is evident that recycling and composting programs in Canada have been ineffective in reducing MSW volumes.
The success in reducing MSW varies from province to province. Between 2002 and 2008, Alberta had the largest increase of MSW at 39%, New Brunswick at 16%, and only one province achieved a reduction in MSW, Nova Scotia at -9% (Statistics Canada, 2012). Provincial spending on waste management varies, as do the types of services offered. The amount spent has some correlation to waste reduction rates (Statistics Canada, 2012). In 2002, Newfoundland spent 2% on waste management and achieved an 11% waste diversion rate, Alberta spent 2.5% and had a 17% reduction rate and Nova Scotia spent 6% and achieved a 32% reduction rate (Statistics Canada, 2005). Up until 1990, Nova Scotia’s waste reduction rate was similar to the other provinces’ rates, however, in 1995, the provincial government adopted a comprehensive province-wide waste management strategy, and by 2000, Nova Scotia was the first province to achieve the national waste reduction target of 50% (Wagner & Arnold, 2008).
The Government of Nova Scotia’s strategy involved an extensive collaborative effort province-wide between government, stakeholders, municipalities and the public (Wagner and Arnold, 2008). A management framework was created to implement the strategy consisting of the Resource Recovery Fund Board (RRFB), the Regional Chairs Committee, and seven waste management regions based on demographics and waste capacity (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). The RRFB, a non-profit organization, was delegated responsibility to plan province-wide waste diversion education and awareness programs and to promote the development of value-added manufacturing programs utilizing recycled goods (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). Each region was responsible for developing and implementing a regional MSW plan, and the Regional Chairs Committee provided support for regional issues and disseminating information province-wide (Wagner & Arnold, 2008).
Nova Scotia’s strategy focused on a maximum diversion of waste and, therefore, mandatory recycling was legislated province-wide for an array of recyclables including yard waste and organics (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). The implementation was staged over a number of years. For example, in 1996, cardboard and newsprint were banned, followed by steel/tin food containers in 1997, and food and yard waste in 1998 (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). In order to capture recyclables and organics, a curbside collection system for three streams was introduced and by 2004, 99% of the population had weekly curbside collection of recyclables and 76% had curbside collection of organics (Wagner & Arnold, 2008).
Funding is primarily through municipal property taxes and tipping fees, however, a percentage is provided by a “half-back” program on non-dairy beverage containers (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). The half-back program is essentially a tax levied on all beverage containers (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). For example, the consumer pays 10 cents per 500ml container and receives 5 cents back when containers are returned (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). A portion of the fee levied is used to fund depots handling the containers and a portion (25%) is used to fund other waste management strategies such as municipal programs, processing facilities, transportation of recycled materials and education awareness programs (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). The RRFB manages the funds and apportions it to the municipalities based on the volume of recovered materials, which can represent 7 to 15% of the municipality’s annual waste management budget (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). In 2005, the RRFB provided $8.2 million to the 55 municipalities in Nova Scotia to offset recycling and composting costs and $1.46 million was directed towards public awareness programs (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). In addition, the RRFB allocates funding to promote local markets and value-added industries that utilize recycled materials. As a result, local jobs have been created throughout the province (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). Over the past decade, $6.5 million in funding has been used in marketing strategies, and in developing new products, services, and equipment pertaining to the recovery of materials (Wagner & Arnold, 2008).
Apart from Nova Scotia, Canadian municipalities must budget for the collection of recyclables and organics, their transport to sorting facilities, and materials separation before they can be sold to processing and manufacturing industries. Although some costs are offset by municipal taxes, the programs rely on recovering a portion of the costs from the sale of recycled materials. Recycling sales are often based, however, on traditionally poor and fluctuating global markets. For example, for a number of years mixed paper was valued at $135 a metric tonne, however in 2009, market prices dropped and it was worth almost nothing (“Making something,” 2010). If the market price for recyclables is low, municipalities may be forced to store materials until the market recovers. Not only does warehousing materials increase economic costs, many municipalities do not have warehousing space readily available and are sometimes forced to stop collecting some recyclables (“Making something,” 2010). Recycling programs are dependent on the availability of markets and industries that can utilize the materials collected. If the markets are not dependable, or do not exist, the collection of recyclables is not financially viable.
Another issue affecting the viability of recycling and composting occurs if the cost of waste disposal is less than the costs associated with recycling and composting. This is prevalent in countries such as Canada as there is a substantial amount of undeveloped land available (Wagner & Arnold, 2008); this makes land values more affordable, thus making landfills more economically viable. In addition, the cost of operating a landfill may be offset from revenues gained if the site is designed to capture landfill gas. In 2001, Canada had 41 landfill facilities capturing landfill gas, which is used to produce energy for heat and electricity (Statistics Canada, 2005). Although the capture of landfill gas reduces methane emissions, thereby reducing the eternality caused by landfilling, the landfill gas could be prevented in the first place by ensuring that organics are not disposed of in landfills. The market price of composted organics is typically, however, far lower than the cost of collecting and processing organics (Wagner & Arnold, 2008) and, therefore, if land is inexpensive and landfill gas recovery further reduces the cost of waste disposal, the financial viability of composting programs becomes questionable.
Although the justifications for recycling and composting can be economically challenging, recycling and composting provides many environmental benefits. By reducing the volume of waste destined for landfills and incinerators, recycling and composting prevents toxins from leachate, landfill gas and particulate matter from entering the environment and reduces the footprint of landfill areas. Recycling and composting, however, produces some externalities. Fossil fuel emissions are created in the collection and transportation of materials to processing facilities, energy and water are necessary for processing, and wastewater and residual matter must be disposed of in landfills (Statistics Canada, 2005). The energy saved and pollution prevented in manufacturing products from recycled materials, however, is far greater than the energy used and externalities created from the collection and processing of recyclables (Morris, 2005). For example, manufacturing of recycled aluminum cans uses 95% less energy than manufacturing the same product from virgin materials (Statistics Canada, 2005). Recycling programs that depend, however, on global markets may compromise the full potential of environmental benefits since the distance recyclables travel for processing and manufacturing increases fossil fuel emissions from transport. Many recyclables are shipped across the country to available processing facilities, and some travel the globe to less developed countries with cheaper labour. In addition to reducing environmental benefits, seeking inexpensive labour from undeveloped countries is also counterproductive to social imperatives and raises questions concerning equity and justice.
Recycling and composting programs are dependent on the active participation of communities and their people. Participation in recycling and composting activities, however, has social costs that could be equated to time spent on the activity of waste diversion. Time spent on recycling and composting activity is directly related to the type of service provided within the community. In small and rural communities, curbside pickup of recyclables and organics is often not available and residents must transport materials to local depots some distance away. If residents in rural and small communities, therefore, recycled at the same intensity as their urban neighbours, overall societal costs would be increased. A number of studies demonstrate that there is a linkage between convenience and frequency of service to the level of intensity of recycling (Ferrara & Missios, 2005; Kaciak & Kushner, 2011), which suggests that there is an optimum level of social costs that residents are willing to incur. If maximum waste diversion, therefore, is to be achieved, frequency of service and convenience must be extended to small and rural communities. As well, if waste diversion programs are not inclusive of all communities and residents and do not collect a full range of recyclable materials including organics, then waste diversion programs may lack economic efficiencies and will not provide maximum environmental benefits.
Nova Scotia’s waste diversion strategy has been successful in comparison to other provinces’ programs that are managed independently at the municipal level. Nova Scotia’s leadership in linking its environmental objectives with its economic objectives provided major benefits to social imperatives. Its programs are inclusive, provide a high level of recycling and composting services to all communities including small and rural communities, and have created new employment opportunities province-wide in new value-added industries (Wagner & Arnold, 2008). By developing their model as a closed-loop system that includes the collection of materials through to the manufacturing of new products, Nova Scotia has supported the economic viability of its recycling and composting programs, and reduced externalities from transportation. In addition, by engaging the entire province from the rural areas through to the large municipalities in collaborative discussions, a high level of buy-in and acceptance of mandatory recycling legislation was achieved, which may be critical to maximize waste diversion and environmental benefits. Their extensive education and awareness programs, and more generous funding to implement collection, sorting of materials, development of infrastructure, as well as incentives to develop markets, have undoubtedly added to their success.
Statistically, Nova Scotia spends more of its budget on waste management than other provinces, which suggests that environmental benefits and economic cost are directly linked. Further research is necessary, however, to assess any correlation between economic cost and diversion rate, and to determine if costs can be attributed to start-up or are necessary to maintain programs over time.
- What are the challenges facing most local governments in delivering successful recycling and composting programs?
- Which is needed first? A nation-wide waste diversion strategy, a provincial-wide strategy, education, markets for recycled materials, or another factor?
- Should incentives and/or sanctions have a role in the design of recycling and composting programs? If so, what role and how would it contribute to the programs success?
- How can demand be increased for recyled materials?
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