The Blue Box Story
With millions of people around the world practicing source separation based recycling using the “Blue Box” system, it is widely regarded as an icon of recycling and one of the most accepted methods that individuals can use to actively protect the environment. Discover the Blue Box Story below.
Watch Jack McGinnis, Father of the Blue Box and Durham Sustain Ability Founder discussing the creation of the Blue Box. Click here.
With millions of people in hundreds of cities and communities around the world practicing source separation based recycling using the ubiquitous “Blue Box” system, the Blue Box is widely regarded as an icon of recycling and one of the most widely recognized and accepted methods that individuals can use to actively protect the environment. And not surprisingly, when successful enterprises are embraced and recognized as success stories, there is often interest in claiming involvement or credit. In the case of the blue box, that credit is justifiably shared by a number of individuals and organizations that were all part of the development story.
The need to document this story was recognized by Ken Ogilvie, Executive Director at Pollution Probe, a Canadian non-governmental, non-profit organization headquartered in Toronto, Canada. Pollution Probe commissioned a report authored by Dianne N. Humphries that was published in July 1997. The report, entitled “We recycle” – The Creators of the Blue Box Program” can be accessed from the Pollution Probe website at http://www.pollutionprobe.org/Reports/we%20recycle.pdf .
Supplemented by the recollections of some of the original key players and drawing on the record provided by the Pollution Probe report, this summary account of the story of the Blue Box has been authored by two people who have dusted off their records and memories and collaborated again, after almost 35 years to document the story. They are: Jack McGinnis and Rick Findlay and this is the short story of the early history of the Blue Box.
Soon after Pollution Probe was formed in 1969 by students and faculty at the University of Toronto, members of Pollution Probe were researching methods for recycling and in 1971 published a report stressing the need for recycling. Also in 1971 the Federal Government established a national Department of the Environment, known as Environment Canada, that had as one of its priorities the environmental protection and remediation of the federal government’s own facilities and departments, across Canada.
The Ontario Government’s Ministry of the Environment was formed in 1972 to help among other issues deal with problems with garbage incinerators and dumpsites in Toronto and other Ontario cities. In 1973 Pollution Probe played a part in forming a Garbage Coalition. Meanwhile many others were out starting fledgling recycling projects involving various techniques including drop-off depots and a range of commodities that variably included paper, cans and bottles.
The community based non-profit charitable organization Is Five Foundation was formed in Toronto by Jack McGinnis in 1974. Is 5 was the title of a book of poetry by e.e. cummings, it spoke to the synergy that creates surprising results (i.e., 2 plus 2 is 5) when people work together. Is Five organized Canada’s first multi-material curbside pickup of recyclable material for 80,000 households of the Beaches neighbourhood of east Toronto. Is Five members promoted curbside pickup of recyclables including glass, cans and newspapers and Jack pursued various methods to encourage active participation in the project. Two years later Derek Stephenson joined as a research coordinator to assist with continued development and together they learned a lot about recycling and human behaviour and the factors that led to successful source separation based recycling techniques.
In 1977, Jack McGinnis and Derek Stephenson formed a private entity called Resource Integration Systems (RIS) with the goal of pursuing consulting contracts in the field of recycling and waste management, based on the experience they had gained working together with the Is Five Foundation.
That same year Vic Shantora, an engineer and Section Head of Environment Canada’s Federal Facilities Program for Ontario region hired Rick Findlay as a Senior Project Engineer to develop and coordinate a resource conservation program primarily for federal government facilities located in the Province of Ontario. This program was created in part as the Federal Government’s response to the 1973 energy crisis. The objective was to promote innovative new programs that would improve environmental quality while at the same time reducing energy demand. Recycling offered that opportunity. Federal facilities were ideal candidates for demonstration projects because successful ventures meant that facilities could reduce operating costs.
Shantora and Findlay tendered a contract with Boston, Gilbert and Henry (BGH) Associates to provide recommendations on a recycling program that could be developed on a pilot basis at Canadian Forces Base Borden. RIS was engaged by BGH initially as a sub-contractor and later directly with Environment Canada to provide its advice and hands-on recycling expertise.
RIS developed for Findlay and Shantora a Source Separation Program Design for Canadian Forces Base Borden (CFB Borden) that featured elements including:
- Base offices, for paper and newsprint;
- The Messes, for food waste;
- The Shopping Centre, for corrugated material;
- Clubs and bars, for glass and bottles; and;
- “Private Married Quarters” or PMQ’s; the “homes” on the base, for cans, newspaper and glass.
RIS experimented with, measured and documented various techniques and approaches for optimizing the acceptance and performance of various recycling techniques and approaches at these installations at CFB Borden. Documents describing their work are likely buried in federal government archives somewhere, but the findings boiled down to the fact that participation rates for recycling of basic commodities especially paper, aluminum cans and glass containers was significantly higher when residents simply were encouraged to deposit and store their recyclables in a simple container like a plastic box.
At CFB Borden, RIS initially borrowed milk boxes from the base grocery story and distributed one to each residence. They measured participation rates and found high participation and response levels. At the time, this was attributed partly to the “convenience” factor of having a simple and useful storage device, but also to the fact that there was likely a degree of “peer pressure” by neighbours to be seen to be doing their bit to recycle, by putting out their box of specified recyclable materials. It was of course true that on a military base, when the Base Commander issued an order to recycle, it was not at all surprising that was exactly what residents of PMQ’s would do. But in spite of these confounding factors, it was clear that the first “Blue Box” milk-box based prototypes were popular and effective and experiments continued to find ways to make recycling even more convenient at the residential level.
RIS rapidly gained hands-on experience with various techniques for optimizing curbside source separation methodologies and provided reports to Environment Canada on the results and recommendations based on its experience and findings at CFB Borden.
Meanwhile at about the same time, a student and a volunteer at a Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario office of Pollution Probe, Eric Hellman organized Garbage Fest 77, in 1977 in Kitchener, Ontario to raise environmental awareness about the consequences of garbage generation.
Eric invited Jack McGinnis to speak about his experience with source separation-based recycling using what at CFB Borden had yet to be called a “Blue Box” program, but which was based on plastic boxes that may have been any color, not just blue. Eric also approached Ron Murray, the President of Superior Sanitation (later to be Laidlaw Waste Systems Ltd) to send a representative from his company to Garbage Fest 77 and Ron sent Nyle Ludolph. It was at Garbage Fest 77 that Eric, Nyle and Jack met for the first time and began to talk about the recycling experience at CFB Borden. Nyle became an enthusiastic recycler at his own home and was subsequently given the mandate by Ron Murray to increase Laidlaw’s presence in recycling. Nyle became the Manager of Total Recycling Systems, a subsidiary of Superior Sanitation, later to become Laidlaw Waste Systems Ltd.
In 1978, Jack McGinnis and Eric Hellman and others met in the basement of the Trinity United Church on Yonge Street in Toronto and created the Recycling Council of Ontario.
In 1981, after close cooperation with Nyle Ludolph, RIS submitted a proposal to Laidlaw to collect and recycle materials at the curbside for a pilot project in Kitchener, Ontario. RIS designed the program, and Total Recycling had the responsibility to handle all operations. The Kitchener project included 1,500 households and was tested with four different approaches to recycling:
- Curbside pick-up without providing blue boxes to residents;
- Curbside pick-up with blue boxes for residents;
- Curbside pick-up with blue boxes, including knocking on doors to inform residents; and,
- Composting with composters provided by Laidlaw, free of charge.
Basically, the blue box recycling system that was proposed to be included as an included “extra” to the regular waste management contract made the difference. Laidlaw was successful in getting the waste management contract for Kitchener, and the Blue Box had its launch as a commercial reality. RIS came up with the slogan “We Recycle” that was applied to every box that went out in Kitchener. Various reasons why the boxes were blue, as opposed to some other colour are bandied about in blue box mythology, but the fact is that RIS felt they looked best and were most visible, in blue. It was a colour that was also suitable in terms of withstanding damage from ultraviolet light.
The four recycling approaches were monitored by RIS for one year and the Blue Box was clearly the most effective. The “test project” continued to run however, and Laidlaw found that people who did not have the Blue Boxes were requesting them, and letters came in every day expressing their support for the program and for it to continue. The program went city-wide in 1983, with Laidlaw providing the extra investment in additional boxes and trucks and handling equipment even though it was not required by their waste management contract with the City. Participation rates ran at 85 percent and it was clear that this was a very successful program.
In 1984 the City-wide contract for Kitchener went out to public bid, as previously scheduled. City staff simply followed previous procedures – i.e., no specific requirement to offer recycling services was included in bid documents. Laidlaw chose to submit a bid that included continuation of the Blue Box service while their competitors, mainly large US-based firms, did not. One such competitor submitted a bid that was about $400,000 lower than the one from Laidlaw. The Council meeting where the decision was made was filled with local citizens, especially students, asking their City to support the Blue Box. The City did, voting to take the Blue Box bid, not the low bid.
In 1985, Laidlaw won the bid for recycling in the City of Mississauga and introduced the second commercial blue box program in Ontario in June 1986, the largest recycling effort in North America. Now, the Blue Box system and variations of it are in place in hundreds of cities around the world.
This article was authored by: Jack McGinnis, Durham Sustain Ability; Rick Findlay, RetiredReviewers; Geoff Rathbone, General Manager of Solid Waste Management, City of Toronto; Vic Shantora, retired, Environment Canada; Bob Oliver, Executive Director, Pollution Probe.
Visit Durham Sustain Ability's Flickr page to view images of the first "Blue Box". The first prototype of the blue box was actually orange! Click here to view the images.
Wikipedia.org: Blue Box Recycling System
PollutionProbe.org: We Recycle: The Creators of the Blue Box Programme