What to do with plastic bags? Part 2 Recycle

There is continuing dialogue in this and other communities on what to do with the proliferation of plastic shopping bags. The following exchange deals with recycling.

I had always assumed that was no market for recycled plastic bags, and that’s why they appear to be one of the biggest items in our clear bags. The following story suggests there is a Southern Ontario market for 5.6 million kilos per month, and only a 181K kilos supply!! Is there there any way we could take advantage of this market with our current recycling regime?

From Toronto Star
Recycling firms line up for city’s bin pickup
February 22, 2007
John Spears

Suresh Munshani and Chuck Burke are frustrated.

They’d happily recycle every plastic grocery bag they could get their hands on.

They’ve read complaints by Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker that he’d like to reduce the number of bags going to landfill. But Munshani and Burke say they can’t find a big enough supply of bags.

They’re not alone.

Debra Fearn-Wright of Grace Canada Inc. would love to recycle more polystyrene – often referred to by its best-known brand name of Styrofoam.

But she has trouble getting a supply as well.

Municipalities are anxious to divert waste, and some companies want to get recyclable material – but it’s not always easy for the two sides to get together.

Munshani runs Recycle MBA in Mississauga. He says he could send 5.9 million kilograms of plastic bags a month to a U.S. firm that makes sub-flooring of recycled plastic. But he can get only about 181,000 kilograms in a good month.

There are customers who want to make plastic wood in the U.S. Last week Chinese buyers were in his warehouse looking for bags. “We’d set up the whole logistics chain,” says Munshani.

But he can’t find enough bags to supply them all.

Munshani says some municipalities who outsource their garbage collection have signed exclusive deals with big waste management firms who collect high value material, like aluminum cans and easy-to-recycle clear plastic bottles – but don’t make an effort to sort or recycle lower-value products like bags.

“It’s the municipal people. They don’t talk to us. They have cartels. You can’t get in the cartels. We could be 10 times our size right now if we had the support of the municipal people.”

Geoff Rathbone, Toronto’s acting general manager of solid waste, has spoken to Burke, but says moving forward isn’t simple.

The city is targeting 2008 to start accepting plastic bags in blue boxes, but needs to sort out details first, he says.

There are many types of bags – grocery bags, dry-cleaning bags, bread bags, plastic wrapping from toilet paper. The city has to figure out which to collect, which types have markets.

Munshani insists his buyers will take all the bags, if only he could get the supply. Rathbone says Munshani will have to line up with others who might also bid for the right to get the bags once the city starts collecting them.

Burke says bags aren’t the only plastic products being dumped when there’s a market. Five-gallon plastic pails used for bulk cooking oil, dishwashing liquid, dog food and the like are dumped by the tonne in Ontario when they could be recycled, he says.

Fearn-Wright is also starved for material.

Grace Canada mixes used polystyrene with gypsum, recycled newsprint and other materials to make insulation for structural steel beams. Steel can weaken and buckle in a matter of minutes in a fire; the insulation protects the steel from heat damage for several hours.

The Grace Canada plant in Ajax recycles about 454,000 kilograms a year; Fearn-Wright says she could handle another 1.4 million kilograms. In an urban area the size of Greater Toronto, she knows it’s out there.

But she figures if municipalities publicized designated collection spots, many residents would willingly deliver foam to central depots where garbage is sorted. Firms like hers could park a trailer at the depots and pick them up when full, she says.

Rathbone says Toronto is working with the Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Council to find a home for the city’s polystyrene once collection begins in 2008. The council’s members make or use polystyrene products.

Fearn-Wright says her firm is already sourcing material with the council’s help, but still can’t get enough material to fill the demand.

While recyclers chafe at the bit, De Baeremaeker pleads for patience. The city’s waste diversion battle is being fought on many front, he says. For the moment, top priority is being given to starting Green Bin collection and driving up recycling rates in highrise apartment buildings.

The big blue recycling carts due next year will give the city more room to focus on bags and foam. But De Baeremaeker also says that he doesn’t see the city’s primary job as one of providing material for recyclers.

He’s still focused on the first of the 3Rs of the environmental movement – Reduce.

To that end, he’d like to sharply reduce the number of plastic grocery bags in circulation through a tax on bags, to make them a more expensive choice.

Although the plastics industry has cast doubt on the effectiveness of a bag tax, De Baeremaeker says research he’s seen after a bag tax was imposed in Ireland showed dramatic results.

The Irish went through 328 bags per person each year pre-tax, he says, but 30 or fewer after the tax was imposed.

Letter and article submitted by DG

Here is some feedback from staff on this issue:

That is a very good question. It’s important for the community to realize that it’s not lack of will preventing us from recycling plastic bags, rather it’s the result of many logistical and economic challenges. The following is some background information that outlines the status of the matter from an operational point of view.
The markets for this material may exist, but there is a need to collect, store and transport the material in a way that conforms to the quantity and quality requirements of processor. This is not an easy, nor necessarily feasible task. The markets typically demand a “clean” stream of plastic film, free from residues and contaminants, which is difficult or impossible to achieve in a curbside program. Furthermore, not all plastic film is the same type of plastic. Such a program change would also require increased public education and curbside compliance monitoring – all with associated increased costs.

The conclusion we’ve reached as a result of various considerations is that the recovery of plastic film is not a feasible option. The Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) agrees – although they promote best practices for municipal curbside collection of plastic bags, they do not recommend this recycling method over other options.

The other possibility for municipal management of plastic film is depot collection. Due to challenges with physical space at our site on Dunlop Drive, quality control, weather conditions, and the light and fluffy nature of the material, providing a receptacle for collection of the material at our site is unfeasible at this time. It has been unsuccessfully attempted in the past.

Because the City is obviously interested in diverting this material from landfill, staff are currently exploring other options for residents as an alternative to putting them in the Waste bag for disposal. As such, the City has initiated discussions with EPIC (who has partnered with both London and Ottawa in a similar way), local major retailers (which will be discussed publicly once their involvement is considered official), the University of Guelph, and Guelph Environmental Leadership, for a cooperative community approach to addressing this issue. A campaign is tentatively planned for this year entitled “Waste Reduction…It’s in the Bag!” and is expected to include a very strong REDUCE and REUSE message (including information about where to obtain re-usable bags), and information about where plastic bags can be taken for proper recycling (not just collection and storage…City staff are conducting due diligence investigations to ensure that recycling options are valid). Currently there is one retailer in town accepting bags for recycling – Ultra Food Mart – with at least another two major retailers expected to initiate similar programs this year.

Awareness and concern about this issue presents an ideal opportunity to promote the notion of personal responsibility for waste and the 3Rs hierarchy. Not only are plastic bags one of the most high volume and noticeable items in the Waste bags, they are also one of the most easily REDUCED materials! It’s a slight habit change to bring your own bags, but the resulting reduction in waste can be astounding. Municipal management (collection) of waste should be viewed as the last resort when managing society’s waste – not the solution to our waste problems. Staff


1 Comment

Filed under Takin' out the Trash

One response to “What to do with plastic bags? Part 2 Recycle

  1. Daisy

    Have all grocery stores, supermarkets in Canada get a plastic bag recycling bin so all customers coming in can drop off their used plastic bags and continue to encourage them to bring their own reusable bag to hold their purchased items. If the bins can’t be given away free, perhaps charge them a small fee for buying them or getting them to use empty large flour barrels to hold the used plastic bags and send them labels to identify them as recylcable. If all grocery stores did this more recycling programs could develop and expand because of it’s enormous need

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