Is recycling enough, or should we ban some plastics completely?
YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOOK HARD, but you do have to look. To the dog walkers and strolling families, Willows Beach appears pristine. Start hunting for garbage, though, and you’ll find lots of it in a few minutes. Drink-box straws, candy wrappers, globs of styrofoam, cling wrap, bits of broken toys, zip ties — all plastic, tangled in the wood and seaweed left at high tide.
“For many people, plastic is just a matter of convenience,” Anastasia Castro tells me, gathering bits from the sand. “They don’t see the real impact it has.”
Teen anti-plastic activists Charlotte Brady and Anastasia Castro (Photo by Ross Crockford)
Castro, a Grade 11 student at Glenlyon Norfolk School, is angry about the trashed state of the planet. So she’s been doing something about it. With her classmate Charlotte Brady, she spent two years speaking with City of Victoria staff and Downtown businesses, urging them to accept a ban on plastic checkout bags, which finally became enshrined in the City’s newsmaking 2018 bylaw. (Speaking to Victoria’s Council, she said: “It is not your world you are ruining, it is ours — the generations of the future who have to live in the mess you left behind.”) Last December, Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns credited Castro in the House of Commons for driving his private member’s motion M-151, calling for a national strategy against plastic pollution, which passed unanimously. “Due to the hard work of incredibly dedicated Canadians like Anastasia,” Johns told MPs, “the crisis of marine plastic pollution has reached the national stage.”
That crisis certainly has become more apparent. The photo of the Costa Rica sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. The reports of whales found dead in Indonesia and Italy with kilos of plastic in their guts. The horrifying statistics, that we humans spill eight million metric tonnes of plastic into the seas every year, and at that rate, by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
But as Castro and Brady point out, the problem isn’t only on the other side of the world.
The largest accumulation of plastic debris on the planet, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — the subject of a new exhibit at the Maritime Museum of BC — consisting of some three trillion pieces of trash, swirls off our coast, halfway between California and Hawaii. In one day last October, volunteers led by the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation removed more than 300 kilos of garbage from 10 Victoria beaches.
Even more debris in our waters consists of invisible microplastics, less than 5 mm in size, the product of household laundry and storm-drain runoff. Last year, Vancouver Aquarium scientists found 1,258 particles of plastic in one cubic metre of seawater taken from Burrard Inlet. Some of the same scientists have also found that plastic fibres are being ingested by zooplankton in the northeast Pacific — meaning they are likely being eaten by shellfish, crustaceans, salmon, and ultimately by ourselves, along with any toxic compounds that have bonded to the plastic.
Governments are starting to act. The European Union has declared that single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws and containers will be outlawed in all member states by 2021. Vancouver is scheduled to ban styrofoam cups and takeout containers, along with straws and plastic cutlery, starting in 2020. Prince Edward Island’s province-wide ban on plastic bags, the first in Canada, goes into effect on July 1. In other words, Victoria’s bag bylaw, likely soon to be replicated in other capital-region municipalities including Saanich, Esquimalt, Colwood and Sooke, is just the beginning.
“We can’t let everyone believe that recycling is the be-all and end-all, and that if we ban plastic bags, we’ve done enough,” Charlotte Brady tells me. “Instead the conversation should be, ‘OK, we’ve taken this great first step. Now we need to go farther.’”
AFTER YOU PUT AND EMPTY YOGURT TUB IN A BLUE BOX, it gets picked up by a private waste-removal company and delivered to Cascades Recovery’s busy facility in Rock Bay. Trucks arrive from across the region, dumping glass, paper, cardboard, metals and plastics at different bays of the Cascades warehouse. Workers separate plastics from metals, Bobcat loaders push the plastics onto a conveyor belt, and they drop into a machine that packs them into freezer-sized bales, wrapped with wire. Then semi-trailer trucks take the materials off-Island. The facility handles 4,000 metric tonnes of material a month this way.
Your household plastics, baled at Cascades Recovery (Photo by Ross Crockford)
The Capital Regional District started its blue-box program in 1989. The Cascades facility is older; for many decades it produced corrugated cardboard for Crown Packaging. Doug Stevens, the plant manager, recalls that it once had a machine that turned scrap paper into felt backing for shingles made at the Sidney Roofing plant on the Songhees lands. “Recycling’s been around a long time,” he notes.
It keeps changing, though. Cascades takes materials from businesses, but those volumes have been declining, while residential is increasing: Victorians are buying more stuff, and it comes with more packaging. A few years ago Cascades added an oven that melts and condenses styrofoam (collected from recycling depots) to a tenth its original size, for reuse in crown mouldings and picture frames. Lately there’s been greater concern about “contamination,” which is why you should wash your containers (leftover food attracts rats), and have to separate glass (broken glass is hard to remove from other materials). Victorians are good about this: contamination rates are only three percent in the CRD, versus 26 percent in Toronto. Materials have to be clean and dry to resell, says Stevens. “It’s not garbage, it’s recycling. If you want it to be recycled, you have to treat it differently.”
The crisis of marine plastic has emerged alongside a crisis in the recycling industry. Until recently, 70 percent of US scrap plastic went to China. But reportedly after Xi Jinping saw the documentary Plastic China, about the poisoned living conditions of scrap recyclers, China implemented its “National Sword” policy in 2018, refusing any materials with more than 0.5 percent contamination. With few local facilities to recycle their scrap, some US cites have resorted to landfilling plastics, or burning them.
We’re in a better position. In 1994, BC introduced its first Extended Producer Responsibility(EPR) program, under which producers and consumers paid extra eco-fees for the collection and safe disposal of leftover paint. Today BC has 22 such programs, for everything from appliances to tires. (In comparison, 16 US states have no EPR programs at all.) The EPR for paper and packaging is overseen by the non-profit agency RecycleBC, which collects per-weight fees from the 1,100 BC companies producing or importing such materials. RecycleBC then pays municipalities, regions, or waste companies to collect the scrap, sorters like Cascades bale it, and RecycleBC sells the scrap to processors. RecycleBC’s 2017 annual report says BC companies generated 234,847 tonnes of paper and packaging and paid $86 million in fees; those fees were then paid to recycling programs (like the CRD’s) that collected 174,942 tonnes, for an overall “recovery rate” of 75 percent.
RecycleBC says the glass in your blue box gets melted into new jars and bottles in Abbotsford, or turned into sandblasting grit in Quesnel. Metal containers are sold to various North American processors and turned into road signs and window frames. Mixed paper becomes boxes and egg cartons in South Korea. But all of our blue-boxed plastic goes to one company, Merlin Plastics, and its two 180,000-square-foot recycling facilities, in Delta and New Westminster.
“We’ve been around for 30 years, and every year, we’re expanding,” Merlin GM Kevin Andrews tells me. Merlin’s currently adding a mixed-plastics sorting line that will boost its annual capacity by 14,000 tonnes, to help handle the increasing volumes it’s getting from panicked recycling programs in Washington State and Oregon. Last year, when China’s restrictions came into effect, Canada became the second-biggest importer of US scrap plastic, after Malaysia. Since then, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and India have announced limits on scrap-plastic imports, due to complaints about pollution at recycling facilities, and Canada — thanks partly to Merlin — looks set to take first place.
Merlin sorts various types of consumer plastics — polyethylene terephthalate (#1 or PET) used in pop bottles, high-density polyethylene (#2 or HDPE) in shampoo bottles, low-density polyethylene (#4 or LDPE) in plastic bags, or polypropylene (#5 or PP) in yogurt tubs — and processes them into pellets or “nurdles” that it sells worldwide, to be melted into new products. Andrews won’t say how much Merlin processes annually, but he assures us the company does its best to see the plastic is reused for similar purposes, instead of “downcycled” into lower-grade products. “To put a bottle to a bottle is not always easy, because you have to meet many different requirements. But you can put it into packaging that is maybe not a food item,” he says. “If it’s being reused in something that would’ve been made with virgin [plastic], there’s no downcycling.”
RecycleBC has also started taking various soft plastics (cling wrap, mesh bags) and “laminates” (standup pouches, chip bags), collected from depots like those at Hartland and London Drugs. This is for a research project, to see if Merlin can recycle such flexible packaging; if it can’t, the plastic will be converted into “engineered fuel.” (Plastic can be melted and vaporized into gases that are condensed into synthetic crude oil.) RecycleBC reported that 4,647 tonnes of material was turned into fuel in 2017, but Andrews won’t say if Merlin’s conducting that work: “I can’t tell you whether we are or whether we aren’t.”
BC DOES HAVE ENVIABLE EPR AND RECYCLING SYSTEMS, but they still suffer a lot of leakage, judging by what’s showing up on our beaches. RecycleBC posted a 75 percent “recovery rate” for paper and packaging in 2017, but dig deep into its proposed five-year plan and it turns out the rate varied greatly depending on the material: 87 percent of paper was collected and accounted for, but only 50 percent of rigid plastic and just 20 percent of flexible plastic.
We have similar challenges keeping track of plastic bottles. Encorp Pacific, the agency that manages our beverage-container recycling, reports that BC residents bought 1,349,149,437 beverage containers in 2017, and collected 1,023,306,039. That amounts to a recovery rate of 75.8 percent — but means 325 million containers went missing that year in BC alone, despite the deposits paid on them. Some went into recycling, some into landfills, and some into the environment. In the 2017 Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, run by the World Wildlife Fund and Ocean Wise, the third-most common item collected by volunteers from Canadian beaches, after miscellaneous bits of plastic and cigarette butts, was plastic bottles, more than 50,000 of them. Plastic bags, 22,724 of them, came seventh.
The solution for bottles seems simple: increase the deposits. Encorp asks for only five cents for small non-alcoholic beverage containers, a rate that hasn’t changed for decades. Alberta increased the deposit to 10 cents and now has a return rate of 86 percent; Oregon did the same and gets 90 percent returned. During recent public consultations, environmentalists asked Encorp for higher deposits, but the agency replied: “We do not feel such a drastic action is warranted.”
Deposits work best for durable items like bottles that are relatively easy to count and collect, though. Creating a similar system would be nearly impossible for other varieties of packaging and single-use plastics.
Plastics are miraculous compounds. Modern medical technology, aircraft, automobiles, and sporting goods would be impossible without them, the plastics industry points out, and even lowly plastic packaging reduces food waste, maintains hygiene, and saves energy in shipping. The American Chemistry Council estimates that the environmental costs would be five times greater if soft drinks, for example, were shipped in glass or metal instead of plastic. But the industry knows we have a problem.
Last June, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, which represents some 2,600 companies, announced that its members have pledged to meet a new “aspirational goal” to have 100 percent of plastic packaging re-used, recycled or recovered by 2040. Achieving this “will require significant investment” in new infrastructure and packaging design, the CPIA said — and “success will also require widespread public participation in recycling and recovery programs along with changes to littering behaviour.” In other words, the industry says, we need better packaging, better waste management by governments, and better citizens.
(The industry has its own “littering behaviour,” it turns out. On beaches around the world, people have been finding the lentil-sized nurdles used by plastic fabricators. UVic librarians David Boudinot and Daniel Brendle-Moczuk have found and mapped nurdles at 68 sites along the Strait of Georgia, including Willows Beach, possibly spilled by one of the two-dozen companies using nurdles on the Lower Mainland. “We’re hot on the trail of the source,” Boudinot says.)
High-tide trash on Willows Beach, including lentil-sized nurdles, the raw ingredient of many plastic products (Photo by David Boudinot)
The industry says the search for better packaging is already underway. Multinationals such as Danone, PepsiCo and Unilever have joined The New Plastics Economy, an initiative led by the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, calling for global packaging standards and funding for “moon shot” innovations, such as the development of “bio-benign” plastics and “reversible adhesives based on biomimicry” to make laminated plastics easier to recycle. Some of the same companies are also including their products in tests of the new Loop packaging system, in which consumers pay deposits on durable containers (for, say, Häagen-Dazs ice cream) and return them via a door-to-door delivery network; Loop is scheduled to roll out any day now in New York and Paris, and later this year in Toronto.
A skeptic can’t help wondering, though, if many companies are signing on to such initiatives simply to buy time. Natural gas, the feedstock for many plastics, is still abundant and cheap, and virgin plastic is often less expensive than recycled. Deposit systems like Loop seem too inconvenient for most people, compared to the buy-and-dispose (or -recycle) economy in place. And the consumer-products and packaging industries are so vast and varied that they’re impossible to effectively self-regulate — as proven by the current wave of so-called “biodegradable” plastics that can be neither composted nor recycled.
“There is a strong drive for business as usual, with small tweaks,” says Susan Maxwell, a recycling consultant and former Whistler councillor who’s developed several of BC’s EPR programs. As she notes, disposable plastics are a product of inexpensive oil and gas, and the incentives our economy gives to use more of them; we need to rejig the economy so that it’s not supporting industries that largely rely on taxpayers to clean up the aftereffects of their business.
That means stronger laws. As Maxwell points out, BC’s Recycling Regulation, the law that governs EPR schemes like RecycleBC and Encorp, only mandates that the agencies post a minimum 75 percent “recovery” or collection rate — there is no requirement for them to achieve a target for reuse or recycling of their products. I asked RecycleBC several times what percentage of “recovered” plastic actually gets recycled, and they didn’t respond. The federal ministry of environment says that only about 11 percent of all plastic in Canada gets recycled.
Maxwell thinks the laws need to be stronger upstream, with greater oversight of what kinds of plastics get produced in the first place, and outright bans on those that are too difficult to recycle or likely to leak into the environment. “We shouldn’t be putting things out in the world, and then trying to figure out afterwards what we’re going to do with them,” she says. “We really need to turn off the tap. We can’t be trying to sieve the ocean for plastics.”
ONE QUESTION ANASTASIA CASTRO got asked while campaigning against plastic bags is the same one Canadian libertarians ask about climate change: Why do we have to do anything about it? A 2017 study estimated that 90 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa; banning plastic bags in Victoria, the libertarians argue, or even across Canada, won’t have any effect at all.
Castro answers with a question of her own: “How can we ask these countries to change if we’re not willing to make the simplest changes ourselves?” After all, North America created disposable culture, and we’re exporting it — literally, in some cases, along with our waste. As she points out, 103 shipping containers filled with Canadian garbage marked as recyclables have been sitting in The Philippines since 2014, and Greenpeace reported in January that Canadian plastic has turned up in unregulated recycling sites in Malaysia.
Besides, other nations are doing something. So far, 63 countries have banned plastic bags outright, including China, India, and Kenya, which imposes penalties of up to four years’ imprisonment and $40,000 in fines for producing or distributing bags. (The bans work: San Jose, California, reported 89 percent fewer bags in its storm-drain system a year after it instituted a ban, and marine scientists recorded a 30 to 40 percent reduction in plastic bags in the North Sea after bans came into effect in countries along its shores.) The EU’s forthcoming ban on single-use straws, cutlery, and dishware is already being duplicated in several countries dependent on beach tourism, such as Barbados and Jamaica.
We may have to wait a long time to see similar nationwide measures in Canada, though. Gord Johns’ unanimously-approved motion for a national strategy against plastic pollution now has to go through parliamentary committees; fellow NDP MP Nathan Cullen has introduced his own bill, prohibiting any packaging that can’t be composted or recycled, but it’s unlikely to pass before October’s federal election. Federal environment minister Catherine McKenna recently told the CBC that a national plastics strategy is coming in June — but stopped short of committing to any bans. “It’s not just about banning,” she said. “I think we need to focus more on the circular economy” — in other words, better package design and recycling, in line with the direction of Canada’s $24.3-billion plastics industry.
That’s nothing new. Last September, McKenna got most G7 countries — plus Dow, Unilever, Walmart and other multinationals — to sign an Ocean Plastics Charter, pledging to “recover 100 percent of all plastics by 2040.” (Sound familiar?) McKenna and provincial environment ministers also signed a similar Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste in November — both voluntary declarations, with distant timelines and no budgets or plans for enforcement. “Minister McKenna has been silent on the important role that bans play in tackling plastic waste reduction across Canada,” Greenpeace Canada said in a statement. “We need real leadership from Canada like we’re seeing in other parts of the world, such as Europe, and this isn’t it.”
OUR PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT hasn’t shown much leadership either. At last September’s conference of the Union of BC Municipalities, members endorsed two resolutions calling for uniform regulations on plastic packaging, and a province-wide strategy to reduce single-use plastics. The ministry of environment responded, in both cases, by citing its pride in the province’s 22 EPR programs, and said it was focused on improving and expanding them instead. “The ministry commends the actions taken by local governments to develop single-use item strategies and other related initiatives to reduce plastic in the environment.”
FOCUS also asked BC’s ministry of environment several direct questions about plastic pollution. The ministry told us it is “considering” increasing the deposits on beverage containers to increase the numbers of them that get recycled, but is not planning to mandate recycled content in new plastic containers, like California does, or introduce a province-wide ban on plastic bags, like the one coming in PEI. (Our questions and the ministry’s complete responses are posted HERE.)
Consequently, any tough measures have been left up to municipalities themselves. July 1 marks the first year since the City of Victoria’s checkout bag bylaw came into effect, and Fraser Work, the City’s director of engineering, says it’s achieved nearly 100 percent compliance. “We’ve resoundingly heard a lot of positive feedback,” he says, crediting the City’s careful, two-year consultation with retailers. (Obviously, the ban doesn’t have friends at the Canadian Plastic Bag Assocation. The industry group lost its case in BC Supreme Court, claiming the bylaw is an environmental regulation and thus a matter of provincial jurisdiction, but its appeal will be heard in Vancouver on May 15.)
Now the Victoria is preparing a ban on single-use cups and containers, as identified by the City Council in its latest strategic plan. Work admits crafting this bylaw will be more challenging, because getting customers to bring their own reusable containers also has to fit with the province’s FoodSafe guidelines. (The ministry of health told me that “Under the Food Safety Act, restaurants and supermarkets are responsible for ensuring that their food is safe for consumers and they must not sell any item that is contaminated. At this time, it is up to operators determine if they will allow customers to use personal containers, weighing that decision with their responsibility of ensuring the food is safe for consumption from the restaurant/store to the customer’s home.”) But some retailers are already on board, judging by the numbers of customers one sees with refillable mugs in independent coffee shops, and the popularity of downtown’s Zero Waste Emporium, where you can fill your own containers with everything from milk to shampoo. Last month, the Quebec-based supermarket chain Metro said it will let customers use their own reusable containers for meat, seafood, and pastries in 131 of its stores, so the trend may be even bigger than we think.
All these changes are part of the larger movement toward “zero waste,” placing a higher priority on reducing or reusing plastic packaging, instead of recycling or landfilling it. More discussion about it is coming soon: the CRD is currently developing a new solid-waste management plan, which includes the blue-box program, and will be putting it out for public consultation this autumn. The debates about what the plan should (and should not) include will be interesting to watch.
But we shouldn’t be afraid of changing it. As Charlotte Brady reminds me, back on Willows Beach: “We’re a coastal city. We see the effects before others. We have to do something about plastic pollution when our people, our culture and our economy rely so heavily upon the ocean.”
Ross Crockford recently bought a Guppyfriend™ laundry bag, in the hope it will capture microfibres from his many fleece jackets.