British Columbia

Vancouverites are good at recycling — just not when it comes to plastic bags

Vancouver's recycling contamination rate is one of the lowest in the country, at 4.6 per cent, but residents still struggle to recycle plastic bags.

Over 2 million plastic bags are thrown in the garbage every week in Vancouver

While Vancouver has one of the lowest rates of recycling contamination in the country, plastic bags still pose big challenges to its recycling program. (The Associated Press)

Vancouver has one of the lowest rates of contaminated recycling in the country — but residents are still struggling to figure out where to put their plastic bags, according to the managing director of Recycling B.C.

Vancouver boasts a contamination rate of just 4.6 per cent, a small figure when compared to cities like Toronto, at 26 per cent, and Edmonton, at 24 per cent, according to data obtained by CBC News.

But the low number still falls short of provincial targets.

"We actually set a target for all our collectors at a three per cent contamination rate," said managing director Allen Langdon. 

Contamination is the technical name for non-recyclable material or garbage in the recycling system, from leftover food in containers to non-recyclable plastic packaging to more obvious garbage such as clothing and propane tanks.

"Right now, the No. 1 challenge is plastic bags," said Langdon. "We probably get more plastic bags in our paper stream than any other contaminate right now."

According to Recycle B.C., more than 2 million plastic bags make their way into the city's trash cans every week.

Lower Mainland leads

Over 150 communities across the province receive Recyle B.C. collection service. The non-profit is funded by businesses that produce recyclable waste and collects papers and plastics on their behalf.

Several communities in the Lower Mainland, including Vancouver, Richmond, the North Shore, and Burnaby, have particularly low contamination rates due to their dual stream systems that use bags for fibres and boxes for containers.

"It's primarily because our drivers can see into the box, and where there are instances of contamination, they can actually remove them, take the rest of the material, and leave a note for their customers," Langdon said.

Plastic problems

But Langdon said there's still room for improvement.

Under the Recycle B.C. program, plastic bags are supposed to be dropped off at recycling depots. However, a lot of them slip into and contaminate the paper stream.

"Their density, and how they flow with other materials, we find they easily flow into the paper stream, and they're really ... complicating and adding another layer of challenges to the system."

The contaminated materials are often sent to landfills.

To make matters more difficult, millions of plastic bags end up in Vancouver garbage cans each week.

"We're really encouraging consumers to just look at other options and go to reusable bags," said Langdon.