China changed its recycling laws. Now Calgary has a clamshell recycling problem

Calgary spent around $300,000 stockpiling plastic clamshells in the hopes of finding a buyer, after a change in Chinese recycling laws.

City stockpiling plastic containers in trailers in the hopes of finding buyer

Plastic clamshells, similar to the ones containing these greenhouse-grown strawberries, are being stockpiled by the City of Calgary, which has nowhere to send them. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

Calgary has a clamshell problem. Last year, the city spent $300,000 to rent semi-trailers to stockpile clamshell containers like the type that strawberries and baked goods come in.

Coun. Peter Demong joined Doug Dirks on The Homestretch to talk about the situation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Q: Why is the city stockpiling clamshell containers specifically?

A. It's a situation that's developed since the 2017 China Sword program came out, which basically devastated the recycling market in North America. 

Because Calgary actually has a very good recycling process and the companies involved do it in a proper methodology, we have a very low contamination rate mostly — and we have found buyers for the vast majority of the products that used to go to China.

We've found different locations mostly in North America. Still if you were overseas to take care of it now, the clamshells are a different item altogether. That is one of the lowest grade plastics there is and we have been trying to find a source to deal with these for the last 16 months to try to figure out how to actually process these.

Long story short, we thought we were very close to a processor out on the West Coast that was going to accept the material and that we were actually going to be able to follow through with it. It's only in the last few weeks — month and a half — that we found out that that is not going to be an option.

Now, we're basically left holding the clamshell.

So now the decision is do we actually turn around and start burying this stuff? 

Do we keep accepting it in the blue bin boxes as recycling?

These are all very good questions that we're actually going to have to deal with. But the fact of the matter is if we had had a program called extended producer responsibility (EPR) act in place in the province of Alberta, this situation would not exist.

Coun. Peter Demong says the city has to decide what to do with stockpiles of clamshell recylables. (CBC)

Q: How many semi-trailers are we talking about here right now that's storing the clamshells?

A. My understanding is about 100.

Q: I keep putting them into my blue bin so I just assume that you guys are taking care of it. So where are they being stored?

A. Mostly on city sites. I honestly don't know the exact details. There are a number of these storage areas, but it's one of those situations where we were doing it in the best interest of trying to figure out the right sourcing of this material.

Unfortunately it fell through and now we have to deal with this. Now the comment that we annually spend $300,000 — this is not an ongoing expense. This is specifically due to a situation that occurred two years ago.

Q: Because you're talking about working with the producers to actually get you containers that can be recycled, does this now fall on the provincial government and the federal government to legislate and regulate that, or what would that look like?

A. It's something that I've been trying to push for the last year and a half to two years, which is the extended producer responsibility, which would be a provincial legislation that has to come forward here.

Because most of the rest of Canada has some form of EPR legislation in place already, we here in Alberta are actually paying for our recycling twice.

Because it's not in place in Alberta, we pay for that at the grocery store and then we pay for it again on a ratepayer bill of $100 a year for blue-cycle.

If we can get an EPR program up and running provincially, we would be looking at saving that hundred dollars per homeowner a year.

Q: When are you going to deal with this?

A. We're probably going to have a couple of questions come to us next Wednesday, on the 15th of May, when we have the committee. And then we would expect to see some kind of a reaction from the utilities corporation to have a reaction to what we're going to do in the next council after.

With files from The Homestretch.

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email:


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