London

London, Ont. to recycle foam dishes, plastic utensils – even straws in Canadian first

London is to become the first test city in Canada for a new kind of recycling program aimed at tackling hard-to-recycle plastics, such as milk bags, plastic utensils and foam cups and plates.

The pilot project is subsidized by big plastic and aims to recycle what can't be reused

Plastic straws have become a popular symbol of the backlash against single-use plastics. The City of London says they will now be accepted for recycling in the first program of its kind in Canada. (Canadian Press)

Londoners will soon be able to recycle foam dishes, plastic utensils and even straws in a recycling pilot project that's being hailed as a Canadian first. 

In what's being called the "Hefty Energy Bag pilot project, " 13,000 London households in nine neighbourhoods are now able to recycle a laundry list of single-use, hard-to-recycle plastics ranging from candy wrappers to milk bags, even foam packing; all items that were once out of reach of the city's blue box program. 

"They're primarily items that are your soft plastics, like flexible plastic packaging, like a juice pouch or the bag around your loaf of bread. These are items that currently end up in the garbage," said Jay Stanford, the city's director of solid waste.

Under the pilot program, families will be asked to place the items inside an orange plastic bag and placed next to their blue box on recycling day, where it's picked up, baled and sent to market. 

Program paid for in part by big plastic

A new pilot program will see 13,000 London homes recycle a host of previously unrecyclable single-use plastics by placing them in these orange bags. (Facebook)

The model is based on similar programs in about half a dozen communities in the United States and is the first time such a program will be tested in Canada. 

The program was designed by Reynolds Consumer Products, the makers of the Hefty brand orange Energy Bags, which in the United States are converted along with their contents into fuel, energy and even durable construction materials. 

The goal of the pilot, according to Joe Hruska, the vice-president of sustainability for the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, is to find new markets for what was once considered worthless trash. 

"The innovation here is the orange bag," he said. "They can take the whole bag and put it into their processing machines and produce valuable plastic wood that can be on your deck. You can make it into diesel fuel, fuel replacement, even make it into cement." 

Plastic companies helping pay for recycling is nothing new. The industry already pays for up to 50 per cent of Ontario's blue box system and some have argued that plastic industry cash is one of the reasons the recycling system doesn't work very well in the first place. 

According to former Ontario Environment Commissioner Diane Saxe's 2017 report "Beyond the Blue Box," Ontario generates 12 million tonnes of waste a year.

Only a quarter of that is recycled, while half ends up in the landfill and the rest is either exported overseas or incinerated.

Responsibility shifting to producers

Big plastic pays for about 50 per cent of the cost of Ontario's blue box system, while cities pay the other half (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Some critics argue that recycling is what gives big plastic the social license to make all of the things that infuriate the eco-conscious among us in the first place, like plastic straws, utensils, foam take-out containers, even the plastic wrap on food such as cucumbers. 

Even though cities do get half of their money back on recycling, they must assume 100 per cent responsibility for it, with no ability to control how much plastic is used, what type or how that plastic is marketed.

However, things are starting to change. By 2023, Ontario plans to shift responsibility of the blue box program onto retailers and plastic producers. That's a move that would collectively save Ontario's cities over $100 million by some estimates, which was about a third of the total cost of the province-wide blue box program in 2016.

Because the plastic industry is starting to assume a greater responsibility for the mess it creates, it's also looking for new ways to recycle and sell it, and with that, it also wants more control over the recycling process. 

That's why Stanford believes London's new pilot project is a perfect marriage of those two emerging trends. 

"What we're doing with industry is working on a really good recovery system that will turn a material that was once considered a waste item into a resource item," he said.

"Traditionally, these items would go in the garbage and no one has taken a good run at 'how can we turn them into a valuable item' and so that's why this pilot project is so important."  

Stanford said families who participate should notice a difference right away, noting that the types of plastic being recycled might represent only three to four per cent of the weight in an average garbage bag, but take up 10 to 15 per cent of the volume. 

Neighbourhoods participating in London's curbside version of the program: 

  • Cleardale
  • Kensington Village
  • Kilalley Meadows
  • Lambeth
  • Old East Village

Neighbourhoods particpating in the Enviro Depot version of the program:

  • Byron (portion north of Byron Baseline Rd and east of Warbler Woods ESA)
  • Fairmont
  • Hunt Club
  • Summerside

 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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