Tons of plastic bags stockpiled in New Brunswick as options are considered
The cheap plastic has been piling up with nowhere to go since 2017, and no one knows what to do with it
Sorting centres across New Brunswick are stockpiling hundreds of tons of plastic bags, as employees scratch their heads to figure out what to do with the material few recycling companies are willing to buy from them anymore.
"We don't want to landfill it just yet," said Marc-André Chiasson, communications officer with Moncton's Eco 360, the company that manages landfill for Southeast New Brunswick.
"We're keeping our hopes up that we'll have some new market that'll come out of the woodwork."
For decades, half the world's plastic ended up in China, where a booming manufacturing sector fuelled the demand for recyclable materials.
But as the country started generating more waste of its own, rules on imports became stricter.
What's often been described as a "ban" on foreign plastic, was in fact a series of increasingly stringent regulations on which materials could come in, and in what condition.
If the plastic was dirty or not sorted properly, it couldn't come through.
A few places — Fredericton among them — managed to continue shipping their plastic to China after the regulations were introduced in 2017.
But the laws got tighter since, and just last month, the Fredericton Region Solid Waste Commission learned its waste wouldn't be welcome anymore either.
At Moncton's sorting centre, 16 tonnes of plastic bags arrive each month through the recycling program.
Since 2017, the bags have been stockpiled and put away in containers, though the centre is not surprised to hear the waste from some facilities ended up dumped in Southeast Asia.
"We knew that this was going on across North America," said Gena Alderson, waste diversion co-ordinator for Eco 360.
"It means we're going to have to start rethinking the way that we're doing things. It also means that a lot of the material that used to be processed in Asia is going to be dealt with and processed closer to home. So we're just finally going to be taking a little bit more responsibility for the waste that we're creating."
The problem with plastic film — blue recycling bags, shopping bags, bread bags and fruit bags — is that it's a material that's chemically hard to break down, Alderson said, and because it can generate an electric charge, dirt tends to cling to it.
Still, Alderson is hoping to find a local recycling company interested in buying the product.
What to do with them?
In Saint John, Brenda MacCallum is wondering if accepting plastic bags for recycling is part of the problem.
"Does it in fact lower their impetus to try to reuse their plastic bags, or to reduce the number of plastic bags they get in the first place?" said MacCallum, public relations and program development officer with the Fundy Regional Service Commission.
The commission received a motion from the city of Saint John asking it to consider the question and will be making a recommendation next month, though every municipality would then be responsible for changing its recycling program.
Moncton said the city is not ready to wait for the province, and is looking at banning single-use plastic bags by July 2020.
- How our waste winds up in places like Malaysia and the Philippines
- Ottawa announces plans to ban single-use plastics starting in 2021 at the earliest
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said a real solution needs to be nationwide and has promised to ban plastic bags by 2021, but that's at the earliest.
Until that happens, the advice is to keep putting plastic bags in the recycling, but consider it a last resort.
"Recycling is good, but it should be the last step," said Chiasson.