New Brunswick

Tons of plastic bags stockpiled in New Brunswick as options are considered

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 anymore. 

The cheap plastic has been piling up with nowhere to go since 2017, and no one knows what to do with it

Marc-Andre Chiasson said the sorting centre in Moncton gets about 16 tonnes of plastic bags a month. (CBC/Guillaume Aubut)

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. 

Plastic bags have been piling up in Moncton since 2017. (Guillaume Aubut/CBC)

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.

All of this had a domino effect on other Asian countries, which in recent months, voiced their anger at having wound up at the receiving end of some of Canada's unwanted plastic. 

Taking responsibility

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.

Gena Alderson of Eco 360 in the Moncton area is trying to find a local market for the plastic waste. (CBC/Guillaume Aubut)

"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.

Brenda MacCallum said the Fundy Regional Service Commission is considering a motion to stop accepting plastic bags in the recycling program. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Bans have been issued in some places — P.E.I. became the first province to ban plastic bags, and both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have introduced legislation to do so in the past few months.

Moncton said the city is not ready to wait for the province, and is looking at banning single-use plastic bags by July 2020.

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.