Nfld. & Labrador

Clear garbage bag mandate in St. John's aims to tackle low recycling rates, city says

Public works Coun. Sandy Hickman says programs similar to the one enacted in St. John's on Jan. 1 are proven to increase recycling. But one critic says the city faces other challenges when it comes to recycling.

Saturday marked debut of clear garbage bag mandate in St. John's

A new rule requiring residents of St. John's to use clear garbage bags came into effect Saturday. (City of St. John's)

Household recycling is now mandatory in St. John's, city officials say, as a new clear bag mandate came into effect Saturday.

The initiative requires households to use clear, colourless bags for garbage, and no more than one opaque, or "privacy," bag per collection day.

Public works Coun. Sandy Hickman says the mandate is needed to divert recyclables from the city's Robin Hood Bay landfill.

"A lot of people have been recycling, but not all of them have been recycling everything that they could," Hickman said. "We're just trying to change the habit."

By helping city workers identify the contents of garbage bags, the clear bag mandate discourages households from throwing recyclable materials out with the trash. 

Hickman said, in St. John's, the average garbage bag contains about 50 per cent recyclable materials, including hazardous materials like paint, which contaminate landfills and pose a safety risk to city staff.

Hickman said while penalties will eventually be imposed for those who don't comply, some leeway will be given at first to allow households to adjust.

"We won't be coming down hard on people that don't immediately use them," he said. 

A long time coming

Clear bag mandates have been in place in other Canadian jurisdictions for years. In 2017, CBC reported that Halifax saw a 24 per cent drop in waste volumes after switching to clear bags two years earlier.

Central Waste Management, which covers much of central Newfoundland, also mandated clear garbage bags in 2016.

Chief administrative officer Ed Evans said having one in the capital region is a "major step" toward achieving the goals outlined in the provincial solid-waste management strategy, which include reducing solid waste by 50 per cent by 2025 from 2002 levels.

"It will significantly increase the amount of material that will end up going through a recycling process," he said. "We hope that the rest of the Avalon Peninsula will follow suit."

Coun. Sandy Hickman says the city isn't looking to hand out fines but to increase recycling. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Hickman said the decision to implement a clear bag policy was preceded by years of auditing household garbage to assess how much recycling was being wasted.

"We were actually taking samples over several years and just looking at people's waste in their garbage," he said.

He said the city also wanted to learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions.

"We waited a little bit longer to do studies on other parts of the country and in the world to see what worked well and what didn't work well," he said.

Hickman said he hopes the new program will get the current household recycling rate of roughly 75 per cent all the way to 100.

"It's the next big step we're taking," he said.

The bottom line

In addition to reducing waste in the landfill, recycling is a revenue generator for the city, Hickman said. 

The Robin Hood Bay facility charges the city tipping fees of $82 per tonne of garbage. Those fees are nearly four times more expensive than recycling.

The provincial solid-waste management strategy aims to reduce the amount of solid waste going to landfills by 50 per cent compared with 2002 levels. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Recycled materials like paper, cans, and certain plastics, which are mechanically processed and baled at the Robin Hood Bay facility before being shipped to market, are another moneymaker for the city.

Hickman said the St. John's facility has a low contamination rate — meaning recyclables are free of residue and foreign materials and fetch a higher market price. 

"So it's really critical to encourage people and especially to collect recycling and get it in," Hickman said.

More work to be done

Viviana Ramirez-Luna, founder of waste-reduction advocacy group Planet Consulting and member of the grassroots Zero Waste Action Team, says the move to mandate clear bags in the capital city is a positive step but other challenges have to be overcome to get recycling rates where they need to be.

"Finding what's recyclable and what's not is still confusing," said Ramirez-Luna. "When you're putting something in your bag, you should be really sure that it should be there or not."

Ramirez-Luna said battling environmental apathy is another important step.

"A lot of people don't really care about the environment," she said. "Some people don't recycle because they don't trust that the industry works, because we've seen that a lot of recyclables end up in the landfill."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kyle Mooney is a journalist and musician living in St. John's.

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