Nfld. & Labrador

In the blue bag and to the curb, but then what? 

A new report about waste management in the Gros Morne region raises concerns that a lack of transparency about recycling is affecting compliance.

New report says it's hard to know what happens to N.L. recyclables

Jackie Bauman holds plastic trash collected during a cleanup in Gros Morne National Park, in western Newfoundland. (Submitted by Jackie Bauman)

More people would be likely to recycle if they knew where their blue bag items actually end up, according to a report out of the Gros Morne region this week. 

But the report from Atlantic Healthy Oceans Initiative says there's no certainty about where recyclables from Newfoundland and Labrador go when they leave the province — or if they're even recycled at all. 

The report suggests that those lingering doubts and lack of transparency are contributing to gaps in the system.

"People do want to see their recyclable materials turned into something else, so a lot of people are, for the most part, complying," said Jackie Bauman, AHOI's plastics program co-ordinator. 

"But then you also get some folks who we've heard from who sometimes question, 'Is it worth it?'" 

Bauman said people want to be able to trust in what's happening to plastics in particular once they're rinsed and put in the recycling bin.

The Atlantic Healthy Oceans Initiative has produced a report that explores some of the shortcomings and challenges facing the waste management system in the Gros Morne region specifically, although many of its findings may be more broadly applicable across N.L. (Atlantic Healthy Oceans Initiative)

Destination unknown

In preparing its report, "Assessing the Waste Management System in the Gros Morne Region," AHOI tried to track the route taken by recyclables once they're put out to the curb.

The environmental organization determined that it's hard to say for sure where the markets for recycled plastic are, but what they learned is that, at some point, even if it is recycled, it eventually ends up in a landfill.

"It gets 'downcycled.' So, when a plastic product gets recycled, it gets turned into another plastic material, which is usually only recycled for a couple of times, and then it's no longer viable," said Bauman.

Provincial Environment Minister Bernard Davis said he couldn't determine where recyclable items end up but said the province has "had some great success over the number of years in recycling and increasing recycling numbers." 

Davis said he understands hesitancy around recycling, "because it's not easy sometimes to recycle." The focus, he said, should be on reducing consumption.

"The small things that you do as an individual does make a significant difference to what we see in our landfills," he said.

Fit for the trash heap

One of the challenges identified in the AHOI report is the amount of potentially recyclable material rejected by Scotia Recycling because it hasn't been cleaned properly or because a blue bag contains a mix of waste and recyclables.

Bauman said the system is supposed to include a fail-safe in that garbage collectors will leave behind a blue bag if it appeared to be contaminated in some way, with a sticker to show why it wasn't picked up.

But waste haulers don't seem to consistently do that, she said, which means residents aren't informed about what they're doing incorrectly. That leads to blue bags either having to be sorted through at the recycling depot or sent directly to the landfill.

"Having accountability with all the people who have a role in the waste management system is very important," said Bauman.

This is a handful of plastic trash collected in Gros Morne National Park. (Submitted by Jackie Bauman)

Last resort

Bauman said it's important for everyone to recognize that recycling is not the solution to the proliferation of single-use plastics.

Estimates are that only about nine per cent of plastic waste in Canada gets recycled at all.

"We can't recycle our way out of this. It's definitely a last resort. So when we can't reduce and we can't reuse, then we recycle," said Bauman.

Davis said reducing everyday use is a good thing and banning plastics has long been a priority for the province.

"It's much better to reduce the amount of plastics and packaging that we have on our products," he said. 

Davis said businesses across the province are taking steps to reduce waste, "not just because the public wants it, but the stakeholders and the shareholders of those businesses want them to be better." 

The AHOI report recommends that people, organizations and businesses use refillable water bottles and adopt the use of reusable food containers wherever possible.

In the Gros Morne region, which receives an influx of 250,000 visitors in a typical tourism year, the report said promoting a shift away from single-use plastics would also help cut down on the litter that tends to become strewn around garbage containers at rest stops in the national park.

AHOI has more than a dozen other recommendations to improve waste management in the Gros Morne region.

Plastic takeout containers used by stores and restaurants make it easy to grab meals to go, but the plastics they contain are often difficult to recycle. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Takes a village, and more

Bauman acknowledges there's only so much individual visitors or residents can do in selecting foods, for example, that have less packaging and, in particular, less plastic packaging.

"There needs to be some regulation, some standard, so that as an individual, it's easier for you to make the right choices because you don't have those single-use plastics so readily available," she said.

The AHOI report recommends that governments ensure manufacturers take responsibility for a product's end of life, an approach known as extended producer responsibility, so that they will design better packaging so communities aren't left to deal with the waste.

In December, the federal government announced its intention to eliminate or restrict some single-use plastics — including straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, plastic cutlery and food takeout containers — but that has not yet taken effect.

The government already implemented a provincial ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in October 2020.

Davis said the expansion of the province's extended producer responsibility program, which charges companies upfront to cover the cost of recycling their own materials, is a sign the government is taking more serious steps toward recycling.

The province has also beefed up enforcement for environmental programs.

"We've got 90 more staff on this across the province to help with illegal dumping complaints and issuing tickets and citations to individuals," he said. "So that's one clear-cut action we can do."

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