St. John's group startled by how much plastic goes to the dump

Members of a St. John's non-profit that studied how a few dozen households managed their plastics say they were shocked to find that most of it wound up going in the trash. 

75% of household plastics in small project cannot actually be recycled

The co-operative gathered all the plastic that volunteers collected, and then documented each piece. (Submitted by Social Justice Co-operative NL)

Members of a St. John's non-profit that studied how a few dozen households managed their plastics say they were shocked to find that most of it wound up going in the trash. 

The Social Justice Co-operative Newfoundland Labrador's Zero Waste Action Team released the finding of its research earlier this week. 

"From our preliminary findings, we see that out of the total plastic waste that is generated in a house, 75 per cent of it, as per count … is not getting recycled," project organizer V. Nikhilesh Paliath said in an interview.

"Per count" means that 75 per cent of the individual items wound up going to the landfill. By weight, just over 40 per cent was not able to be recycled. 

The project, called a Brand Audit, was part of what is called the #breakfreefromplastic movement, a global movement that aims to create a future free from plastic pollution. 

Over a two-week period last fall the co-operative asked for volunteers to take part in the study, with 38 households eventually offering up all the plastic they used over a 14-day period. 

Sifting and sorting through the pile of plastics, the organization kept track of what plastic could be recycled and what had to go into the landfill based on the Curb It guidelines in St. John's.

WATCH | Jeremy Eaton looks at the findings of a small-scale project that picked apart household waste in St. John's: 

Project finds much household plastic cannot be recycled

3 years ago
Duration 2:27
Jeremy Eaton reports on the findings of a small research project in St. John's

One issue jumped out right away. Food product packaging accounted for a large portion of the plastics that cannot be recycled. 

These included things like bread bags and the tags that keep such products fresh, plastic coverings on meat products, and the caps from plastic bottles. 

In a detailed document online, the groups shows, in page upon page of their findings, which products can be recycled, and the manufacturers responsible for selling them. 

The research was presented virtually Monday to a group including St. John's Mayor Danny Breen, a member of the House of Assembly and representatives from the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board. 

The volunteer-led initiative kept extensive data on what they collected. (Social Justice Co-operative NL)

"We started this project to better understand the plastic waste that is sent to landfill … [but] when we saw that MMSB is also thinking about introducing an extended producer responsibility in PPP [packaging and printed paper] products, we thought our data might be useful for them too," said Paliath.

Whose fault is it? 

According to the co-operative, the blame for the problem isn't placed on the consumer, but rather the companies putting plastic packaging on store shelves.

"We are made to think that it is our fault for producing this but in reality it is the companies that are producing all these plastic products that are really at fault," said co-op member Sarah Sauvé.

"Our goal is to better understand what are the biggest sources of plastics in St. John's so that we can then try to hold those people accountable."

V. Nikhilesh Paliath and Sarah Sauvé helped lead the volunteer plastic pickup program. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

The data collected came from a small percentage of the metro St. John's population. Even with fewer than 40 homes and only a two-week period, the volunteers were surprised by just how much waste each house can create.

"It doesn't seem like much, especially when you pick up one household at a time — it's one bag, it's two bags, and then you put it all together and it's so much plastic," said Sauvé.

"Those people are waste-conscious already and it just tries to give you a small glimpse of the size of the problem we are facing."

Organizers said that this is the first phase of its program. The next step is to take a large sample size of homes. 

The end goal would be to figure out just how much waste per household is getting recycled or winds up sitting in a landfill. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Jeremy Eaton is a reporter and videojournalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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