With increased emphasis on improving landfill diversion, Canadian municipalities are seeking sustainable alternative waste management options for major waste streams. One area of interest is the recovery and reuse of clean plastic polyethylene (PE) bags and film. There are many established markets for PE plastic film, stretch wrap and bags collected from the industrial, commercial and institutional (IC&I) sector, yet the recycling of plastic film packaging from household waste poses additional challenges. These revolve around the need to ensure that the post-consumer collected film stream is homogenous, clean and relatively contaminant free. The plastic bags coming from curbside programs are typically of a lower quality due to contamination, such as paper receipts being left in the bag or the inclusion of contaminated material, such as meat and cheese wrap, chip and cookie bags, chocolate bar wrappings, cereal or cracker box liners, overwrap from boxed products, stretch wrap and garden product bags, and so on.
The Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) continues to work closely with innovative municipalities who lead the way in terms of researching various markets for plastic bags collected from curbside programs and determining effective collection and processing methods for the recycling of these plastic bags. The result of some of this work is outlined in detail in a free resource entitled Best Practices Guide for the Collection and Handling of Polyethylene Plastic Bags and Film in Municipal Curbside Recycling Programs.
Additionally, many Canadian grocery chains and independents have spearheaded their own plastic bag recycling initiatives at their stores. The bags returned by consumers to their local grocery stores tend to be a cleaner material stream than those collected through curbside film programs.
It’s in the bag
Studies have shown that discarded plastic packing represents between six and 10 per cent of the total amount of waste generated in a typical Canadian household. A clean stream of plastic bags and films represents about two per cent of that amount.
Plastic bags have proven themselves to be a very efficient form of packaging. They can deliver the same amount of product with about one fifth the material of traditional packaging counterparts. Being able to package more product per kilogram of material is an environmental efficiency that carries through from the amount of material needed to produce the plastic bag in the first place to the energy and emissions that are saved in the transportation and distribution of those bags. Plastic bags also offer carry-out convenience at the check-out counter. Carry-out sacks also offer consumers the opportunity to practice reuse. A press release issued by the Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions (DTLR) for the United Kingdom, refers to a study conducted in September 2000 that saw more than four out of five people choose to reuse their plastic grocery bags for a variety of applications, such as liners for waste bins and for carrying books, gym clothes, shoes, etc.
Bag those bags!
Including plastic bags in curbside programs was first demonstrated in the early 1990s in the City of Peterborough, which ran a joint pilot project with EPIC involving 3,000 households. The pilot was eventually expanded to include all 31,000 households and apartments within the city and it generated key findings that must be put in place in curbside recycling programs.
Among these findings is the need to regularly inform residents to maintain as clean a stream of material as possible. Simple and effective communications containing a single message have been shown to play a very important role in achieving this. Research has shown that consumers do not want to read text-heavy material so short, simple and effective messaging is suggested. Audiences must be able to grasp the message in a few seconds.
Municipalities need to instruct residents to pack all of their empty plastic bags into one single plastic bag before knotting the outer bag. Residents should be advised to “wedge” the bag between the other recyclables to prevent it from being blown away (or to place it into a larger bag for bag-based curbside programs).
Municipalities, such as the City of Montreal, send regular reminders to their residents with a list of curbside recycling “Do’s and Don’ts.” Do’s typically include what material is acceptable, such as: grocery sacks; retail store carry-out sacks; rinsed milk pouches and outer bags; bread bags, sandwich bags and bulk food bags; dry cleaning bags; frozen food bags; and overwrap for toilet tissue and paper towels. “Don’ts” typically include what materials aren’t acceptable, such as: meat and cheese wrap; overwrap from boxed products; wax paper or stretch wrap; cereal or cracker box liners; chip, cookie bag or chocolate bar wrappings; and peat moss, fertilizer, weed & feed and other garden products.
In Montreal, plastic bags are collected in 27 boroughs, or approximately 847,000 households. According to Diane Andre, who is responsible for Group Recycling for the City of Montreal, the city’s MRF currently exports the majority of its collected film material to Asia. It also sends a small portion to Ontario. The film is added to post-industrial plastic residues to make such products as plastic lumber and pipe.
The City of Calgary also began accepting plastic bags and film in its depot recycling system in 2003.
Like most municipalities, the City of Hamilton makes a point of reminding its residents about collection processes and materials through regular communications. According to Navin Sharma, project manager of materials recycling for Hamilton, plastic bags have been part of the city’s curbside collection program for several years and the program is available to 135,000 single-family and 45,000 multi-residential dwellings.
The Halifax Regional Municipality had to expand its public education/communication program for plastic bags. According to Jim Bauld, manager of solid waste resources, this was done primarily to reduce contamination of the plastic bags collected from the 125,000 householders. The program consisted of running a series of television, print and radio ads for several months. The ads demonstrated how the bags should be turned inside out, placed into a single bag, knotted and then placed in the curbside container.
Research has also shown that the more times a public education/communication message is repeated, the better the collection quality results. Sample radio, print and television ads focusing on plastic bags are available free of charge from EPIC’s plastic film site. (See note at end of article.)
“We got some very positive feedback,” explains Bauld, who says that the public reacted favourably, as did the overseas market that was buying the material to use in nursery/plant seedling trays. In fact, adds Bauld, the local broker representing the Chinese market just expressed interest in securing a long-term contract. In 2003, Halifax collected 447 tonnes of plastic bags.
Collection and processing
A joint pilot project between the City of Peterborough and EPIC demonstrated that an effective way to collect plastic bags within the truck itself was to place them in a larger bag within the fibre section.
“We eventually opted to collect it in our fibres compartment because this helps compact the bags and provide maximum space on the truck,” explains Virginia Swinson, waste reduction officer with Peterborough. “Our capture rates are about 35 to 45 per cent, which equates to about 250 to 300 tonnes a year.”
Quinte Waste Solutions, an organization responsible for the waste reduction programs for a group of municipalities in southeastern Ontario, also collects plastic bags. It services approximately 65,000 households, which amounts to between 200 and 300 tonnes per annum and works out to about a 50 to 60 per cent capture rate. The organization has attempted to maintain a clean stream of material through the implementation of a “squeeze test.”
This squeeze test essentially asks recycl
oyees to squeeze the “plastic bag of plastic bags” to determine if any containers or residues have been inadvertently included. If there have been, then the drivers are instructed to leave the bags at the curb, along with a notice card explaining why the material has been left behind.
“We always try to emphasize the need for clear set-out instructions,” says Rick Clow, General Manager for Quinte Waste Solutions. “And our contamination levels have gone down as a result.”
Blue Water Recycling collects curbside waste from approximately 50,000 households in 22 different municipalities in southwestern Ontario. According to Vice President Matt Keeley, the organization collects about 80 tonnes of plastic bags annually.
“We’ve got six people on the fibre line and the plastic bags are one of the first things we pull out,” says Keeley, who adds that this aids in the rest of the sorting that needs to be done and helps reduce cross-contamination of materials.
Recycled plastic lumber markets predicted to grow
Recycling plastic bags back into other bags is very difficult because of stringent quality requirements for film-to-film applications, as well as the cost involved in recycling. Although some recyclers are meeting with success in this area, the majority of recyclers see more value in recovering cleaner streams of bags and film coming from the grocery sack market.
Some work has also taken place with recycled plastics and Canada’s Environmental Choice Program, more popularly known as EcoLogo. The plastics industry has helped develop standards for a number of categories of plastic products, including recycled garbage bags and grocery bags. The creation of this standard is designed to encourage the supply and demand for products that incorporate recycled content into new plastic bags.
Another end market, this one more forgiving when it comes to contamination, is plastic lumber. For that reason, most of the plastic bags being generated from municipal curbside collection programs are being reprocessed into recycled lumber applications.
Statistics from an EPIC-commissioned report entitled Recycled Plastics Lumber: A Strategic Assessment of its Production, Use and Future Prospects, indicate that the North American recycled plastic lumber market for deck boards and railings will grow to an estimated US$845 million by 2005 — more than double what it was in 2001.
The Recycled Plastic Lumber (RPL) Report suggests that woodfibre-plastic composite lumber products represent the largest and fastest growing area of the RPL market. And, it is this segment of the market that also holds the most promise and opportunity for the recycling of plastic bags collected from curbside programs, as well as stretchwrap generated by the IC&I sector.
In those cases where achieving a clean stream of plastic bags is too difficult and for other plastic films that are not recyclable because of contamination issues or because of the presence of multiple layers (i.e., meat and poultry wrap), municipalities have another option that can still divert high-energy plastic waste from landfill. There has been increased interest in gasification studies showing that plastic film and bags are well suited as a feedstock to this technology. Gasification is a process that uses a “reducing atmosphere” deficient in oxygen. This prevents the formation of oxides of sulfur and nitrogen. Unlike incineration, gasification operates at very high temperatures and produces carbon monoxide and hydrogen (instead of the carbon dioxide and water produced through incineration). Gasification also produces a “syngas” virtually free of dioxins and furan compounds.
EPIC recently worked with Sherbrooke-based Enerkem Technologies on a couple of pilot projects involving municipal plastic waste streams, one of which involved plastic bags and film exclusively. The resulting “syngas” produced was burned and the emissions analyzed. Tests conducted by a third-party, independent laboratory showed that all emissions from the syngas were well below the allowable limits set out under the A-7 new facility emission guidelines for the Ontario (which are among the most stringent in the world).
According to a 1999 Gasification Survey undertaken by SFA Pacific Inc. and with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, there are 160 commercial gasification plants around the world that are either in operation, under construction or in the planning and designing stages. Total daily capacity of these facilities, as stated in the report, is almost 430 million normal cubic metres of syngas, which is the energy equivalent of more than 770,000 barrels of oil per day.
The report also suggests that worldwide gasification will grow significantly over the next few years. An annual rate of 10 per cent is forecast from 2000 to 2005, with capacity anticipated to increase by 58 per cent.
The resulting syngas that is generated from gasification has a variety of potential uses. In addition to being used to produce a high-quality fuel product to replace fossil fuels, the hydrogen in syngas may be extracted for use in fuel cells.
In addition to the study mentioned near the beginning of this article, EPIC has created a dedicated plastic film web site (www.plastics.ca/ film) and has made available ready-made, communications advertisements that can be rolled out directly to householders. These ads, which are based on the advertising material produced in partnership with the Halifax Regional Municipality, include print, radio and television and speak to the need for householders to generate a clean, quality stream of plastic bags with minimum contamination.
For additional information on plastic film and to access the various free resources mentioned throughout this article, please visit the publications section of EPIC www.plastics.ca/epic or the new plastic film site www.plastics.ca/film
Cathy Cirko is the director general of the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC)www.plastics.ca/epic, a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA). Contact Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org
IRISH LEVY REDUCES PLASTIC BAGS, LITTER
As Canadian jurisdictions consider ways to recycle challenging items like film plastic and litter, they may wish to examine Ireland’s plastic bag levy, which reduced their use by 90 per cent, and legislation that is taking on such things as gum wrappers.
In 1997, the government published its Statement of Intent on Environmental Taxation which recognized the benefits of using economic instruments to achieve environmental goals. The plastic bag levy consequently appeared in March 2002.
Grocery bags in Irish stores each carry a steep 15 cent levy (about 15 US cents). Store personnel always ask if you need a bag, because now virtually all Irish shoppers bring their own reusable bag to take groceries home. For 25 cents, one can buy a plastic bag made of heavier plastic, which can be used a number of times.
This levy has resulted in a 90 per cent decrease in the use of disposable plastic bags. The levy has also provided almost L20 million in funds for environmental projects. The amount of waste from the bags has been dramatically reduced; currently they constitute 0.3 per cent of national litter compared to 5 per cent prior to the introduction of the levy. Interestingly, a recent survey on Irish public behaviour and attitudes to the environment published in June 2003 shows 91 per cent of respondents supported the initiative, and the level of consultation prior to the introduction of the levy contributed to a seamless change in consumer behaviour.
Ireland’s National Litter Action Plan (2001) recommends the imposition of a levy if the chewing gum and fast food sectors fail to prevent and control litter through voluntary initiatives. The levy or “cleanup charge” would be imposed at the point of sale. Public attitudes tow
ard litter are changing positively, including toward ATM slips outside of bank machines (another litter target).
With files from Maria Kelleher, email@example.com