October 2013

An update on plastics recycling and new government initiatives

The Annual Recycling Council of Alberta Conference was held October 2-4 in Calgary as a gathering point for waste management and recycling industry experts to discuss and share ideas on recycling in the province of Alberta. Grant Cameron is the Alberta Plastic Recycling Association’s (APRA) Executive Director. Grant presented at the conference on the current state of plastics recycling in the province and shared recommendations for future developments in the industry.

According to APRA’s Grant Cameron, when looking at any recycling solution it is important to consider where the materials are coming from. The breakdown of the municipal solid waste stream in Canada between industrial and residential sources differs across the country. In Alberta, arguably the host of Canada’s strongest economy, 77% of waste comes from ICI (industry, commercial and institutions) compared to only 23% from residential users. When we seek to improve waste management processes, we need to focus on the easiest targets to decrease waste and increase growth in recycling. Looking at what gains can be made in recycling on the ICI side is one approach.

In terms of plastics recycling, Grant explains the industry is required to consider similar factors as other materials recyclers when dealing with the size and feed-stock of recyclable materials. Is this a one-time pile of plastic from a project or is it a continuous stream of plastic waste such as agricultural plastics, created by a number of users over many years? The answer to this question will determine if there is support to establish the infrastructure for long-term recycling of the product. Grant mentions that we need to ask key questions to determine the logistics of the product’s lifecycle. Factors such as how we collect and transport these plastics are also issues that users of plastics and plastics recyclers need to consider. How easy or difficult is it to transport large sheets of plastic that have been used to wrap bails compared to small plastic bottles? It is unlikely that two distinct forms of plastics can be handled in the same way and the costs associated differ as well.

More to this point, one reason plastics recycling is unique to other forms of recycling is because there is not a “one size fits all” model. All plastics are engineered products, created differently. Plastics are a great resource to society because they can be designed by the manufacturer to meet unique needs. However, recyclers come across some issues in recycling plastics because the different plastics cannot be recycled together. Different plastics are chemically unique, respond to the heat and pressure of recycling in different ways and cannot be combined. Users and recyclers alike are required to know facts about the plastic characteristics to know where the products can be transported and proper techniques to recycle them.

As Grant mentions, the plastics recycling industry has been addressing issues like those listed above for the past twenty years or more and is creating solutions. As with any industry there are always improvements that can be made.

“As I like to put it, there is no more copper wire in the recycling industry,” says Grant. “The easy, cost-effective recycling programs for most materials including plastics have already been deployed and in order to see future development we are going to need subsidies and funding. Because plastics are a low margin product, like many post-use materials, there is simply not enough money within the recovery to cover all aspects of capture, transportation and recycling. Stewardship or policies encouraging EPR (extended producer responsibility) will need to play a large role moving forward.”

The push toward extended producer responsibility will come from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, a government ministry that can create a business climate to develop the increased capture of existing recyclables and ensure products outside current recycling streams are dealt with at their end of life.  

Diana McQueen, the Minister of the Environment, has addressed ways to reduce municipal waste in Alberta. Proposed regulations would streamline Alberta’s regulatory framework, look at options to shift end-of-life management costs from taxpayers to brand owners or first importers of the products as well as improve alignment with neighbouring provinces on these issues.  APRA has been invited to participate in consultation with the government about changes in the province’s existing framework for materials recycling.

“APRA is eager to be involved in the consultation process and will offer our experience to ensure the most favorable outcome for Albertans and recycling in this province,” comments Grant.

APRA will provide updates on the process and collaboration once it gets underway.

Stay tuned to the APRA website for next week’s article on China’s Green Fence.