Our plastic pipeline

B.C.'s program to recycle packaging might not be enough to justify our over-use of plastics

Maeve Jones worries about plastic, about waste. As a yoga teacher in Whistler, and someone deeply committed to enriching human health, she sees disposable plastic invading every part of her life, alongside troubling stories of plastic's impact on our environment: choking wildlife, filling landfills, leaching chemicals. "Nobody benefits from receiving something manufactured in a warehouse in China, packaged, used for 20 seconds, and then thrown away. It's insanity," she says.

One spring a few years ago, Jones decided to try to go plastic-free for a month, a commitment she has maintained every year since. "I was very strict. It initiated a whole change in my lifestyle," she says. She only ate berries if she bought them at the farmers' market and brought her own container. She skipped pre-wrapped foods, and only bought shampoo and deodorant in packaging-free bars.

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And—a revelation for her—she quit wearing makeup. "When you think about it, it's kinda crazy. It's sad to think women need it before they leave the house," Jones says. Some things proved challenging: she searched in vain for toilet paper that wasn't wrapped in plastic. "Fortunately in the month I was doing it, I didn't need to buy toilet paper. I won't be shy about saying I cheated," she concedes.

News about the harm plastics are doing to our planet is everywhere. Globally, we make nearly 272 million tonnes of plastic every year, about half of which is for single-use products—things like plastic bags that are intended to be used once and then thrown away.

At least 2 million tonnes of that (some say it's as high as 14 million tonnes) winds up in the ocean; right now, halfway to Hawaii, there's a patch three times the size of France clogged with 1.8 trillion bits of plastic, weighing 80,000 tonnes. Plastic, an entirely artificial compound made by people, usually from oil, breaks down into tiny bits in the sun and rain, but can take 450 years or more to actually biodegrade, if it ever does.

In the face of such news, people like Jones, non-profit organizations like the international Plastic Pollution Coalition, and the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), are fighting to remove single-use plastics from our lives.

This June, Canada became one of five G7 nations, along with France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., to sign an ocean plastics charter to improve plastic recycling rates. But critics say the charter—a voluntary, non-binding agreement—doesn't go far enough, failing to address ways to reduce our plastic use.

"Recycling alone will not solve this problem and reduction measures are necessary if we are serious about curbing ocean plastics," said Greenpeace plastics campaigner Farrah Khan in a release.

I have always considered myself a fairly committed protector of our planet; someone falling in the middle zone of environmental action. I try to walk to school with the kids instead of driving. I bring my own bags to the grocery store. I always assumed that if I put stuff in the blue bin instead of the garbage, that I was doing my part.

But is this true? Where do our plastics in the Sea to Sky go? Do they end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, strangling seagulls and choking turtles? Or is it all turned harmlessly back into more plastic bottles? Is our recycling stream good enough to justify using plastics in the first place, or should I, like Jones, ban it from my family's life?

To get a grip on all this, let's take a step back for a minute to find out how and why plastics seem to have taken over the world.

Plastic traces its roots back to the 1850s. One of the first plastics, celluloid, was invented as part of the mission to replace ivory in everything from billiard balls to combs, to save elephants from extinction.

As the decades passed and plastics became more flexible and cheaper to produce, they started replacing other materials like paper, steel, wood and glass. By the 1950s, the world was eager for technological innovation, and plastics were king: they made unbreakable drink bottles, lightweight cars, easy-clean furniture, and much more. To this day, plastics remain immensely useful; they reduce the fuel needed to transport goods in wood crates or glass bottles, and keep food fresh for longer, so less goes to waste.

But even by the 1960s, plastic's reputation was starting to fade, becoming synonymous with cheap, knockoff products. Already people were starting to notice plastics clogging up bits of land and ocean. We invented something that lasts forever and used it, ironically, for disposable products: cups and straws and bags meant to be used once and chucked.

Today, we know too much about the plastics we use and throw away to be blind to their environmental impacts. Plastic is the modern poster-child for reckless overconsumption. Since plastic was invented, humanity has produced more than 8 billion tonnes of it—79 per cent of which has ended up in landfills or the environment.

That said, the vast majority of plastics that wind up in the sea are probably coming from countries that don't have the right infrastructure to actually collect, let alone recycle, waste. When researchers assessed which rivers were shuttling the most plastic to the ocean, they found the top 10 polluters were all in Asia and Africa. So let's zoom in on the Sea to Sky and see what happens to the plastic in our own blue bins.

STEP 1: PUT IT IN THE RIGHT BIN

Whistler is devoted to the goal of reducing waste, so you might find it surprising the community sends nearly half of its waste, by train, to the Roosevelt Regional Landfill in southeastern Washington State—that's about 500 kilograms of landfill garbage per person per year. (Whistler's existing contract with the landfill expires in 2020.) Studies of the old Whistler landfill from 2004, and the transfer station from 2011 and 2012, showed that eight per cent of the landfill pile was made up of plastic.

Part of the problem is that plastic recycling can be confusing. "Plastic is the messiest stream, typically. It's the most confusing stream, also," says Denise Imbeau, sales manager for Carney's Waste Systems, a division of GFL Environmental, in Squamish—the company contracted to run the recycling depots and door pickup in the Sea to Sky. It's so confusing that even her family, with her acting as in-house attendant, doesn't always get it right. "In Squamish, they're going through the bins and telling you how you're doing. I get a note in mine saying, 'You're pretty good, but there's a few things you can learn,'" she laughs.

The Recycling Council of British Columbia has a website where you can input what you're trying to recycle, your location, and it will instruct you what to do; but its categories aren't always useful. Distressingly few items have stamps indicating what type of plastic it is. Recycle BC has a useful app telling you how to dispose of plastics, but it's only for packaging (more on that later). Carney's also has a website with guides, but again there's only a few dozen categories listed. After a few minutes of earnest trying, it can be very easy to give up.

It makes you understand why people drive up to the recycling centre, shrug, and leave their items beside one of the bins. And that's often what happens. Many people, says Imbeau, take garbage and recycling for granted. "I take calls from people around the corridor who think it's their God-given right to throw away whatever they want and someone will pick it up. They say, 'I pay my taxes. Take it away.'"

STEP 2: SORT IT

Carney's job is to collect the recycling, sort it and squeeze it into hay bale-like cubes at the transfer station in Squamish. The amount the company collects is truly astounding. Michael Baylis, lead transfer station attendant, showed me around the centre.

"Make sure you close your mouth when you walk through here," he advises, as we head through an aisle dense with flies. People clearly aren't rinsing things properly; I can see a milk jug with mould growing thick inside. There are huge piles of everything: paper, plastic, tins, plastic-mixed-with-containers. They get a lot of plant pots from the local marijuana dispensaries, he says; that's allowed, if they're clean.

Only about five per cent of the bale is permitted to contain "contamination." For that reason, workers pick through the piles, cursorily, and literally rake out the junk. Baylis fishes a plastic inflatable raft, an orange Explorer 100, out of the pile. "That's garbage," he notes. Baylis picks up a black garbage bag. "We don't even open these. There's no time. That'll go straight to landfill." Someone has brought in old office chairs. Baylis is clearly frustrated.

Carney's works in conjunction with an innovative local program. In 2011, the B.C. government passed legislation requiring all businesses that supply packaging and printed paper to consumers be responsible for covering the cost of recycling those materials. In 2014, the non-profit Recycle BC was set up for this purpose. It collects roughly $80 million a year from around 1,200 producers. Recycle BC then passes that money along to collectors and processors to ensure that at least 75 per cent of the materials are actually recycled.

That's an extremely high number; for contrast, something like nine per cent of global plastics get recycled, says Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen (that includes a lot more than packaging, of course). "It might be 22 per cent for plastic bottles in Atlanta, where Coke has its headquarters," she notes. So the system in B.C. is progressive, and its numbers impressive, relatively speaking. But not everyone is convinced it's good enough. "Companies are getting off easy," says Cohen. "It's easy to pay even a couple of million dollars to just have someone clean up your mess. That makes you look good. But are you addressing the problem?"

STEP 3: PROCESS IT

Once Carney's packs up all the plastic, most of it gets trucked off to Merlin Plastics in Delta, thanks to Recycle BC, for further sorting and processing. Merlin Plastics is closed-lipped about its processes; when I call, they won't tell me how much they collect, how they sort and process it, or how much is contaminated and winds up going to landfill. They decline my request for a tour. "We do everything we can to recycle everything and anything," says VP of operations Kevin Andrews. One thing Andrews will tell me is that biodegradable plastic is a real pain; if it winds up in with the other plastics, it can ruin their stream. "It's a trade secret how we deal with it," he says. After sorting, chopping and melting, Merlin Plastics produces tiny pellets of uniformly coloured plastic ready to be sold. "They look like a flat piece of rice," says Andrews.

On June 1, Recycle BC also launched a pilot project to handle "other flexible packaging"—all the Ziploc bags and silvery granola bar wrappers that can't get recycled with the other plastics. For now, that material is converted into a pellet that's used as an engineered fuel; essentially, it is burned to make electricity. Again, Merlin won't give many details about that. Research has shown this is a relatively sensible thing to do with waste material, though it is always better to not make the waste in the first place.

B.C. is fairly unique in that it processes its plastics in-province; most regions rely on shipping their plastics overseas, usually to China, for processing. (China has taken more than 40 per cent of the world's plastic waste since 1992. )China has been increasingly tightening its restrictions on what it will accept, and how clean it needs to be. Last July, China shut the door to 24 waste materials, including several common types of plastic. This left a lot of Canadian and American municipalities in a panic, with temporary exemptions allowing transfer stations to dump their recyclables in landfill while looking for someone else to take it. B.C. was spared that headache.

But there is still a problem with the system. As anyone who has moved house knows, sometimes you can sell some of your junk, but more often than not you have to pay someone to take it away. Imbeau says she can get people to pay her for cardboard, but there's no real demand for plastics. The market isn't there. Before the Recycle BC program, Imbeau says she would often get stuck with hundreds of waste bales in the Carney's courtyard, waiting for someone to take them away. Even now, there's a backlog that can't always be handled by the scheduled Recycle BC pickups. Baylis takes me out back to see what they call "Mount Plastic," a huge stack of bales just waiting to be shipped out.

Basically, there are too many people making plastic waste, Imbeau says, and not enough people wanting it.

The lack of eager buyers makes Cohen suspicious of what happens to global plastics; she says she wouldn't be surprised if someone down the chain of buyers were to illegally dump a load at sea.

STEP 4: MAKE SOMETHING OUT OF IT

There are conflicting stories out there about just how reusable recycled plastic actually is. What's clear is that most plastic is "downcycled" into a lower-grade material that doesn't have to be quite so clean or pure, which gets used for doormats, textiles, or plastic lumber, much of which eventually ends up in landfill. "A plastic bottle can never be a bottle again; it's always downcycled," says Claire Ruddy, executive director of AWARE. Merlin Plastics' Andrews disagrees.

"It's not necessarily true that you can't put it back into drinking bottles. It has to be FDA approved for food-grade use. We do that with some of ours," he says. Andrews wouldn't say exactly who buys their pellets or what they're used for, other than to say it includes "anybody and everybody, from shampoo bottles to pipes."

But even if you turn recycled plastic into something useful, that doesn't mean the end of the environmental line. Take fleece, for example, which is made from recycled plastic bottles. It turns out that these shed tiny microfibres of plastic when washed, a lot of which isn't caught by wastewater treatment. (You can buy a special bag to wash your clothes in, which helps.)

A study published in the science journal Marine Pollution Bulletin found that Vancouver-area treatment plants remove about 1.8 trillion plastic particles in wastewater each year; another 30 billion particles get through the system and leak into the ocean. These end up absolutely everywhere; another study showed that shellfish on the B.C. coast contain, on average, about one piece of microplastic each.

Canada has taken steps to ban plastic microbeads from cosmetics such as toothpaste and facial cleansers, but that doesn't address the microfibre problem. Artificial turf fields are also an issue. Residents raised concerns about microfibers washing off the new artificial outdoor field being built this year in Cheakamus Crossing, says Ruddy. "They have promised to put filters around the edge of the pitch to try to stop microfibres from washing into local streams," she says.

As for Jones, the yoga teacher who banned plastics from her shopping basket, she can't give up on her stretchy, synthetic yoga pants. "I think, 'Great, I've eliminated plastic from my cupboard,' and then I look down at my legs and they're covered with plastic," she sighs. "I struggle with this a lot."

STEP 5: USE LESS

In the end, whether plastic is recycled or not, eventually it ends up in landfill or the environment—it doesn't magically disappear. "There's no such thing as 'away,'" says Imbeau. For that reason, Imbeau, despite making her living from collecting peoples' waste, desperately wants to see us all make less of it. "It's easy to get complacent and think you're doing your part," she says. "But when you get rid of it, that's not the end of the story."

Plenty of local companies have stepped up to the plate to reduce plastics. In Whistler, 40 restaurants have signed onto AWARE's "Straw Wars" campaign, committing to offering plastic straws only when customers request them, and, in some cases, restaurants have made the switch to compostable straws instead of plastic. AWARE also works with events like the Whistler Half Marathon to make sure they are "zero waste"—which means 90 per cent gets diverted from landfill. "There's a lot of single-use items we can really quickly eliminate," says Ruddy.

Jones says she buys a lot of her body cleansers from Lush, in bars rather than bottles. And she credits Nesters for having a lot of bulk bins for food. (In Vancouver, the innovative grocery store NADA advertises that it has no packaging at all.) In Pemberton, the Pemberton Grocery Store started hosting a program called Boomerang bags about a year ago; volunteers sew unwanted fabrics, such as old sheets, into reusable bags that are left at the store for anyone to use and return.

AWARE has lobbied to get plastic bags banned from Whistler without success (people were too worried about the impact on tourists). Instead, in 2015, participating stores introduced a five-cent fee per bag. Between 2014 and 2016, shopping bag usage in Whistler grocery stores dropped 43 per cent, but Ruddy says that momentum has slowed since then. AWARE did have some success with a pilot project that placed cloth bags into hotel rooms at the Crystal Lodge, she says. "That got amazing feedback from the guests."

AWARE is running "zero waste" workshops in the fall; you can sign up at the Whistler Public Library. "We all have opportunities to make a difference: bringing your own bottles and mugs, buying from the bulk bins," says Ruddy. "And slowing down a bit; taking five minutes to enjoy a coffee rather than running out the door with it."

Perhaps the greatest benefit of cutting down on plastics is the unintended, positive side effects, like the one forcing you to take a real coffee break. As Jones found, when you refuse packaging, you often end up buying locally made and grown products, which cuts down on pollution from food shipment. Your drinks aren't exposed to the chemical additives in plastic (BPA may be gone, but there are others to worry about). And, says Jones, you generally buy less—of everything. Going plastic-free for her has meant fewer impulse buys of hand creams and Starbucks coffees, and not buying things just because they're on sale. "I recognized that I didn't want stuff in my house that didn't have long-term value," she says.

Not that Jones thinks plastic is entirely evil. Far from it. "One thing that came out of this for me is a really strong appreciation for plastic. It is a really useful product," says Jones. Then she sighs. "But it gets abused."

Nicola Jones (no relation to Maeve Jones) is a freelance science writer based in Pemberton.

 

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