Plastic clamshell containers collected through Calgary’s Blue Cart program are getting recycled but The City has run out of options for previously stored clamshells.
Since April, The City of Calgary and its recycling contractor, Cascades Recovery+, has found a consistent and reliable solution for the recycling of clamshell plastics with a local company, Merlin Plastics. However, all available options have been exhausted for the previously stored clamshell containers. Approximately 2,000 tonnes of stored plastic clamshell containers will be landfilled in August. With the changes to global recycling markets, some recyclable material such as clamshell plastic have been impacted with limited options for recycling. This has put many municipalities, including Calgary, in a tough spot. In response to this market volatility, The City of Calgary stored sorted clamshell containers from September 2017 to April 2019 to thoroughly investigate all options, give markets time to stabilize and domestic processors the opportunity to adjust to the new market reality.
“This is the first time we’ve had to landfill material due to market issues, and we are just as disappointed as many Calgarians will be about this. Our priority has always been to keep all recyclable materials out of the landfill,” says Sharon Howland, Leader of Program Management with Waste & Recycling Services. “However, despite our best efforts to find a different solution, we now have to minimize the cost of storage of the backlog and focus our efforts on ensuring clamshells are recycled moving forward.”
The cost to store the material has been $330,000 to date. The cost of landfilling the stored material including unloading the storage trailers, moving the material to the landfill, burying and compaction is $130,000. The total cost works out to $1.40 per blue cart household for the storage and landfilling of this material over the entire two-year period.
Over the course of two years, The City explored more than 50 different options, including recycling, alternative use and waste-to-energy for the stored clamshell plastic. Most of the clamshell material was considered unmarketable as it did not meet the requirements to allow the material to be turned into something new. While some companies found that the material could be used, the amount of material accumulated from September 2017 to April 2019 could not be moved in a timely and cost-effective manner. Most companies needed at least two years to take all the stored material, meanwhile The City would still incur storage costs.
“These clamshell containers represent about 1-2% of the annual Blue Cart tonnage,” explained Howland. “While landfilling the stored clamshells is a small setback, it was important for us to focus on finding a long-term solution for all of Calgary’s clamshells. The material needs to be a high quality going forward to ensure that it can be successfully marketed instead of being eliminated from our Blue Cart program. This would have resulted in significantly more tonnage over time ultimately ending up in the landfill which we’ve now avoided.”
Clamshell plastic is difficult to recycle due to the types of labels and adhesives used which requires an extended wash process. Labels and adhesives on this type of plastic are not standardized meaning they need to soak in a caustic wash for an extended period to gain the quality needed to make new plastic products. Merlin Plastics has recently upgraded and expanded the wash-line at its local plant to allow for greater polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic recycling capacity. While Merlin is taking the current clamshells, they do not have the capacity to take on the stored clamshell material in a cost-effective time period.
Having an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program in Alberta would help to stabilize recycling markets. The City continues to advocate for an EPR program as it would streamline recycling programs across Alberta and encourage producers to reduce waste associated with their packaging and create products that are readily reusable or recyclable. Basically, the producer who makes a product would be responsible for it at its end of life.
“This situation would have had a different outcome under an EPR model,” said Peter Demong, City Councillor. “As municipalities, we are just not as equipped to deal with fluctuating markets as producers are, and taxpayers should not have to bear the financial and operational risks that come with them. Producers need and want to be given responsibility for the post-consumer products and packages they sell. That responsibility comes with the opportunity to process and market those materials. Greater economies of scale would allow producers to invest in technology that produces clean recycling commodities that continue to be sold to domestic and international recycling markets.”
Howland hopes that Calgarians will continue to recycle right by putting the right things in their blue carts. “We need Calgarians to continue recycling and keeping these materials out of the landfill. There is no future without recycling. We have a single planet with finite resources and we need recycled materials to conserve resources and put materials back into productive use.” Currently, 95 per cent of Calgary households use their Blue Cart on a regular basis with Calgarians recycling and composting more waste at home than is sent to the landfill. “Our overall recycling program is still going strong with Calgarians recycling over 600 million kilograms over the last 10 years,” says Howland.
More information about clamshell recycling can be found at calgary.ca/clamshellrecycling