No more soft plastics as Yukon recyclers brace for major changes

The signs at Raven ReCentre’s recycling drop-off are clear about two things. 

One: No more soft plastics, such as bags or wrappers.

Two: No, Raven ReCentre isn’t happy about it either.

Whitehorse’s main recycling centre says it can no longer accept soft plastics because the B.C. company that handles Raven’s plastic won’t accept material that contains soft plastics.

“When they open the truck and they see those mixed bales, they either send them to a landfill or an incinerator,” said executive director Heather Ashthorn. “That’s not an acceptable outcome for Raven. We’re an environmental organization and our intention is to get as much material into the circular economy as possible.”

“We are not remotely interested in sending that material to a landfill and for an incinerator, and even more specifically, not ship it out to a landfill or an incinerator outside the territory.”

Heather Ashthorn is executive director of Raven ReCentre. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

It’s a growing problem. Ever since China banned imports of most kinds of plastic waste in 2017, recyclers in North America have been scrambling to build capacity to handle plastics. 

But nobody’s hit upon a solution yet. In fact, even sorting plastics is still troublesome. “All of those plastic bags and food over wrap and food pouches and bubble wrap and anything that’s soft and stretchable as a plastic bungs up their machinery,” Ashthorn said.

Canada produces around 4.4 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018, says a discussion paper on plastics regulation published by the federal government in April. Less than eight per cent of that was recycled. And plastic typically degrades when it’s recycled, meaning it ends up finding new life in lower-quality products.

But researchers hope to develop recycled plastics that actually gain value. Mohammad Arjmand holds a Canada Research Chair in advanced materials and polymer engineering at UBC Okanagan. He also leads the school’s Plastic Recycling Research Cluster.

That group is working on ways to manipulate the properties of recycled plastics, making them more resistant to heat or corrosion, or conductive to electricity.

“We have a very strong proof of concept in the lab right now,” Arjmand said.

An array of colourful pop cans in a pile.
Pop cans at Raven ReCentre in September 2022. (Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

He offers the example of electromagnetic shielding in cellphones. That’s what allows you to use your phone on airplanes without interfering with navigational equipment. Typically, that shielding is made with some combination of silver, copper, aluminum and/or glass.

Arjmand says it’s possible to develop plastics with those same electromagnetic shielding properties, that are lighter and cheaper than their metallic counterparts, using polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is one of the most common types of plastic, especially in food and beverage containers.

“There is a hidden value in all this plastic being sent to landfills,” Arjmand said.” So if we acknowledge and appreciate this hidden value, and we can come up with some scientific solution, we can generate some wealth out of this.”

Part of the problem is that it’s still cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle it. Arjmand said that’s where more public education and more stringent government regulations come in: they’ll help bring down the cost of sorting and re-processing that waste plastic. 

Most provinces and territories have introduced a concept called extended producer responsibility, which shifts the onus to producers to cover the cost of plastic recycling. The Yukon government is still developing its rules, which it plans to implement by 2025.

Meanwhile, the City of Whitehorse, Yukon government and recycling organizations are in talks to develop a curbside recycling program for the capital.

Ira Webb, a solid waste manager with the City of Whitehorse, said recommendations to city council about models for the program should be ready some time this fall.

Raven ReCentre plans to shutter its recycling drop-off for plastics, cans, paper and cardboard completely at the end of the year to help grease the wheels for a curbside collection program. But Ashthorn said that deadline could be extended if the city is close to rolling out that program.

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