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Banned from the blue bag

A guide to what should and shoudn't go in your blue bag.
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BAD BOTTLE — City of St. Albert waste and diversion programs supervisor Olivia Kwok spots a glass bottle in a rejected blue bag. Glass bottles are no longer accepted in the blue bag because they shatter, which makes the glass impossible to recover. This bottle also had a cap on it; caps are too small to sort at a sorting plant and should go in the trash instead of the blue bag.

Mark Kay just couldn’t figure it out.

It was a few weeks after the City of St. Albert brought in new rules for its curbside recycling program, and he was staring down at another sad, rejected blue bag.

The lifelong St. Albert resident said he’d thought he knew how to recycle. After the new rules kicked in, though, he and others on his street started getting bags slapped with rejection stickers.

Kay said he fixed one by removing a plastic clamshell container, and another by pulling out everything that wasn’t paper or cardboard. A third stumped him, and ended up in the trash.

“If it’s even questionable (where it should go), unfortunately, at this point, we just throw it in the garbage,” Kay said.

St. Albert Facebook pages are replete with comments from residents frustrated by the recent blue bag changes. Some say it’s a pain to sift through the bags to fix them, while others say they’ve given up and started tossing everything in the trash. Many simply want to know what’s wrong with their bags.

What’s bad in the bag

The Gazette headed out this month with city waste and diversion programs supervisor Olivia Kwok to find out.

The city had a fair number of rejected bags in early November but was seeing far less of them now, Kwok said – the Gazette found just three homes with rejects when it visited Sunnyside Crescent with her. One had plastic bags, plastic packaging and a glass bottle in its bag. Another had bottle caps and paper towels. One home had three bags filled with shredded paper.

The city rolled out new rules for curbside recycling on Nov. 1 after several months of public education. Glass, single-serve cups (including yogurt and coffee), plastic packaging, spiral-wound containers (Pringles), and non-deposit tetra packs (such as for soup stock) are now banned from the blue bag.

It also stepped up enforcement of its old rules, Kwok said. Whereas you basically had to have hazardous waste in a bag to have it rejected before, now a bit of plastic packaging is enough for your bag to get the boot.

“We want to make sure residents know that what they put in the blue bag must be able to be recycled,” Kwok said.

The following items are still banned from the bag: Styrofoam; ceramics; coffee pods and drink pouches; shredded paper and napkins; any plastic that’s not a milk jug or hard plastic tub, bottle or lid; and construction, hazardous and electronic waste.

Bags that contain rejected items get an “Oops” sticker that lists materials that should instead go to the trash or green cart and are left at the curb until the offending items are removed.

While the sticker was a great idea, Kay said it would help if collectors took a few seconds to indicate what problem items were actually in a rejected bag. Kwok said she hoped to roll out a new sticker that would let collectors do just that next year.

The China factor

St. Albert brought in its new bag bans because China, the world’s main importer of recycled materials, changed its rules.

China used to be relatively relaxed about the quality of recyclables it took, explained Lorenzo Donini, director of government affairs with GFL Environmental (which runs St. Albert’s blue-bag program). That encouraged Western nations to slack off when it came to sorting waste and enforcing their own rules for blue-bag collection, as Chinese companies were apparently willing to sort the stuff for us.

What we didn’t know was that instead of sorting that waste, those companies were actually just picking the valuable materials out of it and dumping/burning the rest, causing massive pollution problems.

“We should have inspected more stringently,” Donini said of his company and the recycling industry as a whole.

We also sent so much unsorted waste to China that it took more and more labour for companies to sort it, he continued.

In 2017, China put its foot down and brought in super-strict rules for imports of recyclables under its National Sword program.

“I think the name was chosen to get the point across,” Donini quipped.

China is now rejecting all mixed loads of paper or plastics and any load of sorted material that isn’t 99.5 per cent pure, Donini said – a huge jump from the old requirement of 97. Entire 40 sea-can shipments are now being turned away for having a bit of unwanted plastic film in them.

That means North American companies have to ensure what they ship is properly sorted, said Christina Seidel of the Recycling Council of Alberta in an email. In addition to upgrading their sorting plants (as GFL is now), blue-bag companies are also asking customers to do more sorting up front and are banning unprofitable materials altogether.

They also have to make sure what they ship is sanitary. Chuck a pizza box or food-stained jar in the bag, and by the time it reaches China, it’ll stink, Donini said. That stench is all the reason an inspector needs to reject an entire shipment. Clean your jars and cans before putting them in the bag, and compost that pizza box.

Why can’t I recycle this?

There are practical and economic reasons for items on St. Albert’s banned list.

Take glass. While it can be recycled, there’s so much glass on the market right now that it’s effectively worthless, Seidel said. Chuck it in the blue bag, and it’ll shatter into tiny shards that are impossible to collect and get into all your other material streams – there goes your 99.5 per cent pure load of cans. Take it whole to the depot instead, and you might be able to sell it.

Plastic shows up many times on the banned list because there are so many kinds of it.

See that “recycle” symbol on your to-go cup? That’s actually a resin number that shows what type of plastic is in it, explained Michael Roberts, contract manager at Edmonton’s Materials Recovery Facility. Each number covers dozens of plastics, only a handful of which are worth money to recycle. In order to avoid sorting out 40-plus types of plastic, most plants focus on a few high-value grades (e.g. No. 1 and No. 2, which are what’s in most milk jugs and hard plastic tubs) and reject the rest (Styrofoam, plastic packaging, to-go cups, toys).

Items like bottle caps are banned because they’re too small for the screens at a sorting plant to catch, Roberts said. They, along with rocks, broken glass and anything else smaller than your palm end up in a big bucket that’s not economical to sort out. Trash these items instead. (Edmonton’s Reuse Centre does take bottle caps.)

Paper towels and tissues are rejected because the fibres in them are too degraded to be of any use, Roberts said – and that’s assuming the sorting plant doesn’t obliterate them. Shredded paper acts like confetti in the sorting plant and contaminates other materials, Kwok said. You’re better off composting these.

Plastic bags and films wrap around shafts and clog machinery at a sorting plant and are basically worthless on the market, Roberts said. Edmonton still takes them, but loses thousands of dollars a year in the process. Plastic bags should be reused for garbage or returned to recycling bins at grocery stores.

Single-use cups, coffee pods, plastic utensils and non-deposit tetra packs are banned because they’re made from composite materials (e.g. paper coated with plastic) that are very tough to separate and recycle, Kwok said. Trash these items and avoid them in the store.

Getting waste wise

Kwok said it’s unclear how these rule changes will affect the city’s waste diversion rates, as the city hasn’t collected the data yet. Most of the newly banned materials are pretty light, so they might not make a measurable difference.

Kwok said anyone who can’t figure out how to fix a blue bag should send a picture of it at [email protected] so her team can help. They’ll even come on site to look at it if needed. She also encouraged people to use the city’s BeWasteWise app to help sort their waste.

“We hope people don’t give up on recycling,” she said, as there were still many, many items you can put in the blue bag.

St. Albert residents will have a lot of waste to sort this Christmas, which is traditionally when the city sees a spike in trash at the curb.

Wrapping paper and cards can go in the blue bag unless they’re made of tissue, foil, or glitter, Kwok said – those items should either be reused in crafts or trashed. The same goes for bows and ribbons. Food and paper towels go in the green bin, while plastic packaging goes in the brown cart.

Batteries, busted Christmas lights, and glass bottles go to the recycling depot, which will be closed Dec. 23 to 25. You can haul your Christmas tree to the compost depot on Villeneuve Road or put it out on the curb between Jan. 7 to 11 in Zone B and Jan. 14 to 18 for Zone A.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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