New study finds recycling bags better than carts at reducing contamination and program costs

Recycling bags could be key to righting Canada’s recycling woes, reducing contamination and capturing lost revenue, according to a new study by researchers at York University.

The York study, “Thinking Beyond the Box” – an examination of collection mediums for printed paper and packaging waste using publicly available information and surveys with stakeholders – comes at a time when municipalities are grappling with meeting increasingly stringent standards from China, which buys around two-thirds of North America’s recycling.

Cities across Canada have depended on the sales of these items to China – in some cases, they offset over 20 per cent of the costs of the city’s overall program – which is why it’s critical that a solution be found.

Under its National Sword policy, China is refusing to accept recyclables with more than 0.5 per cent contaminated materials. Contamination includes food residue, non-recyclable materials or products ending up in the wrong stream (i.e. plastic with paper).

To put it in contrast, cities like Toronto, Edmonton and Halifax have reported upwards of 20 per cent contamination.

Peel Region is a prime example of the potential cost of contamination. After China turned away 13,000 tonnes of product from the region’s paper recycler, Canada Fiber, Peel Region will likely be saddled with a $1.7-million bill for the loss.

And the trend towards cart-based automation systems could be exacerbating the problem, says Calvin Lakhan, a postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. Lakhan is the co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University and the corresponding author of the report.

“From a municipal perspective, the contamination rate more than doubled if not tripled after switching to a cart-based collection system,” he says. As a result, revenue from post-recyclable materials – the same revenue expected to offset the cost of these programs – has fallen.

The York study found that contamination was eight per cent lower in bag-based or bag and box-based systems when contrasted with cart or box-based systems.

“To date, we’ve very narrow-mindedly focused on two solutions…. it’s very obvious that a third and if not preferable solution exists,” says Lakhan. He points out that urban centres like Halifax and Edmonton already include bags as part of their recycling programs.

Recyclable bags restrict contamination to the individual bag rather than the entire recycling cart’s contents, giving collectors an additional opportunity to screen the product for things like food residue or non-recyclable materials, improving recovery rates. They also offer households and businesses a chance to add-on capacity as needed.

“Under the current system, municipalities using only cart-based systems aren’t getting the returns they should be,” says Mike Pilato, general manager for Clorox Canada (which sponsored the study but gave researchers “complete discretion and latitude” to conduct it as they saw fit). “Recycling bags give communities an opportunity to improve their existing system, while amortizing their current investment.”

Lakhan’s “Thinking Beyond the Box” study makes a compelling case for bringing recyclable bags into the equation as municipalities look to update their current systems to meet the changing demands from places like China. There is both a performance and cost advantage of using bags versus cart or bin-based programs.

“The title of the study captures it – municipalities haven’t had this information to make educated choices,” says Pilato. “As they’re struggling with this new reality, recycling bags are an attractive option that allows them to make progress with their existing system while they think about another way to do things.”