Curbside vs. return-to-retail for plastic bags

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Courtesy of EcoLog Environmental Resources Group

Some materials are a natural fit for Ontario's blue box system, with its ever-increasing mechanization, and some are not. A study of plastic film recycling in Ontario has placed that particular material in the latter category and has concluded that promoting in-store programs can lead to higher recovery, better material quality and lower costs.

The Plastic Film Collection and Processing Study was conducted by the Guelph, Ontario-based Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC) and was financed by a grant from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. Part of the work undertaken was a review of the various challenges and financial implications of municipal curbside programs collecting plastic film.

The AMRC worked with an advisory team of municipal and private sector material recovery facility (MRF) operators. Several representative MRFs were examined and their systems and experiences with plastic film analyzed.

The costs related to material recovery in the blue box are now being partly covered by the stewards that bring them to market, so there's an incentive for all involved in recycling to increase efficiencies and decrease costs. In the case of plastic film, take-back programs have been shown to be more efficient and less costly.

The AMRC report notes that recent moves by the industry, retail and environmental sectors, and the cooperation demonstrated by the retail and plastics sectors, offer an excellent opportunity to address the management of post-consumer plastic film, outside of the curbside system.

In April, several of the largest plastic bag manufacturers in the Unites States launched a campaign urging consumers to take their bags back to the store. Members of the Progressive Bag Affiliates, who represent a reported 90 per cent of plastic bag production, have developed an in-store toolkit to help stores recycle bags.

Operational challenges

While the actual collection of film at the curb is relatively straightforward, there are many challenges in handling the material in MRFs. Unlike most of the items in the blue box system, the only practical way at this time to

sort film is with manual labor. Whichever stream is used for the collection, film has to be removed at the front end of the process, by hand.

Because the processing of plastic film is so labor-intensive and there's currently no equipment available that can reliably sort plastic film, it's an expensive material to handle. Revenues for blue box film are low -- about $40 per tonne. By contrast, the uncontaminated, higher-quality material recovered in take-back programs in stores yields revenues 10 times that amount.

Stewardship Ontario has determined that for the purposes of setting stewards' fees in 2008, the average gross cost of managing film in the blue box system is more than $1,600 per tonne. Of all the materials in the blue box, the stewards' fees for plastic film are the second highest. Only polystyrene stewards pay more. Almost $7 million will be raised in stewards' fees in 2007 to offset the cost of recovering perhaps 5,000-6,000 tonnes of film material!

Plastic film presents other operational challenges. If it becomes loose in the MRF, as is often the case, serious financial impacts can result from the fouling of equipment and the cross contamination and downgrading of other recovered materials in the MRF. In addition, there are lost revenues from materials hidden from sorters by loose film.

The major problems experienced in the management of plastic film in MRFs come from loose plastic bags and other individual pieces of plastic becoming airborne. Persuading residents to ensure that all film is consolidated into 'bags of bags' is necessary to address this problem.

But given the trends in collection, the report notes, asking the resident to do more at the curb runs counter to the messages many new programs are currently sending. Single-stream collection, for example, focuses on the convenience of not sorting recyclables.

'These programs have moved away from the 'Be a Good Sort' approach used in the early days of recycling promotion, and still employed by the few remaining multi-stream programs,' the report states.

While some programs have added plastic film to their collections recently to increase diversion, there are many operational challenges.

The single-stream approach, which results in lower collection costs, requires the MRF to sort the commingled materials, relying on manual sorters and, increasingly, on technology. Research indicates that the more automated a MRF becomes, the greater the challenge to manage plastic film.

One major Ontario recycling program -- with one of Ontario's newest single-stream MRFs -- elected not to include plastic film in its program, and several other major programs do not collect the material, promoting return-to- retail instead. Another major program -- Toronto -- is looking at adding the material, along with polystyrene, to increase curbside diversion. (See cover Story, page 8.)

Back to retail

Recycling in Ontario has for many years been heavily focused on the blue box, particularly for household-generated material. Research and interviews undertaken for the plastic film project have shown that take-back at the retail level may be the preferred option for the management of the material.

Phil Zigby, chair of the AMRC's Markets, Operations and Contracts Committee, welcomed the moves by industry to take back their film material via in-store programs.

'There was resistance for many years from the retail sector to any kind of take-back idea, but that appears to be changing,' says Zigby.

'Now that the stewards are paying half of the recycling costs it is very much in their interest to keep costs down and when you look at the numbers for film at the curb versus film in a take-back program it really is a no-brainer.'

This position is supported by the Blue Box Recycling Program Enhancement & Best Practices Assessment Project undertaken by consultants on behalf of Stewardship Ontario. It determined the best practice for the management of film was to take advantage of the existing return-to-retail program offered by stores.

The high cost of film collection via the blue box results in a significant financial burden on municipalities and on blue box stewards. Any recycling option that could reduce these costs merits investigation, the report concludes.

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