As B.C. expands what people can put in their recycling bins and drop off at depots, waste-reduction advocates say the province still isn’t putting enough emphasis on cutting out plastic items before they’re thrown away.
The province amended regulations in January to make a wider array of plastics and packaging products – many of them single-use – accepted through the recycling system.
People can now put things like plastic utensils and straws, plastic-lined paper products and plastic party-style cups in their recycling, while also being able to bring flexible plastics, like wraps and sandwich or freezer bags, to depots.
In making the change, the province highlighted how single-use plastics are one of the most common items found on B.C.’s shores.
But the most recent data shows just over half of the recyclable plastic packaging making it to market is recovered in B.C., with less than that ultimately being recycled. The province recognizes that reducing waste and reusing items should come first.
“Unfortunately, the province hasn’t really encouraged or enforced that aspect too much, but we’re hoping they will start to and then that can really make a shift to reduce the waste,” said Sue Maxwell, chair of Zero Waste BC.
The province is expected to release a report on what it heard during consultations on new plastic regulations before those policies are drafted this spring. A 2022 intentions paper on those proposals envisions moving plastics into a circular economy approach where nothing is “waste.” Maxwell wants the province to expand that circular scope to all single-use items.
“Sometimes people look at zero waste and say ‘Oh as long as nothing is in my garbage can, it would be okay,’ but really it’s about the fact that we are over-consuming the resources on the planet,” she said. “We need to consume less and consume smarter so that we still can have functioning ecosystems and a healthy planet.”
Environment Minister George Heyman said in an interview that he doesn’t “think it’s government’s job to tell people how much they should or can consume.” He added that products were made to last when he was a child and there’s been a resurgence in that approach, which is why his government is focused on helping people understand what a circular economy looks like.
Governments, businesses and advocates have been educating the public on plastic waste, the minister said. Heyman has noticed a shift in behaviour where more people are using reusable water bottles over plastic ones now that more information and refill stations have rolled out over the years.
“Part of that is education, part of that making it easy for people,” he said.
Maxwell said B.C.’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program, which puts the onus on companies for the waste their products cause, needs to be emboldened as municipalities have for too long been bearing the costs of disposable and hard-to-collect packaging. She said companies should face steeper fines, which could go toward funding reuse programs, unless they shift to more reusable packaging or eliminate unnecessary product waste.
The EPR is expected to start covering items such as mattresses, vehicle batteries and medical syringes in the next four years.
“We want to deal with our own materials and recycle them properly as well as creating the economic opportunities that come with a recycled plastic industry,” Heyman said.
The expanded list of recyclable items is one in a series of actions addressing plastic and other waste, he added.
Greenpeace Canada found it encouraging to see B.C. taking action that complements the federal government’s phased ban on problematic single-use items, but the group was disappointed more wasn’t announced on moving away from single-use items altogether.
“Single-use is the issue in its entirety and that’s where this management strategy really falls short,” said Laura Yates, a campaigner on the environmental organization’s oceans and plastics team. “It’s not reducing the amount of single-use that is being produced.”
The province’s circular economy intentions mention cutting the need for new, raw plastics. Yates said plastics run counter to a truly circular model because the polymers that form them are degraded during the recycling process, causing new products to still need virgin plastic material.
“It’s not actually helping us in moving to the end goal which is to reduce the amount of plastic pollution that is happening and moving away from our resource extraction-intensive culture,” she said.
Adding to the recyclable items list was the result of the municipalities telling the province of the need to recycle a broader range of plastics, including soft and flexible kinds.
“We want to encourage reuse wherever possible, we want to expand our recycling while at the same time being sure that we have the infrastructure in place to both accept recycled items and process them so that we’re not simply pretending that we’re recycling everything we put in the blue box,” Heyman said.
The most recent data shows 45 per cent of the plastic packaging covered by Recycle BC’s programs is not collected. Yates called on the province to create a level playing field by banning more items because she said individual businesses may want to move away from single-use items, but they might be worried about facing customer backlash.
“We can talk about plastic recycling and focus on plastic recycling from now until eternity, but that’s not the conversation we need to be having,” Yates said. “The only way that we’re going to stop plastic from ending up in the environment is by reducing the production of single-use plastics.”
B.C. is working on single-use bans that will go further than the federal regulations and could take some action by the end of this year, Heyman said. There’s huge public support for making sure waste doesn’t end up in the ocean or on land, but the province has to ensure companies have access to alternatives before they can bring in new bans, he said.
Yates said the focus needs to shift to advancing more refill and share programs, and the government should come forward with funding to spur those models.
“That’s a good idea and I’d be happy to look at it further,” Heyman said.
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