Return to Trash Mountain

CBRM reopened the Spar Road dump in late April because somehow, although most retail stores were closed and our consumption — one would think — had been reduced, CBRM residents were still managing to “overwhelm” garbage collectors with the sheer volume of trash they were putting out.

As municipal manager of solid waste Francis Campbell told the CBC’s Tom Ayers:

“Our collectors would normally pick [up] four tonnes and that would be it for the day,” he said.

“They would fill up the vehicle once during the day and they’d be done. Last Friday, one of our collectors picked up 10 tonnes of material. He had to empty out twice and go back for the third time.”

Spar Road Dump, Sydney, NS

Spar Road Dump, Sydney, NS (Source: Google Maps)

Back in 2018, according to CBRM figures, residents made 128,000 trips to the dump, on top of regular curbside garbage and recycling collection and heavy garbage pickup.

I spoke to Campbell last Wednesday and he said he figures that while people may be shopping less, they’re at home cooking more and cleaning more and that is making up for any reduction in retail-related garbage generation:

We’ve seen more of a shift now from the curb, where we were seeing a lot of the material, we’re seeing now a lot of people coming to the facility since we opened to the public. We’ve been lined up for three weeks, today it’s not too bad just because of the rain, but we’ve seen a major increase in the amount of visitors we’re getting to the site from the general public. It’s something to see, [people] lined up to get into the waste facility.

As I wrote back in October 2019, this ability to produce trash doesn’t mark us as different in this country, it makes us typical Canadians, as Charles Wilkins explained in Canadian Geographic in 2017:

Despite what anyone might believe about the country’s oft-cited ecological values and its liberal ambitions for the planet, Canada leads the developed world in per capita production of garbage.

We produce 720 kilos of waste per capita each year, which Wilkins noted is:

…twice what is produced per capita in Japan, and as much as 10 times what is produced by a half-dozen countries in Africa. More alarmingly, our production is seven per cent higher than per capita output of waste in the United States, which all but invented consumer excess.


Trash Mountain

Thinking about our garbage got me to thinking about our recycling — a subject explored by the Ethicist, Rachel Haliburton, earlier this month.

Haliburton focused on the dirty secret about recycling, which is that much of it is actually ending up in landfills. The CBC’s Marketplace blew the whistle on this in September 2019, following a load of Canadian “recycling” to a landfill site in Malaysia.

Mounds of film plastics fill up multiple rooms at Camden Recycling in Edwardsville, waiting to be shipped. (Photo by Nikki Sullivan, Cape Breton Post)

Mounds of film plastics fill up multiple rooms at Camden Recycling in Edwardsville, waiting to be shipped. (Photo by Nikki Sullivan, Cape Breton Post)

Most of our paper and plastics, though, as the Globe and Mail had explained a few months earlier, were going not to Malaysia but to China, where some were recycled but:

…there was a hitch. Bales of used cardboard were frequently so soiled with grease and food waste that they were effectively garbage. And not all plastic was equally recyclable, either, owing to its complex chemistry and other factors. For instance, labels and adhesives used on certain plastics – clamshells that hold berries are a prime offender – can yield a lower-quality resin that makes them harder to convert into new products.

China was “importing all this material, hand-sorting it, and then just burning what wasn’t valuable to them,” says Lorenzo Donini, a senior executive at waste hauler GFL Environmental Services in Edmonton. “It was a charade.”

How much recycling we were sending to China became clear in 2018, when China stopped accepting 24 recycling commodities, including the plastic film used in shopping bags. You will no doubt remember that by January 2019, the CBRM had a “mountain of trash” — 300 tonnes of film plastics, one of the 24 commodities no longer accepted by China — piling up in the Camden Recycling warehouse in Edwardsville.

Campbell told the Post‘s Nikki Sullivan at the time that while film plastics represent only “one to five” percent of the material in CBRM blue bags:

“The stuff is still coming in. We’ll have to make a decision one way or the other … keep stockpiling it or dispose of it (in a landfill),” he said.

“That’s our last option. We don’t want to do that.”

There was one other possibility for the plastics, but at the time it wasn’t feasible because the company in question had run out of storage space:

Campbell said if Halifax C&D Inc., a company that turns recycled plastics into outdoor furniture and poles, had more storage space they could sell more of the stored film plastic to them.

I contacted the CBRM on Monday to ask for an update on the plastics situation, and spokesperson Christina Lamey told me:

These materials are now being transported to Halifax for recycling. They were not sent to a landfill.

We’ll get back to this in a moment, first, let me tell you something about how Halifax handled its film plastics backlog.


Plastic lumber

Halifax’s film plastic began piling up in August 2017, just after China announced its plan to retire as the world’s recycling bin. In January 2018, the CBC reported that Halifax had been granted a temporary, six-month exception by the provincial environment department to dump recyclable film plastics in a Nova Scotia landfill, but Halifax solid waste manager Matt Keliher said the province had taken so long to grant the exception, the city had already shipped 175 tonnes of plastic to landfills outside NS and was planning to ship more.

Eventually, HRM would ship 300 tonnes of plastics “to an undisclosed location outside the province where the materials are allowed in a landfill.” Keliher wouldn’t say where the material was going because he didn’t want “other recycling operations to find our end markets and swoop in and take them.” He also said that the landfill option was only used for plastics that had been stored since August 2017 and were beginning to degrade. Otherwise, he said the municipality had found “new markets” for their film plastic, although he was cagey about these too:

New material coming in is being burned for fuel in a kiln. Keliher wouldn’t reveal whether the kiln is in Nova Scotia or what the fuel is being used for, citing “market conditions.”

“We also have options of homegrown solutions and innovation,” with regards to recycling closer to home, Keliher said. “It can really spark that entrepreneurial drive in people to look at this as a positive.”

In fact, back in April 2018, the CBC had spoken with Dan Chassie, of Halifax C&D Recycling Ltd who said his company had bought the necessary equipment to turn plastic into “a kind of lumber,” and was preparing to launch an operation that would be “able to handle more plastic than Nova Scotia produces.”

Keliher told the broadcaster:

We’d most definitely be interested in sending HRM’s plastic to a local company, but the price has to be right.

Chassie said the next six months would be a “period of research and development.”

When the Chronicle Herald caught up with Chassie months later, in February 2019, he had “stepped away” from Halifax C&D Recycling to run “the fledgling Goodwood Plastic Products” in Fort Ellis, Colchester County.

Chassie told the paper he had:

…already invested $3.5 million into the new venture, mostly for equipment to grind and shred plastic bags and plastic containers so the processed material can be sent through extrusion equipment to create plastic posts and lumber in all marketable dimensions.

Chassie said the finished product, more durable and flexible than wood, would cost about 30% more than pressure-treated lumber and explained he was:

…working with Lake City, a not-for-profit organization in Dartmouth that provides employment, including a vibrant woodworking shop, for people living with mental illness.

He has purchased planers and routers and other equipment to furnish a property on Simmonds Drive in Burnside Park in Dartmouth, where the Lake City workers can build quality outdoor furniture that can be showcased at the front of the building.

Chassie’s concern, at that point, was the proposed ban on single-use plastics in the HRM and other jurisdictions, although he told the paper:

I don’t think they are ever going to get rid of all the single-use plastic bags. We will source what we need from out of province, out of country if we have to.

By January 2020, when the CBC again checked in on the HRM’s plastics situation, the municipality had a new manager of solid waste, Andrew Philopoulos (Keliher is now general manager of solid waste management services with the City of Toronto) who told the broadcaster that Goodwood Plastic was recycling about 80% of the municipality’s plastics.

Philopoulos said the remaining 20 per cent of recyclables collected are shipped to other markets in Canada, where they’re used in the petrochemical industry to make new plastic products.

Chassie said his company was taking:

…plastics such as shopping bags, food containers and peanut butter jars. The material is then manufactured into synthetic lumber, wharf timbers, guardrail posts and agricultural posts.

LakeCity produces a variety of products, including custom designs, and in 2019 partnered with HRM, Develop Nova Scotia and Sobeys to produce “hundreds” of plastic lumber picnic tables and park benches across the municipality.

There are no prices listed for the products, but Goodwood does offer a price list for its plastic “boards,” indicating that a 2 X 4 X 8 inch board sells for $10.50. (By way of comparison, Home Depot sells a 2 X 4 X 8 inch treated spruce board for $6.22, which is 40% less expensive, but Chassie says plastic lumber lasts much longer than traditional wood.)

So, when Lamey says “these materials” meaning film plastics “are now being transported to Halifax for recycling,” does that mean we’ve shipped 300 tonnes of plastic bags to a facility that has converted them to plastic products?

In a word — no.



When I spoke to Campbell on Wednesday, he told me that of the 300 tonnes of film plastic the CBRM’s recycling contractor had stored in January 2019, they’ve managed to get rid of about 60 tonnes, or two tractor-trailer loads:

We’ve sent a couple of loads up to the facility in Halifax — not the municipal facility, a private recycler — we sent one or two loads up there but it’s costing us a little bit of money, right now that’s the only option, but there’s a few other options that we’re looking at that we may be able to utilize.

Campbell then said something that explained the cloak of secrecy I’ve been noticing around recycling destinations:

People are reluctant to give out their markets, especially now, right, because everyone’s looking to get rid of the plastic.

I asked about Goodwood in particular — the facility ready to handle “more plastic than Nova Scotia produces” — and Campbell said:

Goodwood has been mentioned before, I think in the media, I think a lot of the municipal units are sending some of their material to Goodwood. We have sent one or two loads up there but hopefully we can find some other markets because it’s just, we’re actually paying to get rid of the material, right?

Campbell noted that film plastics have never been a source of revenue, even before China banned them, and the goal seems to be simply to keep the costs of disposing of it as low as possible. The CBRM is lucky, he says, in that it can store its plastics inside, so doesn’t have to worry about them degrading, as they can if left exposed to the elements. At that point, there is nothing to be done with them other than incinerating them or sending them to a landfill (which can only be done with the permission of the Department of the Environment.)

We discussed the possible effects of the ban on single-use plastic shopping bags, which was to have taken effect on October 31 (Sobeys got out ahead of it, replacing plastic bags with paper, but Campbell says other stores are still using plastic.) He says he hasn’t heard any “rumblings” yet about changes to the ban, post-COVID-19, but adds:

People are so concerned now, if you’re buying produce or something, they probably want it in a plastic bag. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few months.

I asked if it would be a plus for the CBRM not to have to deal with film plastic and he said:

Well, right now, it certainly would be advantageous because, as I said, it’s not a revenue source, it’s an expenditure…to get rid of the material.



One possible answer to our recycling dilemma is a system already in place in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and (since October 2019) New Brunswick and that has been recommended for Nova Scotia: Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging and Printed Materials (PPP).

In 2018, District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall, who sits on the Nova Scotia solid waste-resource management regional chairs committee, brought a resolution to CBRM council asking it to encourage the island’s MLAs of all political stripes to “support legislation to enact EPR for PPP in Nova Scotia,” a policy approach that:

…shifts the responsibility and costs of managing specific wastes/recyclable materials from municipalities to producers (i.e. brand owners and manufacturers), allowing producers to establish a system to optimize efficiency.

In June 2019, the regional chairs committee submitted an official EPR proposal to Environment Minister Gordon Wilson. As the CBC reported:

Municipalities in Nova Scotia want industry to start contributing to the costs of recycling packaging and printed paper, and they’re calling on the provincial government to make it happen…

“Our waste system is world class, but it also has a world-class price tag,” spokesperson Andrew Garrett said in a release that accompanies the report…

In an interview, Garrett said the costs of solid waste management have increased by 56 per cent in the last decade and municipalities in Nova Scotia now spend $25 million a year on recycling.

The idea of EPR is that it forces industry to find markets for waste as well as more efficient ways to design and produce packaging.

That CBC article gives a good summary of the system proposed for Nova Scotia, which exempts small businesses, uses existing municipal infrastructure and employees and allows time for “planning and transition.” (Rather than excerpting the entire thing, I will just suggest you read it.) Key, though, as Coun. McDougall told the broadcaster, is that:

We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re doing what’s already being done out there.

It’s not a panacea, of course. British Columbia, which has 22 industry-led recycling programs and seems to be the poster child for EPR in Canada, is still looking for ways to reduce its plastic waste. In July 2019, the province launched a survey to canvas residents’ opinions on proposed new actions to reduce plastic waste “in the province’s waterways, environment and landfills.”

One of the proposals is a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags, which BC hasn’t introduced yet. And since March 30, by order of the province’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, people haven’t been permitted to use their own containers or reusable bags. But given new guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggesting the virus does not spread easily through contaminated surfaces, and the fact that Nova Scotia has apparently flattened its curve without banning the use of reusable bags and boxes, perhaps a return to plastic bags in this province is not inevitable. (Dr. Robert Strang said on March 217: “I don’t see that there’s any substantive risk from reusable bags. I think that’s very low down on the possibility, especially if everybody is adhering to good hand-washing [and] cleaning in homes.)

But while shifting costs to producers seems like a very reasonable thing to do (especially since, as advocates point out, the companies most likely to be affected are the ones already dealing with the program in other provinces), I find myself coming to the same conclusion I do every time I write about garbage, which is that our first line of defense is not recycle but reduce.