Here's why plastic bags shouldn't be in the green bin

Published by the Ottawa Citizen April 2, 2018

By Tobi Nussbaum

The decision made last week at Ottawa council to allow plastic bags in the composting stream is a short-sighted one on which I and two of my colleagues (councillors Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney) dissented.

Increasingly as a society, we are recognizing the costs of single-use plastic bags. At the production end, plastic bags are a non-renewable, petroleum-based product that take energy to produce – 12 million barrels’ worth worldwide each year. On the consumption side, these bags take up space in our increasingly costly landfill sites – if we’re lucky. If we’re not lucky, they end up in other even less desirable places. Only recently, a study in Scientific Reports outlined how the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has grown to over three times the size of continental France, weighing in at a staggering 80,000 metric tons.

Furthermore, by allowing plastics in our organic stream, we are also reducing the quality of the resulting compost and risking its contamination by plastic waste. City staff were unable to confirm the percentage by which the proposed technology successfully separates the plastic from organic material – but anything less than 100 per cent risks leaching dangerous chemicals into our land and water systems during the 1,000 years plastic bag material takes to decompose.  

The stark and negative impact of single use plastics means we ought to be considering how to reduce their consumption, not facilitate their use. In fact, 10 Canadian cities have pursued a ban on the sale of single-use plastic bags. From Montreal to Victoria, we have seen cities implement a range of tools to prevent plastic bags from littering our city streets, sitting in landfills, and ultimately polluting ecosystems through micro-plastics and debris.

Proponents argue that allowing plastic bags could increase the waste diversion rates by encouraging people unwilling to line their household organics container with newspaper or paper bags. The City of Calgary capitalized on that opportunity by permitting single-use biodegradable bags in its organics stream. Residents need to ensure only that the bags they use have a particular certified logo (no different from ensuring recycled materials have the proper symbol). The excuse that the City of Ottawa could not do the same for lack of a provincial standard is simply false. If the money Orgaworld (the operators of our composting facility) is investing in plastic-separation technology was instead used to facilitate longer processing times to ensure biodegradable bags can decompose, we would have a more sustainable, long-sighted solution.  

There are also other ways to increase organics participation rates. The group Waste Watch Ottawa recently published a report outlining 20 ideas for promoting the use of our recycling and composting programs including communication and education. The City of Ottawa invests only 50 cents per household per year in public education and promotion, compared to the $2 many other municipalities are spending on these tools. Increasing our investment in communication instead of paying Orgaworld more money to take plastics would surely be a wiser strategy.

We also need to find creative ways to engage multi-residential buildings in the recycling and composting programs. The mayor of Toronto established a “Towering Challenge” to inspire friendly competition between buildings to increase recycling and composting and offer awards for the most successful.  

Looking ahead, the province of Ontario has indicated its intention to ban the disposal of all organics to all landfill sites, beginning in 2022. Cities ought to be working towards this goal without encouraging the continued use of more plastic bags that will take up volume in scarce landfill space.

The city had the opportunity to renegotiate the Orgaworld contract in a way that supported more ambitious waste reduction approaches, reduced the costs to citizens and encouraged a shift away from single-use plastic bags.  The renewed, more expensive contract approved by council last week does precisely the opposite. 

Tobi Nussbaum is Ottawa city councillor for Ward 13, Rideau-Rockcliffe.

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