Clear garbage bags were mandated in St. John's 1 year ago. Here's how it's going so far

The clear garbage bag mandate came into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. Almost one year earlier, on March 1, 2021, the City of St. John's had already switched to a weekly four-bag limit for households with automated pickup. (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)
The clear garbage bag mandate came into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. Almost one year earlier, on March 1, 2021, the City of St. John's had already switched to a weekly four-bag limit for households with automated pickup. (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)
Danny Arsenault/CBC
Danny Arsenault/CBC

One year after the implementation of a clear garbage bag mandate in St. John's, the city's public works councillor says the move has been a success.

After the mandate was introduced, on Jan. 1, 2022, said Coun. Sandy Hickman, "there was progress made immediately."

"Five hundred more tonnes of recycling than we used to get. And that's a lot because it's pretty light stuff."

The mandate requires households to use clear garbage bags, with the exception of one opaque privacy bag per week. The goal: keeping recyclable waste out of the landfill and thereby extending its life, enhancing safety for garbage handlers by making hazardous materials more visible, and increasing the city's household recycling rate.

While Hickman hesitated to give exact numbers, he said there's been significant progress toward that last goal.

The move to clear garbage bags, said Hickman, also had a positive financial aspect. While the city pays a fee of $88 per tonne for garbage, recycling materials come in at a quarter of the cost: $22 a tonne.

Hickman says the transition happened without major hiccups and residents overall have been open-minded about the changes.

"The majority, if not everyone, has seen the value of this and understand how it works," he said. "If there's recycling mixed in, they will put a sticker on that. And I believe in many cases, they're going to leave it.… Now we've been doing this long enough that I have seen bags left behind and people, they understand that they made a mistake and they correct it."

Viviana Ramírez-Luna, a member of the Zero Waste Action Team N.L. and a zero waste consultant with Planet Consulting, said the mandate was a "big step" for St. John's.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

"The city had already invested efforts in voluntary recycling and you go around on garbage day, you'll see a lot of blue bags around," said Ramírez-Luna. "We need everybody doing this, so it was a huge step in the right direction."

But more needs to be done overall to reduce waste, such as making more plastics recyclable, she said.

"Around 78 per cent of plastics that are coming into our houses are not recyclable. And that's a huge problem," she said.

Lindsay Bird/CBC
Lindsay Bird/CBC

And while recycling is a good first step, she added, it still uses a lot of energy and resources.

"It's known that recycling, it's also a fragile industry. Everything depends on the market of who needs the plastic, how much they're paying for the plastic," said Ramírez-Luna.

"We realized how bad this was when China banned the import of plastics. And then, North America and some European countries realized that they have no market and they started landfilling the plastic."

Individuals, industry and governments, she said, can play different parts in reducing waste — by rethinking consumption habits, offering more recyclable packaging and introducing more regulations for manufacturers, respectively.

"I am happy that the city is doing this, that more people are recycling," said Ramírez-Luna, "but we need to start looking at the bigger picture and find solutions for waste prevention and reduction that doesn't harm the planet, humans and the economy."

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