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Blue Cart recycling - Plastic clamshell containers

Update on plastic clamshell recycling

With changes to global recycling markets, some recyclable material has been impacted with limited options for recycling. This led to The City storing plastic clamshell containers from September 2017 to April 2019.

As of April 2019, we have found a local solution for the recycling of clamshell plastic containers. All clamshell containers currently put into Blue Carts are being recycled.

After exploring options for the stored clamshells containers, The City has made the difficult decision to landfill the clamshells in storage. While this is a setback, the overall Blue Cart program is going strong with markets in place for all acceptable recyclable materials.

Plastic Clamshell Container Example

Clamshell containers are used for things like strawberries, lettuce and salad kits. These containers make up about 1-2% of annual Blue Cart tonnage.


Stored plastic clamshells – what is happening

The City looked into several options to divert or recycle the clamshell containers.

Over the course of two years, we have been in discussions with over 50 recyclers, processors and waste energy providers. We waited as long as we could to see if the market situation would change but we are now at a point where we cannot incur any additional storage costs and will have to landfill the stored clamshells.

We are disappointed as many Calgarians will also be. The priority for The City continues to be diversion of recyclable materials from landfill, but we have exhausted all feasible cost-effective alternatives for the stored clamshell plastic material. This is the first time we’ve had to landfill material due to lack of markets and we consider this to be an exception.

About 2,000 tonnes of stored clamshell material will be disposed of at a City landfill. To put this in context, Calgary’s recycling programs still divert over 55,000 tonnes of recyclables each year.

An example of the Blue Cart being used by a Calgarian

95% of Calgary households use their Blue Cart on a regular basis.


What Calgarians need to know about recycling

As of April 2019, we have found a local solution for clamshell plastic containers. All clamshells currently put into Blue carts are now being recycled. Clamshells represent about 1-2% of the annual Blue Cart tonnage.

There are no changes to the Blue Cart recycling program. Calgarians can be confident that all of their blue cart recyclables, including clamshells, are being successfully marketed to recycling processors and manufacturers.

Calgary’s recyclables are sorted at the Cascades Recovery facility in S.E. Calgary. See how the facility works and where your recyclables go​.

The City also continues to advocate for a provincial recycling policy called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). An EPR program would:

  • Make manufacturers responsible for the packaging they produce.
  • Encourage manufacturers to reduce waste in their products and packaging and to create products that are easy to reuse or recycle.
  • Help streamline recycling programs across Alberta.
  • Help bring stability to recycling markets.

What you can do:

  1. Put the right things in the Blue Cart – check calgary.ca/recycling​ to know what is acceptable.
  2. Reduce, reuse and repair items as much as possible. Remember to bring your reusuable bags at the grocery store, or bring your own mug to work.
  3. Contact your MLA to let them know that Extended Producer Responsibility is a priority for you and the environment.
An example of the Blue Cart being used by a Calgarian

Calgarians now recycle and compost more waste at home than is sent to landfill.


Frequently asked questions

How did the Chinese National Sword recycling changes impact Calgary?

China’s decision to tighten their recycling markets left many cities including Calgary in a tough spot. This decision impacted materials like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic (clamshell plastic containers).

Over the last two years, The City has focused on finding long-term solutions to:

  • Increase the quality of blue cart recyclables to meet new market expectations
  • Find new markets for recyclables
  • Store some recyclables during this volatile period

The priority is to ensure a well-run Blue Cart program so that Calgarians can be confident their materials are being diverted properly.

Why couldn’t other waste companies accept the plastic clamshells?

In most cases, the plastic clamshell containers were considered unmarketable as they did not meet the requirements to allow the material to be turned into something new.

While some companies found that the material could be used, the amount of materials stored from September 2017 to April 2019 could not be moved in a timely and cost-effective manner. Most companies needed at least two years to take all the stored material, meanwhile The City would still incur storage costs.

Why did we store the clamshells at all?

Recyclables are commodities just like oil and gas. Prices for these materials will rise and fall as markets fluctuate. Putting recyclables into storage is common practice while waiting for markets to settle.

During the changes to China’s recycling policy in 2017, mixed paper (envelopes, greeting cards, brochures, etc.) was also impacted and had to be put into storage. Though 2018, Cascades Recovery worked diligently to find new markets for mixed paper and has successfully marketed all mixed paper produced through City recycling programs including the material placed in interim storage.

In 2010, glass jars were impacted by a lack of markets. By 2012, the glass was repurposed for road aggregate paving. Glass now goes to Western Canada as a safe alternative for sandblasting operations.

Why are plastic clamshells difficult to recycle?

Plastic clamshell containers are difficult to recycle due to the types of labels and adhesives used requiring an extended wash process.

Labels and adhesives on this type of plastic are not standardized meaning they need to soak in a caustic wash for an extended period to gain the best quality for turning into new plastic products.

Where are plastic clamshell containers currently being recycled?

Plastic clamshell containers are being processed locally at Merlin Plastics. Merlin has recently upgraded and expanded their wash-line at their plant to allow for greater PET thermoform recycling capacity.

While Merlin is taking the current clamshells, they do not have capacity to take on the stored clamshell material in a cost-effective time period.

The clamshell containers are:

  • Washed to remove the labels and adhesives.
  • Flaked and turned into plastic pellets.
  • Sold as a raw material to producers of products such as fleece clothing, carpet and plastic containers.

What is the cost of storing vs. landfilling the clamshell material?

Landfilling the clamshell material is $130,000 which includes the cost of unloading the storage trailers, moving the material to the landfill, burying and compaction. The cost to store the material is $330,000 to date.

The total cost works out to $1.40 per blue cart household for the storage and landfilling costs of this material over the entire two-year period.

There are no changes to the 2019 monthly Blue Cart fee of $8.80/month which is used to fund all aspects of the Blue Cart Program.

Can the stored plastic clamshell material be recycled later on?

No, once this material is landfilled, it cannot be recovered for future use.

An example of the Blue Cart being used by a Calgarian

Calgarians have recycled more than 600 million kilograms of materials in the last 10 years. That’s enough to fill the Bow Tower skyscraper eight times over.