All types of plastic are recyclable on the Island of Montreal, except for plastic number 6 (PET). There are currently 7 plastic categories, and each is labeled inside the triangle on plastics (if you don’t find a number on the plastic, it is plastic #6). The plastics industry is trying to respond to customer demand and create new types of plastic that are eco-friendly.
The new ‘eco’ category is known as Compostable plastic 7 or polylactic acid (PLA), and is made of corn. Unfortunately, PLA was not assigned its own number (it could have been called plastic number 8), but they named it compostable #7. It is confusing for many residents to understand the difference between plastic #7 and plastic #7 compostable. They have to make sure not to mix up the 2 categories. Plastic #7 is recyclable, but plastic #7 compostable (PLA) is not recyclable.
As it is plant based, PLA products cannot be recycled. As PLA is difficult to differentiate from PET, many complications can arise first in the home sorting process, and then later in the recycling centers, due to cross contamination. All cross contamination lowers the quality of Montreal’s recyclables. Neither plastic #6 nor plastic #7 compostable products should be put in the recycling bin, however plastic #7 is recyclable.
In Montreal, the city does not currently have a method to reuse PLA products, and thus they are destined for the garbage. This is particularly disappointing as this type of plastic was designed to reduce garbage. Some of the corn used to make the bags is grown in the Amazon forest, which has been clear-cut partly for this profitable new business. Regardless of where the corn is grown, it is awful to imagine that corn that could have fed people or livestock was instead used to make plastic products that ended up in landfill anyway.
PLA is biodegradable, but takes ages to disappear. In a landfill, a PLA bottle could take up to 1000 years to decompose, because there is no air or sunlight. Food can also take decades to biodegrade in landfill, and it creates methane gas as it does, due to the anaerobic conditions. PLA was created to be composed in industrial facilities, not in landfill nor in traditional outdoor composting sites.
PLA requires an industrial facility to be transformed, and Montreal is just starting the construction of the first site, which should be completed by 2020. The food waste is currently being composted in traditional ways off the island of Montreal (in Saint-Thomas). Radio Canada reported this year that compostable bags are a big challenge to industrial composting. Bags collected through the food waste collection are separated from their compostable contents at the Saint-Thomas site. However, most of the time some food waste is trapped in the bag when separated, and is sent to landfill with the compostable bags.
There are ways that residents can reduce their environmental impact through all of this confusion!
• Avoid buying products packaged in plastic #6;
• Don’t fall into the ‘greenwashing’ of the compostable plastic industry, avoid plastic #7 compostable products;
• Please remember that you do not have to use any bags to line your brown food waste bins, and that you can put your food waste in there directly.