Twenty years ago, Legal’s Tony Schoorlemmer had the same problem many Albertans have when it comes to recycling: what to do with all that plastic.
Schoorlemmer was running a recycling program in Calgary and couldn’t find any use for the mixed plastics he was collecting. As a solution, he cobbled together some old farm equipment to create a device to turn that plastic into planks.
“It started out as a hobby,” he said of the device — an expensive one, as plastic lumber wasn’t cost-competitive with regular wood back then — but he stuck with it over the years.
When he was laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic, Schoorlemmer decided to go all-in on his hobby and turn it into a business. Now, he and his crew at Alberta Recycled Plastic Lumber drop about 4,000 pounds of shredded plastic into his contraption a day and ship the produced planks to buyers across Canada.
“In one day, we can make 100 10-foot two-by-sixes,” Schoorlemmer said.
“You’re using Alberta garbage, making timber with Alberta labour, and saving Alberta trees.”
Environment Canada estimates just nine per cent of the plastic made in Canada gets recycled. That means some $7.8 billion in material goes to waste every year. As part of Waste Reduction Week (Oct. 16-22) and Circular Economy Month (October), the Gazette is taking a look at people like Schoorlemmer who aim to turn that wasted plastic into profit.
Closing the loop
Plastics are any materials that can be heated and moulded so they retain that moulded shape after they cool, reports the Alberta Plastics Recycling Association. This includes natural plastics such as amber and artificial ones like PET (the stuff in pop bottles).
“Virtually any type of plastic is recyclable as long as it is separated and it is homogeneous,” noted Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta.
The challenge is that most products are heterogeneous mixes of many plastics that are nearly impossible to separate, she continued. This difficulty, combined with the vast amount of plastic produced — about 4.7 million tonnes annually in Canada, Environment Canada reports — results in some 2.8 million tonnes of plastic being dumped in landfills or the environment each year, wasting energy and creating microplastic pollution that ends up in our bodies.
Edmonton’s Corey Saban started noticing the piles of plastic waste around his house back in early 2020. Determined to find a better way to manage it, he started experimenting with plastic waste in his garage, cutting it up, melting it on a hot plate, and hand-pressing it into tiles and coasters.
Saban has since scaled his experiment up to a five-person operation called [Re]Waste which helps companies in St. Albert and across North America convert waste plastic into new products. They diverted some 160,000 pounds of plastic from the landfill last year, preventing some 435 tonnes of globe-heating pollution in the process.
Saban’s warehouse is stuffed with bales of bags, big boxes of Purell bottles, and piles of cannabis-related plastic items from St. Albert-area cannabis stores. With the help of staff from Goodwill, Saban and his crew sort these items based on resin type and end use, and find partners to process them. Some can be turned into fresh plastic pellets or sheets. Others, such as the various mixed plastics from cannabis products, get shredded and run through an extruder to become cannabis rolling trays.
“This is a good example of a true circular economy,” Saban said of the trays, as it’s a cannabis product going back into the cannabis industry.
Saban is also experimenting with plastic concrete. By running mixed plastic through an extruder and chopping it up, his crews have created plastic rock that can replace regular rock in concrete. Initial tests show promise, and he believes this product could reduce the amount of fresh aggregate concrete companies have to mine.
Schoorlemmer runs his plastic plank-maker in his backyard. Landfills such as Roseridge in Sturgeon County send mixed plastics to the Westlock Regional Landfill where they are shredded and bagged for him, he explained. He dries the shredded flakes with a grain dryer and pours them into an extruder, which uses a screw to squish the flakes into a black, steaming paste. (The paste is black because it’s all colours of plastic mixed together.) The paste flows into long water-cooled metal moulds to become planks. He processed about 200,000 pounds of plastic into planks last year and hopes to do 250,000 this year.
Schoorlemmer and Saban are small-scale operators compared to Merlin Plastics down in Calgary. Merlin has a high-tech sorting plant that processes about 60 per cent of the plastic collected from Alberta’s recycling programs (including the milk jugs collected at the Alberta Beverage Container Recycling Corporation plant in St. Albert) and reprocess much of it into new resin, said vice-president of operations Kevin Andrews. They’re also experimenting with ways to recycle more challenging plastic products such as chip bags.
Environment Canada estimates Canada could save $500 million a year if it managed to keep 90 per cent of its plastic out of the landfill by 2030. This would require about 62 per cent of all plastic to be recycled.
Cost is one reason why we’re not anywhere near that level of recycling.
“It is so cheap to just take your material to the landfill,” Saban said, and so expensive to sort and haul bulky, light bales of plastic to a recycler.
Saban said higher landfill fees could help encourage companies to recycle more plastic.
There are also so many types and colours of plastic on the market that it’s uneconomical to try and sort and resell them all, Schoorlemmer said.
“If all the manufacturers made their products out of the same kind of plastic and the same colour (as Coca-Cola does with its easily-recycled bottle crates), the whole recycling problem would be gone,” he said.
Some solutions to plastic waste are behavioural. Consumers can stop buying straws, stir-sticks, and other single-use items that immediately become waste, Seidel said, adding restaurants should also stop automatically providing such items to their clients.
Companies can also switch to reusable containers. Seidel said Earthware has partnered with Calgary restaurants to do so, offering reusable containers that can be returned to bottle depots to be cleaned and redistributed.
We also need regulation. Environment Canada is working on new recycled content regulations which should raise demand for recycled plastics, Seidel said. Extended producer responsibility laws (such as the ones being implemented in Alberta) will force companies to produce products that can be easily recycled (as they have to pay for recycling) and create common, province-wide material lists, reducing confusion over what can and can’t be recycled. They also create province-wide recycling programs with province-sized pools of recyclables, providing recyclers with the steady supply of material they need to justify investment in high-end sorting plants.
Schoorlemmer is bullish about plastic lumber as a waste solution, and said there is no shortage of demand for products like his.
“(Customers) just love the fact that it’s right out of the landfill and into their backyard.”