Compostable sacks seen as solution to bulging landfill

City eyes corn-based bags to cut litter


There's nothing like a stroll by the river to get Coun. Glenn Williams all teary-eyed, especially when the waterway is clogged with an ugly, wind-blown mess of discarded plastic bags.

Williams recalls past community cleanups where volunteers would spend hours picking up litter only for the wind to come along and spoil the work.

"You could see me crying as I drove by because the river had filled up with bags again," Williams said.

But Williams may soon be able to dry those tears, because a move to rid Iqaluit of plastic grocery bags is underway.

While Mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik said there's no bylaw yet in the works, she said the city's public works committee is going to look at the feasibility of getting rid of plastic. She also wants to see what retailers have to say about the proposed move.

At a recent meeting, Williams heaped praise on the distribution of biodegradable garbage bags during the Nunavut Trade Show. The bags are made out of corn and break down within days of their arrival in the landfill. Sheutiapik echoed Williams's sentiments.

"I would love to go [to] zero plastic bags in our community."

Mary Ellen Thomas, executive director of the Nunavut Research Institute, handed out free biodegradable bags at the trade show.

"I was just trying to give away what I had," she said, explaining the institute received the biodegradable bags for free. "I think anything the city can do to reduce the use of plastic bags is welcome."

The bags, made from a combination of corn starches and plastic polymers, are patented by a Norwegian company and licenced for sale in Canada by Vancouver-based BioBag Canada Inc., which offers them in a variety of shapes and sizes. BioBag's website says the bags break down in a compost pile in 10 to 45 days and produce half the greenhouse gas emissions of plastic grocery bags.

Used as a kitchen garbage bag, BioBags get a little damp as food starts to break down. Greg Beresford, president of BioBags Canada, said that's water being extracted from the food waste, which allows the compost to break down without smelling.

That cuts down on "the yuck factor" of composting and reduces the weight of compost that has to be transported to municipal piles.

While there is no municipally-run composting done in Iqaluit, the city welcomes ways to cut down on the amount of garbage, because the current landfill is expected to fill up within five years.

Beresford said even though BioBags cost four times as much as plastic, he's seen his business triple in the last three years. He started his business after being introduced to the corn-based bags by a friend from Norway, where the bags are widely used.

"They are, I'd say, 10 years ahead of us basically," he said.

Baffin Island Canners used another brand of compostable grocery bags for about two years until its supply recently dried up. But owner Yvon Blanchette said his Montreal-based wholesaler found him a new source and Blanchette plans to offer the bags again soon.

The compostable bags cost 20 to 50 per cent more than normal plastic bags, but Blanchette said it's an expense he's willing to absorb "just because I'm concerned about the environment."

Jim Deyell, director of public affairs for the Northwest Company, which operates Iqaluit's Northmart and Northern Stores around the terrritory, said "the jury is out" on whether corn-based bags can hold up in cold weather.

The Northwest Company offers reusable fabric bags for sale and has seen an increase in customer interest. There are no plans to adopt corn-based bags, Deyell said.

"But we'll certainly go there if that's what the customers are looking for," he said.

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