For decades, Canadians have been tossing recyclables into blue bins without a care. In 2018 China banned the import of 24 types of recyclable commodities effectively cutting their imports of scrap plastic by 96%. “We are in a crisis,” says Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta, “that could really undermine the success of our industry.” China’s refusal to continue its role as the world’s biggest recycling bin has pushed up recycling costs by as much as 40%, pulling back the curtain on the shaky economics that underpin curb side recycling.

To cope, cities and companies have been scrambling to upgrade equipment and add labour to sort, handle and prepare paper and plastic cast-offs. There is also a movement to transfer more recycling costs onto the mostly multinational companies that sell packaged consumer goods. A recent study by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada shows there is much room for improvement: Only 9% of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste generated each year in Canada is recycled. As much as 2.8-million tonnes – the weight of 24 CN Towers ends up in Canadian landfills.

This is a “come-to-Jesus moment,” says Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario. “We’re going to have to shine a light on those materials that we’ve been sort of hoping would get recycled but, really, at the end of the day, aren’t.”In 2016, around half of all plastic waste intended for recycling was traded internationally, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Science Advances. China and Hong Kong alone imported US$81 billion worth of scrap plastic between 1988 and 2016, the authors said.

But there was a hitch. Bales of used cardboard were frequently so soiled with grease and food waste that they were effectively garbage. And not all plastic was equally recyclable, either, owing to its complex chemistry and other factors. China was “importing all this material, hand-sorting it, and then just burning what wasn’t valuable to them,” says Lorenzo Donini, a senior executive at waste hauler GFL Environmental Services in Edmonton. “It was a charade.”

187 countries reached a deal to make the global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, while ensuring its management is safer for human health and the environment. Canada and others agreed to amend the Basel Convention controlling the international trade and disposal of hazardous goods, with the aim of reducing the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans and forcing developed countries to deal with their own waste, rather than simply exporting it. In June, the federal government will unveil the first phase of a zero-plastics-waste strategy, and has also touted an accord among Group of Seven countries to reduce plastics in the world’s oceans. But neither the United States nor Japan have signed on, and many of the strategy’s targets – including a goal to recycle and reuse at least 55% of plastic packaging by 2030, and 100% of all plastics by 2040 – are voluntary.

Globally, some 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste have been generated since the 1950s, most of it in the past two decades, reflecting the widespread adoption of single-use plastic packaging, according to a recent academic paper in the journal Science Advances. One way to reverse current trends, is to make large consumer-packaged-goods companies pay for and manage recycling. Packaging, after all, accounts for one-third of the Canadian plastics market, and the theory is that Unilever, Walmart and others are more likely to design recyclable products when they are the ones on the hook for disposal costs.

Lawmakers in the European Union voted in March to ban single-use plastic items such as straws, cutlery, cotton swabs and Styrofoam containers by 2021. Canada has so far been reluctant to adopt such measures at the federal level. In fact, Ottawa has joined the United States, Japan and others in opposing China’s National Sword import restrictions at the World Trade Organization. In an interview, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said that Ottawa is studying possible targets – and bans – to reduce single-use products in government operations. Last year, the Liberals also prohibited the manufacture, import and sale of toiletries that contain plastic micro-beads. Still, Ms. McKenna called China’s crackdown a wake-up call that points to a need for better waste-management systems. “We can’t just be shipping our recycling to other countries,” she says.

Source Globe and Mail