The blue bin charade: what really happens to Canadian recycling

Environmental News Provincial Uncategorized

Before you recycle those unwashed takeout containers, consider where your blue bin recyclables actually end up

Graphic by Natalie Inez, Design Director

Since Canada’s first implementation of curbside recycling programs in the 1980s, Canadians have dutifully filled our blue bins believing that we’re doing a good thing for the planet.

And we are, but only to a limited degree.

Much of what we put into our bins has never been recycled, and instead ends up in landfills around the world or burned. 

In much of Canada, the recycling system is run by private industries with no accountability. Municipalities that supply blue bins are only responsible for the contents until they are sold, either to a recycling company or to a broker. This offsets the costs of municipal recycling programs, but it means that municipalities bear no responsibility for where the waste goes next and whether it is ever recycled.

For a long time, the system looked something like this: some waste was purchased by a recycling company and processed to be reused, but a lot of waste that was contaminated by food scraps or other non recyclable material ended up in landfills or sold overseas, largely to companies in China. Once exported, the waste would be sorted, the valuable plastic kept, and the rest either dumped or burned — a reality of which many blue bin users were unaware.

The fate of Canadian recycling has always depended on market value, which is one of the reasons why we now have a recycling crisis.

On Jan. 1, 2018, China, the country that since 1992 has accepted 42 per cent of the world’s unwanted plastic, stopped accepting contaminated recycling and imposed strict regulations on what Chinese companies could import. Some types of cheap plastic and mixed paper have been banned, and what materials are still accepted must meet stringent contamination standards of under 0.5 per cent. Forget greasy pizza boxes — even coffee-stained paper is no longer acceptable.

Faced with a new onslaught of waste from erstwhile exporters to China, both Malaysia and India banned plastic imports and Vietnam and Taiwan imposed restrictions themselves. With no buyers for mixed and contaminated recycling, the global market plummeted.

The past year and a half have exposed the reliance of overseas buyers to deal with our contaminated recycling. The evolution of our individual recycling practices and our recycling plants has stagnated to the point that we are incapable of meeting the needs of our own country.

Canadian recycling centres are now stuck with literal tonnes of waste that can’t be recycled locally, can no longer be sold for a profit, and actually cost money (and create emissions) to haul away.

The decline of newspapers combined with our modern, busy lives means that most of our recycling is now plastic, rather than valuable and easily recycled paper. Recycling plants, originally designed around newspapers being the backbone of the industry, are ill-equipped to deal with ever-increasing amounts of small mixed plastics like takeout containers and flexible plastic packaging. The increasing population living in apartment buildings and using common recycling bins only adds to contamination, as more people using the bins increases the likelihood that someone will sort their recyclables wrong.

Some plants can’t accept various types of plastic packaging at all, and the difference in what is acceptable between communities, or even just between houses, apartments, and office buildings, leads to confusion about what can be recycled. Well-meaning recyclers blue-bin anything that seems recyclable, a practice that leads to soaring contamination rates and makes recycling harder and more expensive for recycling plants.

Toronto, for example, cannot recycle the black plastic lids from disposable coffee cups, even though the lids have a recycling symbol on them. The local Canada Fibers plant does not have the technology to sort black plastic. 

Other common contaminants include glass and Styrofoam. These materials can technically be recycled, but because they break into shards and mix with other materials, they all ill-suited to the single-bin recycling system used in many cities. Lack of adequate sorting technology at many plants means that contaminated recycling ends up carted away to the dump.

Even if the recycled material is acceptable, many people toss dirty containers into the bin, unaware of the fact that even a couple teaspoons of peanut butter can cause an entire tonne of otherwise recyclable material to be sent to a landfill.

Contamination, whether due to laziness or confusion, costs the recycling industry millions. China’s new standards mean that contaminated recycling is now worthless garbage, and the expense of processing recycling only to transport it to a landfill has resulted in some communities simply refusing to accept problematic materials, even though the same materials could be recycled with proper sorting and technology. Upgrading sorting technology and recycling capability is expensive, particularly at a time when making a profit from recyclable materials is nearly impossible.

The situation is less dire in B.C., where the recycling system is entirely producer-funded and operated. Anyone who creates, imports, or sells a product in B.C. is financially responsible for the recycling of that product. This “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) model is hugely successful.

EPR has led to Recycle B.C., a non-profit created by nearly 1 300 companies to manage residential recycling. The program works so well that B.C.’s recycling participation rate is 69 per cent, the highest in the country, and while other parts of Canada are cutting out recyclable materials from their programs, B.C. is accepting more. Many cities require residents to sort their recycling which reduces contamination, there are plants designed for things like flexible plastic packaging and berry or pastry containers, and some large pharmacy chains, like London Drugs, have plastic bag drop-offs. 

EPR also incentivizes producers to use easily recyclable packaging. Keurig coffee pods are now recyclable in B.C., and many of our egg cartons are made of paper because it is easier and cheaper to recycle than Styrofoam.

B.C.’s recycling practices saved us from being severely impacted by China’s new restrictions. All of our plastic is recycled in-province — Recycle B.C. promises local business a plastic supply — and our paper recyclables are cleaner and better able to meet Chinese standards.

But B.C.’s success does not change the fact that Canadians produce 3.25 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, with only 10 per cent directed to recycling facilities instead of landfills.

The upcoming national ban on single use plastics like straws, bags, and cutlery is a step, but there is much more that could  be done, a fact acknowledged by municipalities, politicians, and waste management officials alike

John Coyne, chair of Recycle B.C., believes that until the rest of Canada adopts EPR models, the elimination of non recyclable packaging will remain small-scale. 

“Until we actually complete the puzzle and we know everybody’s got EPR programs in place and all of those systems are functioning in a broadly similar fashion, you haven’t really completed the picture yet,” said Coyne to Global News.

On June 7, Ontario Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Rod Phillips announced that the provincial government was looking into shifting to a producer-managed recycling system. The province wants to reduce plastic pollution and shift the costs of recycling away from the taxpayers.

Executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario Jo-Anne St. Godard believes that, as has occurred in B.C., a producer-funded and operated recycling system will force manufacturers to learn the extent to which their packaging impacts the recycling system, and encourage them to use more easily recycled materials.

“When [producers] have to be fully financially responsible they’re going to get closer to understanding how their package is treated in the recycling system,” said St. Godard to CBC.

Such a transition will, of course, be complicated. Premier Ford’s government has appointed a special advisor to review the potential changes. David Lindsay, CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities and the former deputy minister for Natural Resources and Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, will make his report on July 20.

For decades, recycling has been a ritual in Canadian homes. The inconvenient truth regarding what happens to most of our recycling is upsetting, but it should also be motivational. It is 2019. Canadians have had nearly 40 years to learn to clean up after ourselves.

What can be recycled, and where it is accepted, can be found on Recycle B.C.’s website or app.