The Crisis of Our Recycling Industry

The recycling industry is in full-scale crisis.

Much of Canada’s recycling was shipped to China. But China has refused to continue its role as the world’s biggest recycling bin, according to a recent article in the Globe and Mail titled “Reduce, reuse, recycle, rejected: Why Canada’s recycling industry is in crisis mode.”

China is cutting its imports of scrap plastic by 96 per cent and, as a result, Canada’s recycling industry is struggling to deal with the volume. China decided to ban the import of 24 types of recyclable commodities as of January 2018. According to the Globe article, this new policy came into effect as a response to environmental and health concerns as well as the filthy condition recyclables arrived in (We recently touched on this topic in a recent SeaLuxe post called Small Steps to Kicking the Plastic Habit.)

China once used to handle nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste. The new policy, called “National Sword” was established because the country’s recycling plants could not handle our dirty plastics (yes, those unclean peanut butter jars et al!). All the crap was leaving China with an environmental problem, not of its own making (never mind the ozone-tearing chemicals China has illegally been releasing into the atmosphere. Sigh.).

So, many countries are left with stockpiles of plastic. England burned more than half-a-million tons of plastic and household garbage last year alone. Australia is struggling to handle the 1.3 million-ton stockpile of recyclable waste that was earmarked for China. Some cities in the United States have stopped recycling programs so people are back to tossing plastic and paper in the garbage!

This is insane.

However, even before China’s ban, a measly 9% of discarded plastics were being recycled (12% was being incinerated). The rest of our trash – much of what we put into our blue bins that becomes contaminated – goes to the landfill or just dumped and ends up in our rivers and oceans.

“Cities and companies have been scrambling to upgrade equipment and add labour to sort, handle and prepare paper and plastic cast-offs,” according to the Globe as ALL mixed paper and much of our plastics were shipped to China.

“Bales of 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. For instance, labels and adhesives used on certain plastics – clamshells that hold berries are a prime offender – can yield a lower-quality resin that makes them harder to convert into newer products.”

The upside? Hopefully governments will begin pressuring manufacturers to either make their products more recyclable OR stop using so much packaging.

This is one loud wake-up call for us – everybody – to move away from single-use plastics.

We look forward to hearing what our federal government has to say come June, when it will unveil the first phase of a zero-plastics waste strategy. Canada has also touted an accord among the Group of Seven countries in the world’s oceans, according the Globe.

“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 per cent of plastic packaging by 2030, and 100 per cent of all plastics by 2040 – are voluntary.”

Which begs the question – what are they waiting for?