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Canadian municipalities struggling to find place for recyclables after China restricts foreign waste

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink is a CBC News series about recycling. We’re exploring why our communities are at a turning point and how we can recycle better. You can be part of the conversation by joining our Facebook group.

China’s new rules that ban or seriously restrict foreign waste have Canadian municipalities struggling to find places to ship their recyclables.

“It’s a big problem but we’re actively seeking solutions,” said Wayne Wamboldt, director of solid waste for Colchester County in Nova Scotia.

The county’s Material Recovery Facility, in the community of Kemptown, brings in more than 10,000 tonnes of recyclables a year, and sends 40 per cent of that to China. At least it used to.  

The latest Statistics Canada data shows that in 2013 and 2014, Canadians diverted more than nine million tonnes of material from landfills although that doesn’t include all materials recycled by Canadians — for example, through bottle programs or if a grocery store sends boxes directly to a recycler. 

Half of the world’s recyclables were being sent to China, but that changed when China decided to crack down on foreign waste last year.

The Colchester Material Recovery Facility brings in more than 10,000 tonnes of recyclables a year. It was sending around 40 per cent of that material to China. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Although the ban didn’t take full effect until Dec. 31, 2017, many Chinese companies stopped accepting foreign recycling materials months earlier, leaving some Canadian cities with stockpiles of flattened cardboard and crushed plastic without anywhere to send it.

David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, says China, the world’s largest manufacturer, has a growing middle class and generates its own recyclables in a greater quantity than 10 years ago, meaning it is less reliant on imported material.

China has also been receiving some material that wasn’t good quality.

“There’s a lot of garbage mixed up, occasionally, with those bales of plastic, paper and metal that are going over to China,” Biderman said in an interview with CBC News in his office in Silver Spring, Md.

“And so China is interested in stopping it from becoming the dumping ground for Western material.”

Problematic plastics

This year, some North American material has started moving elsewhere, mostly to emerging markets in Asia, but at lower prices, meaning lost revenue for Canadian municipalities.

The remaining problem for many is film plastics, that are in item such as plastic shopping bags, bread bags and the wrapping on toilet paper.

Colchester County was sending 100 per cent of its film plastics to China, amounting to around 600 tonnes per year. It has now stockpiled 450 tonnes and has had to store hundreds of bales of it outside.

Wayne Wamboldt, director of solid waste for Colchester County, says he is seeking new markets for plastic waste. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

There’s a concern the material could degrade so that it could no longer be recycled. If that happens, Wamboldt says, there will be no other choice but to bury it in a landfill.

“We certainly don’t want to be putting material in the landfill,” he said.

Running out of options

Nova Scotia is the only province in Canada in which it’s illegal to dump plastics in a landfill, so if it comes to that, Colchester would have to ask the province for a special permit.

If that name gets out, another municipality might call and say, “We’ll pay you an extra $ 2 a tonne to take our material.”— Matt  Keliher , Halifax manager of solid waste

Halifax, which was shipping 80 per cent of its recyclables to China, has already requested and received such a permit, but has since found new markets for its material. In a sign of just how cutthroat the recycling business has become, the city’s manager of solid waste won’t say where those markets are.  

“If Halifax ships 1,000 tonnes to one facility if that name gets out, another municipality might call and say, ‘We’ll pay you an extra $ 2 a tonne to take our material,’ and then Halifax has no spot to put our material,” said Matt Keliher.

This is more of Colchester County’s plastics stockpile. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Meanwhile, a Halifax councillor is calling for the province to impose a plastic bag ban.

“Montreal’s recently done it. Victoria’s done it. Boston just recently did it. There are actually whole countries, Costa Rica’s thinking of doing a country-wide ban,” said Tony Mancini.

The increasingly attractive B.C. model 

These challenges mean the British Columbia model is becoming increasingly attractive.

Under the program, which began in 2014 and is common in Europe, plastics are processed in the province, and producers pay.

“Retailers, manufacturers, quick-service restaurants and others actually have to pay for the packaging they put in the residential system, so they pay fees to Recycle BC, and we use that to run a province-wide system,” explained Allen Langdon, managing director of Recycle BC.

This means China’s decision is not an issue for B.C., at least not when it comes to plastics.

B.C. has found new markets for its paper, but the revenue loss is significant. Langdon says last year, Recycle BC was receiving roughly $ 80 a tonne for mixed paper, as opposed to today, when the market price is zero. It’s unclear how long it will stay at that level.    

China is still accepting some paper, but as of March 1, it has to be much cleaner than before, with a contamination rate of no more than 0.5 per cent.

Biderman says that change will come at a cost.

“It’s possible to do, but it takes a serious investment,” he said. “It increases the cost, and I think ultimately, Canadians and Americans are likely to pay more for recycling in the future as a result of this activity.”

Halifax, which was shipping 80 per cent of its recyclables to China, has found new markets for its material but won’t say where. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

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