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Canada’s recycling system is trash – but it’s not too late to fix it

May 27, 2019

Canada’s recycling system is broken. China’s “National Sword” policy, a ban on importing foreign recycling, was the final straw – but Beijing isn’t to blame, nor are consumers, who are doing their best.

Canada’s recycling system is broken. China’s “National Sword” policy, a ban on importing foreign recycling, was the final straw – but Beijing isn’t to blame, nor are consumers, who are doing their best.

The real issue is that, without regulation, the economics of recycling will never make sense. For plastics producers, creating new materials is cheap; disposing of them is someone else’s problem.

We’ve heard that Canada recycles only 9 per cent of its plastic waste. But that’s most likely an overestimation, because it includes the waste exported for recycling to Asia, much of which isn’t actually recycled. Unless governments step in and create an environment for the recycling market to function, our abysmal recycling rate will persist or worsen, while the amount of plastic Canadians use, then toss, grows.

In 2017, the Blue Box in Ontario cost municipalities about $250-million, meaning these costs were actually borne by taxpayers, of course. And the costs have risen dramatically as a result of the restrictions in the trade of waste to Asia. Municipalities used to be able to sell some materials to subsidize the cost of recycling the rest, but now they have to pay to have even these materials taken away, if a market can be found at all.

But we can’t just keep sending all of our troublesome waste to landfills and we shouldn’t fall for easy solutions such as waste incineration. Incinerators are expensive to build, contribute more carbon emissions and create perverse incentives to keep generating more waste to feed them. Incineration just adds one more step to the linear “take-make-waste” economy.

The real solution lies in transitioning to a circular economy where materials are reused over and over.

The transition isn’t going to come by itself. It is going to take regulation from governments to create it, but the benefits will be huge. A recent report from Deloitte estimated that a circular economy for waste could create 42,000 jobs and save $500-million by diverting 90 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste.

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