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Reduce, reuse, recycle, rejected: Why Canada’s recycling industry is in crisis mode

May 14, 2019

For decades, Canadians tossed their recyclables into blue bins and never looked back. But with China cutting its imports of scrap plastic by 96 per cent, Canada’s recycling industry is struggling

Desperation had set in. For more than a year, officials in Calgary’s department of waste and recycling services had been unable to find a buyer for truckloads of used plastic.

Recyclers in Canada had balked. And shipping the unwanted material overseas was no longer an option. By March, the officials appealed to Sims Municipal Recycling in Brooklyn, N.Y. – a last-ditch bid to clear a backlog of hard-to-recycle packaging that had swelled to 1,400 tonnes, the equivalent of seven blue whales, stranded, in this case, in trailers at a local landfill.

But even that Hail Mary pass proved futile. “Frankly, even if they deliver it to me for [free], which is a very expensive route for them, given all the freight costs, we would not take it today,” says Sims General Manager Tom Outerbridge, who’s had to recycle a similar version of this bad news more than a few times over the past while.

The extended holding pattern the scrap was forced to endure is a symptom of a much wider emergency engulfing the global recycling industry. It followed on China’s decision, one year ago, to ban the import of 24 types of recyclable commodities. The hard-line new policy, dubbed National Sword, was a response to environmental and health concerns, and also to the “contaminated” state in which recyclables arrived: often in filthy condition, and with random materials lumped into single bales.

Almost overnight, a thriving global trade in recyclable scrap dried up.

A Globe and Mail analysis of international trade data shows that Canadian exports of scrap plastic dropped by one-fifth last year, with especially steep reductions in the amounts sent to Hong Kong and China – 72 per cent and 96 per cent, respectively. (Chinese imports of Canadian used paper also plunged, by 65 per cent; that drop poses less of a challenge – paper is a homogeneous commodity and generally easier to recycle).

The data analysis, together with dozens of interviews with city officials across Canada, as well as landfill operators, private waste haulers and processors, brokers and others, paints a portrait of an industry in full-scale crisis, stung by rising costs – and inundated by a mountain of trash no one wants to buy, or even, in many cases, take for free.

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