Features | From Pivot Magazine

How Canada can restructure its patchwork recycling system

With China closing its doors to plastic from the western world, we have an opportunity to consolidate our piecemeal program 

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Man and woman recycling plastic and paper“When Canada started relying so heavily on China and other international markets years ago, we undermined our domestic recycling,” says Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta (Getty)

Canada’s recycling system wasn’t exactly in tip-top shape before National Sword. Ever since the first blue boxes hit Ontario streets in the early 1980s, recycling has primarily been a commodities market, with the content of Canadian blue boxes, bags and carts all vying for willing buyers, or “end markets,” in industry parlance. The idea was that an open market in recyclables would generate enough profit to pay for pick up, processing, sorting and recycling. In practice, recycling has always been a business of razor-thin margins, and Canadian municipalities have always subsidized it with taxpayer dollars. So when China implemented its ban in 2018, the system was already vulnerable.

“When Canada started relying so heavily on China and other international markets years ago, we undermined our domestic recycling,” says Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta. “China closed its doors, and we didn’t have the capacity to deal with our own waste anymore. Now we need to rebuild that.”

Today, the situation across the country is mixed. But there are plenty of green shoots—no pun intended—in the domestic recycling space.

Calgary made headlines in 2018 after it stored huge reserves of suddenly un-recyclable clamshell plastics (think berry containers). Between September 2017 and April 2019, the city spent more than $330,000 storing 2,000 tonnes of them—all of which ended up in a landfill. It finally found a buyer in April 2019, when local recycler Merlin Plastics improved its facilities in response to new supply.

Similarly, Halifax was forced to seek a special exemption from the Nova Scotia government to bury plastics otherwise prohibited in landfills, and has had to truck some decayed plastics to a cement kiln to be burned as fuel. Recently, however, it found a local company that has taken its plastic to make new products, including “poly” lumber. 

Toronto never relied on China, but still saw its recyclables’ value plummet in a tighter market. Low-value contaminated material, like unrinsed peanut butter jars or newspapers covered in coffee grinds, may be altogether un-recyclable, so the city responded with an aggressive citizen-education campaign, even sending inspectors out to audit people’s blue boxes for incorrect sorting, which exacerbates contamination problems.

Elsewhere, however, the problem has worsened—especially in smaller communities. In 2018, St. Albert, Alta., stopped accepting clamshell containers, glass bottles and certain kinds of cardboard. Stratford, Ont., has banned milk cartons, aluminum foil and paint cans, and has seen recycling costs more than double, from $90 per tonne to $185. Lacombe, Alta., discontinued curbside recycling entirely last May, unable to find new end markets.

There is one great green hope on the horizon, however, and any conversation with a Canadian waste expert will eventually get to it: extended producer responsibility, a system in which companies that generate consumer waste bear the full expense of dealing with its end-of-life management. British Columbia currently has the most producer-responsibility programs of any province—and also generates the second-lowest waste per capita of all provinces, behind only Nova Scotia, which has an aggressive series of landfill bans.

Recycling advocacy groups and waste managers in other provinces have long pushed for similar systems nationwide, and the country’s largest provincial economy has finally followed suit. Last August, Ontario announced a move to a system of full producer responsibility, meaning the blue box system will be replaced with a new one entirely paid for by industry and regulated by the province. Unlike other government services, residential recycling was always supposed to be revenue neutral to the public, and paid for by industry and the sale of recyclables on commodities markets. The move to producer responsibility makes good on that original concept. The idea is that companies will be incentivized to reduce waste, find cost-effective end markets and, ultimately, design less wasteful packaging in the first place.

The plan will also standardize what goes into blue boxes. Matt Keliher, Toronto’s general manager of solid waste management services, hopes that in itself will eliminate the piecemeal province-wide system that can lower recycling rates. “What we have now is a fragmented system where you might live in Toronto, work in Durham and have a cottage somewhere nearby, and it’s three different rules for how to recycle,” says Keliher. “Some people just throw it all in the garbage can rather than try to figure out, ‘Wait, where am I today?’ ”

Ultimately, many in the industry hope to see producer responsibility usher in a harmonized national market for recyclables, with similar standards and regulations from coast to coast.

“I really think harmonization would be amazing,” says Harvinder Aujala, director of policy and communications with the Recycling Council of B.C. “If provinces approach this together, you could drive national producers to design reduced-waste packaging and make more readily recyclable material.” 

Ontario and B.C. together already make up more than half of Canada’s population. There is hope that even without other provinces on board, that could be enough to kickstart a move to low-waste products. Think of vehicle emission standards—when California sets a new standard, automakers follow, even if smaller states have less stringent regulations.

The details of Ontario’s system are still murky, however, and the transition isn’t anticipated until the middle of this decade. In the meantime, keep rinsing those peanut butter jars.

GOING GREEN

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Waste Watchers

How three Canadians companies are doing their part to rebuild our recycling infrastructure
A three-bedroom Airbnb contructed from 600,000 plastic bottles
From bottles to houses
Travellers passing through Meteghan, N.S., now have a unique overnight option: a three-bedroom, ocean-view Airbnb constructed from 600,000 plastic bottles. The house was built last year by Joel German and David Saulnier, the co-founders of JD Composites Inc. They source their materials from an Ontario company that turns bottles into panels of poly­ethylene terephthalate (PET). “As far as I know, we’re the only people doing this in the world,” says Saulnier.
GreenMantra's patented process converts bottles, straws and grocery bags into roofing asphalt
Upcycling plastic
Rather than “downcycling” recovered plastics into low-quality materials, Brantford, Ont.–based GreenMantra developed a patented process to convert bottles, straws and grocery bags into synthetic waxes, inks, plastic-composite lumber and chemicals for industrial applications, such as strengthening road and roofing asphalt. “We see China’s new legislation as an opportunity instead of a problem,” says vice-president Domenic Di Mondo. “We were squandering this material by allowing it to be mixed together and shipped away. Plastic is a resource, and we should treat it that way.”

ChopValue turns chopsticks into wall tiles The chopstick revolution
In 2016, entrepreneur Felix Böck estimated that about 100,000 pairs of chopsticks were thrown out in Metro Vancouver every day. So he founded ChopValue, which today collects nearly 1.2 million chopsticks every month from hundreds of partnering businesses in Vancouver, Victoria, Montreal and Los Angeles. In its Vancouver production facility, the chopsticks are turned into coasters, wall tiles and even tables. As the company grows, Böck plans to mitigate its environmental and transportation footprint by building “micro-factories” in other cities.

—Matthew Halliday