Have you ever wondered what happens to our recyclables once they’re picked up? Are they really recycled, or do they get shipped off to landfills halfway across the world? Can we feel good about religiously separating and sorting our trash, or is this just something we’re doing to make ourselves feel better about all of the waste we produce?
According to a recent report from the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, Canadians are recycling more every year. There’s no question that this is a good thing. Far better we reuse and repurpose our unwanted containers than dump them in landfills – or worse, the ocean.
But more recycling means greater infrastructure and planning. It also means that someone needs to want our recyclable waste and have the means to turn it into new products. Until recently, the solution was to ship it all off to China. There, millions of tons of recyclable waste – about 40% of the plastic waste produced globally – would be processed and turned into new products. That’s roughly $5 billion worth of plastic scrap going into China every year – no trifling matter.
But at the beginning of 2013, China said enough. A huge proportion of the recyclable materials they were receiving were contaminated. They just didn’t have the means to deal with dirty or unsorted plastics. Often the only options they had were to incinerate them for the energy or to ship them off to landfills.
So they brought in new regulations. They would only allow 1.5% of imported recyclables in any given shipment to be contaminated. This system, nicknamed Operation Green Fence, also banned any containers that could contain bacteria – pop cans, food packaging, coffee cup lids, garden planters; anything discovered on the reject list was sent back to where it came from. The message from China to the world was clear: the Chinese wanted to deal with recyclables as commodities, not as waste.
While this initially placed a huge strain on western cities (what to do with all of that plastic?), in the long term it looks like a positive change. Municipalities have learned the hard way that they can’t look to China for solutions to their waste management unless they’re willing to meet China’s requirements. Canadian exporters have had to find North American markets for their waste plastics. And many have. As of March 2014, Canadian recyclers actually want more supply. This means more local industry, job creation and massive savings on fuel for transportation. It also, however, necessitates expanded infrastructure, and government and industry cooperation – aspects that are often a little slower to catch on.
So while it’s unlikely that we’ll stop exporting at least some of our scrap plastics to China, it also looks like this regulation has forced western countries to focus on innovating and expanding our recycling industries at home, a silver lining to a massive worldwide problem.