Canadians are wonderfully warm-hearted and civically-minded people. After all, nothing feels more satisfying than making a charitable donation to an organization working to remove plastic waste from the world’s oceans; those images of sickly or dead whales and dolphins choking on plastic sandwich wrap and beach sandals are pretty hard to stomach (so to speak!) We also love our politics, and notwithstanding lobbying against carbon taxes, most Canadians would voice their support for “polluter-pay” legislation (certainly as long as the polluters are not ourselves, of course!)
And therein hangs a tale. We purchase cute recycled plastic bracelets and dredge up “Free Willy” from our childhood movie collection in the forlorn hope that we are somehow helping to stem the scourge of mismanaged plastics. Not.
Consider this: according to the Wall Street Journal, 2010 figures show that 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from China with an estimated 3.53 million metric tons of it ending up in the ocean. You can add a similar amount from the other Asiatic coastal countries. The United States is also guilty of polluting oceans with plastic, but at a mere 0.11 million metric tons. While one can argue that even a pick-up truck load is too much, Canada doesn’t even make it to the chart. So much for polluter-pay!
And so much for even taking care of our own plastic waste: as little as three years ago, we used to rely on Asia – in particular China – to take care of our Canadian plastic waste. We would sort it away from our landfills, load it into containers and ship them across the Pacific – despite the fact that plastic waste from the destination countries themselves was being dumped into that very same ocean, and headed east to our very own shores. Of course, China was being very cooperative, returning much of our recycled plastic to Canada as manufactured goods so cheap as to undercut the stuff we manufacture at home.
Now, China has decided to clean up its act with its new “Green Sword” program, banning all imports of waste plastic. Now, much of North American plastic waste is stranded and the comparatively few American recyclers of waste plastic simply don’t have the capacity to handle it all. And the prices have tanked, so to make matters worse, municipal recycling programs are everywhere from challenged to permanently shut down. Even at the 16 to 43 Waste Management Corporation’s facility at the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve, Site Manager Todd Linsley says that recyclable plastic wastes are being baled and stored under cover along with paper and cardboard in hopes of future solutions: “The only other option at the moment is putting it into the landfill, but we are doing everything within our power to avoid that.”
The bigger the worser, apparently. Journalist Michael Corkery reported in the New York Times (March 19, 2019) that Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. “In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.” According to Corkery, hundreds of towns and cities across the country have either cancelled recycling programs outright or limited the types of material they accept.
Chris Cui, director of China Programs for Closed Loop Partners, says companies in the United States and China can help each other: “Recycling companies in China have long played the role of outsourced recycling processors for countries such as the U.S.,” Closed Loop Partners is an investment firm that provides capital to recycling-related enterprises.
“Chinese companies have the capability to process material at relatively low cost. The U.S., on the other hand, is far more advanced in collection and transportation of recyclables, and this is a gap,” Cui said from the stage of the Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, held in Maryland, USA, in late March. “The gap can be bridged by connecting recycling operators in both countries, so they can share knowledge and resources.”
According to an article in Plastics Recycling Update (Resource Recycling Inc.), Closed Loop Partners launched its China Programs department last year following China’s ban on imports of many categories of recyclables. Director Cui continued: “… we see there is a huge opportunity after the ban for us over there, and we want to build a bridge for the industry here in the U.S. to work together with their counterparts in China and the rest of Asia.”
Cui suggested that plastic not currently being recycled in the U.S. and China represents over $230 billion in potential value. “ Chinese companies have a lot of challenges when they come to the U.S., culturally,” she said. “You can invest in a plant, but how do you make sure that the management team is up and running? How do you make sure you know how to work with the local state, the local government? How can you identify which area is the best for you to set up your plant? You have to consider the transportation, do you have enough feedstock, if there’s any tax incentive opportunity zone, those are the kinds of value you can add to the Chinese players that are coming over here.”
Just as our own failures to make any
real attempts to deal with fresh water pollution and climate change are increasingly
threatening Canada’s economy and our way of life, it appears that decades of
inaction on properly addressing waste reduction and materials recycling may
well be the next major challenge to building and maintaining a healthy society.
It would be ironic if, having unloaded our waste plastic problem onto China for
decades, we are forced to allow them to provide solutions within our own
country. We really do need to be careful, and to do better.
Peter Kingsmill is a recipient of the Governor General’s Conservation Award and past chair and founder of the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve in Saskatchewan