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The Disheartening State of Plastic Recycling in Canada: A Pressing Call for Reform

We feel good about using our blue bins, but should we?


In 2023, millions of eco-conscious Canadians do their part to protect the environment. They try to use less energy and water, install solar panels, avoid using disposable items, and, of course, recycle. We are blissfully sure harmful plastics and other materials we put in the blue bin will be recycled, composted, or reused instead of being thrown away or sold. And yet, that’s not what happens: more often than not, there is still a significant amount of plastic waste that is either exported, incinerated, or ends up in landfills. This needs to change. At the very least, Canadians need to be informed of the consequences of their actions to make better-informed choices about dealing with their waste.


The situation is indeed grim: recycling plastic waste in Canada is in a dire state, with only 9% of the total plastic waste being recycled [5]. In fact, the global estimate for recycled plastic is approximately 9%. Most of the collected plastic materials from blue bins are either being incinerated, put in landfills, or shipped overseas [1]. In this article, we will look at how exactly Canada handles plastic waste and where it ends up.


Not a lot of people, but huge amounts of waste


In 2018, Canadians produced 35.6 million tonnes of solid waste. This translates to 694 kg of waste per person per year, which is the highest amount of waste per person in the world. Although the vast majority of Canadians have access to a recycling program, only 9% of plastic waste is actually recycled. Moreover, there are over 10,000 landfills in Canada, which are rapidly reaching their capacity [2].

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Canadians dispose of goods with approximately 3.3 million tonnes of plastic yearly, with 2.8 million tonnes ending up in landfills. Although Canadians account for less than 0.5% of the world’s population, they use 1.4% of all plastic produced.

The plastic waste generated in Canada comes mainly from packaging (47 %), automotive (9 %), textiles (7 %), and electrical and electronic equipment (7 %) [10].


The Canadian plastic economy operates in a mostly linear fashion. In 2016, only 9% of plastic waste was recycled, 4% was incinerated with energy recovery, and 86% was sent to landfills. Additionally, it is estimated that 1% of plastic material leaked into the environment. In other words, we generate an excessive amount of waste in all forms, and while we make considerable efforts to protect the environment, it’s just not enough. How did we get here?


Who is responsible?


In Canada, the responsibility of waste reduction and management is shared by different levels of government, including the federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments.

Municipalities and private waste management companies are responsible for collecting and disposing of residential and non-residential solid waste, as well as recycling. Meanwhile, policies and programs for waste reduction are created and managed by authorities at provincial and territorial levels. These authorities also approve and monitor waste disposal facilities and operations.

Canada produced 1.4 million tons of plastic film in 2019, with less than 4% being recycled due to sorting issues. Film is a common environmental pollutant, with food wrappers and plastic bags frequently found on shorelines [17].



Canada ships its waste overseas – and it’s often returned


Dirty Waste


For many years, Canada exported its recyclable waste to China and other Asian countries, as it was a cheap disposal method. However, this method of export was criticized for improper sorting. Often, paper was mixed with plastics, which made it almost impossible to separate and recycle, and plastics were found contaminated with food scraps. Moreover, actual garbage was mixed in among the recyclables as well. This practice was harmful to the environment and needed to be addressed [7]. In fact, improper waste handling has been a problem for a long time. A 2022 investigation by Fifth Estate/Enquête has revealed that 123 shipping containers have been sent back to Canada in the previous five years due to multiple violations of international waste export regulations. These regulations are designed to prevent developed countries from dumping their trash in developing countries [9].


Throughout his 25-year career, Marc De Strooper, a Belgian port inspector, has caught recycling shipments containing illegal trash from Canada multiple times as they pass through Belgian ports on their way to Asia. He believes that Canadian companies opt to send their waste to developing countries because it is cheaper than recycling paper and plastics domestically. According to Sabaa Khan, an environmental lawyer, if the secrecy around illegal shipments is lifted, it can help prevent future violations. She expressed her frustration with the lack of monitoring of plastic waste by the Canadian government. In fact, a lack of transparency protects companies and hinders public discourse. Canada has repeatedly delayed ending waste shipments and joining international agreements despite requests from other countries.


In 2019, an amendment to an international treaty called the Basel Convention was signed by 187 countries. The amendment introduced new regulations for the transportation of plastic waste. Canada eventually signed on, but only after a delay of two years. Currently, Canada still has not signed a recent amendment to the Basel Convention [9].


Where does Canada send plastic waste?


In the 1990s, many recyclers found a “solution” to the plastic waste problem by selling their product to China. According to recycling broker Sunil Bagaria, China was interested in waste that North American recyclers couldn’t use. However, China would only use good quality waste and dispose of the rest. As a result, due to the increasing plastic waste problem in China, the country decided to stop accepting most imported plastic waste in 2018 [19].


Other Southeast Asian countries now take in the world’s waste, but they often have lax environmental regulations. After China, Malaysia became a dumping ground for a significant amount of waste, much of which ended up being illegally incinerated or dumped in unregulated landfills. Many Asian nations are now following China’s example and saying no to the legal import of waste, but the illicit trade remains a major problem. Canada is now shipping waste to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, but these countries are becoming increasingly worried that the environmental costs are greater than the income they earn from importing the waste [8].


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A River of Garbage. A waterway in Asia that has become so full of plastic waste the water is no longer visible.


In 2021, the National Observer revealed that every day, approximately 160 tractor-trailers loaded with plastic waste cross the border between Canada and the United States. This scrap plastic trade is worth $18.8 million, with about half of the waste going in each direction.


Canadian companies mainly export high-value and easily recyclable plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used for making pop bottles, for recycling in the U.S. On the other hand, American waste companies ship less valuable plastics, known as “3-7 plastics,” to Canada. These mixed plastics, used in various products from takeout containers to vinyl siding, are made from several types of polymers and contain different chemical additives, making them difficult and expensive to recycle due to their wide range of melting points, toxicity, and other chemical properties [4].



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Figure 2. Monthly exports of plastic waste and scrap from Canada



What’s being done?


On June 22, 2022, the Canadian government introduced the Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations (SUPPR), which aim to reduce plastic waste that ends up in the environment. The regulations prohibit the manufacturing, importing, and vending of six single-use plastic items, including checkout bags, cutlery, food service ware, plastic containers for ready-to-eat food and beverages, ring carriers, stir sticks, and straws. The future of these regulations is uncertain as a recent court ruling in Canada found that the regulations may have classified these plastics as "toxic" incorrectly [20]. According to the Government of Canada website, the SUPPR is part of the government's comprehensive plan to address pollution, achieve its target of zero plastic waste by 2030, and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Given that Canada currently only recycles 9% of plastic waste, it seems likely that this goal will not be met.


In the event that the SUPPR remains in effect, it is clear that it falls far short of its intended goals. For instance, replacing these plastic products with paper or wood may reduce some long-lasting plastic litter, but it does not address the biggest problem items adequately. Moreover, paper-based food packaging is often coated with chemicals such as perfluoro-alkyl substances (PFAS) that pose environmental and health risks.


The Government of Canada is committed to increasing the recycled content in certain plastic products and packaging to at least 50 percent by 2030. They are developing new regulations that will set minimum percentage recycled content requirements for certain items made of plastic [11]. The federal government is also taking steps to manage the use and disposal of plastics within its own operations. This includes eliminating the unnecessary use of single-use plastics in government operations, meetings, and events and purchasing more sustainable plastic products that can be reused, repaired, or repurposed. [12]


Is it enough? According to a report by NGO Environmental Defence [21], Canada’s aim to eliminate plastic packaging waste by 2030 is unlikely to be achieved without significant involvement from all levels of government. If no actions are taken to manage plastic packaging and products, preventing them from becoming waste, Canada will fall short of its 2030 target by 2,092,994 metric tonnes.


Starting in 2023, the Province of Ontario government has established new recycling standards that the current city facilities cannot meet. The City of Toronto has been advised not to bid for the contract regarding the province's reformed recycling system, even though it has all the necessary resources. The reason for this advice is unknown, as the provincial regulator has mandated that anyone reading the request for proposal (RFP) must sign non-disclosure agreements. However, The newspaper the Toronto Star has learned [16] that the city staff is concerned about privacy, contamination standards, and financial penalties. The current contamination rate is 30%, and the contract requires less than 4%. Once again, a complete lack of transparency becomes a problem [15].


The plastics crisis: what are we doing wrong?


For the past decades, recycling dominated the conversation about plastics. As a result, people think that it’s the answer to the crisis, but it actually isn’t, and it never was. While we need to do better with recycling, we must also start talking about reducing and reusing more. A lot more. Lewis Freeman, a former vice-president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, has revealed that many in the industry had doubts about the effectiveness of recycling right from the beginning. According to Freeman, there was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling would eventually work in a significant way [19].

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Karen Wirsig, the plastics program manager at the NGO Environmental Defence, is sure that our overreliance on recycling is a problem. While it could be important, it’s simply falling short in terms of results [15]. In September 2023, UN environment chief Inger Andersen warned that humanity cannot just recycle its way out of the mess, and she called for a total rethink about how we use plastics [18]. Now, after decades of effort, all indications suggest that initial doubts about recycling might prove to be accurate after all.


Where do we go from here?


In envisioning a world free from plastics, it becomes evident that our reliance on plastic products makes complete elimination an unattainable goal. However, we must shift our focus away from total elimination and instead strive for responsible waste management and a reduced impact on the environment.


To initiate this transformation, global governments must cease promoting recycling bins as a panacea for our plastic waste. Placing plastic in a recycling bin alone cannot offset the environmental repercussions of purchasing plastic-packaged products. As the age-old adage reminds us, 'Reduce' and 'Re-use' precede recycling. To effectively address plastic waste, governments must drive fundamental changes in how we package our goods, starting with items like single-use water bottles.


Consumers should do their best to seek out low waste options. There are alternatives to traditional plastic packaged goods in some cases. We need to do our best to drive the changes needed. Refillable water bottles and reusable shopping bags for example. Many household items can be bought in bulk from re-filleries; these bulk stores for household cleaning goods, shampoos and soap are becoming increasingly popular.


The practice of shipping plastic waste overseas must come to an end. It's imperative that we ban this practice and that Canada takes responsibility for its own waste. Mere relocation of waste to another country fails to constitute a solution, and ceasing the shipment of waste to Asia would yield the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


A comprehensive evaluation of the true value of plastic recycling is a requisite step to ensure that our actions align with what is genuinely right rather than what merely feels good. We should also consider the possibility of diverting plastic waste to landfills if it proves to be a more pragmatic option. The unfavorable economics of plastic recycling, with a meager 9% recycling rate, underscores the need for this consideration. If placing plastic in landfills results in cost savings, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and better safeguards against environmental contamination, it should merit serious consideration.


Final Thoughts


Our governments must exhibit the leadership required to implement long-term, effective solutions. Continuing with the status quo of recycling programs is a form of self-deception that blinds us to the stark realities of a flawed recycling system in dire need of a reevaluation.



References

10. Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Market and Waste (https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2019/eccc/En4-366-1-2019-eng.pdf)



Contributors


Researchers

Denis Koshelev


Authors

Denis Koshelev

Mauro Aiello, Ph.D.


Lark Scientific Financial Support

Axel Doerwald


Graphics

Adri Poggetti







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