Recycling Crisis as China Closes Doors To Junk Plastic & How EPR Can Help Solve It

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There is a global crisis with municipal recycling programs that is affecting YOUR community as of January 1st 2018.  China is now rejecting all used plastic, except “high grades”.  High Grades are used materials that are fully sorted.  This means mixed plastics, aka Low Grade, will no longer be taken.  The problem for us is that we rely on China’s cheap and efficient labour force to sort low grade plastics for us.

This video explains the Chinese “National Sword” policies that bans 24 different types of products (read: mixed paper, mixed plastic and mixed clothing) and how the US is beginning to deal with this.

We talked to Dr. Christina Seidel, Executive Director of the Recycling Council of Alberta about this issue earlier today.  She said that “… (consumer) education is good.  We need to be more careful about what goes in…(to the recycling system).

Consumers often look at their green and blue carts and a dumping ground.  This is especially true for communities like Chestermere, Alberta that limit the amount of garbage that can be picked up to two bags every two weeks.

Smaller municipalities often use brokers take their recycling.  Those brokers then consolidate the materials from several communities, often just sorting into the large categories (i.e. paper, plastic, glass, tin, paper, cardboard…).  Used plastics and paper have enormous variances and need to be further sorted into their subcategories to be useful.  That is where China comes in… or used to.

Now we have a problem and in January 2018 many municipal recycling systems have no alternative but to store semi-sorted products on site.  Christine Seidel said that this material “… will not end up in a landfill.  (The problem) has to be solved within a few months because there is limited storage capacity.”  However, Halifax is already out of storage and was just given approval to dump 75 tonnes of plastic as a direct result of the Chinese ban.

Recycling brokers, large municipalities and the business community have been aware of Chinese regulation for several years and started getting serious about solutions in 2017.  Dr. Seidel points out that:

  1. There are other smaller but still desirable markets for our ‘low grade’ plastics
  2. There is no negative effect on Canada or the US’ ‘high grade’ recycling (like milk containers)

She goes on to say that there will be upstarts and expansions of current domestic recycling solutions to accommodate new volumes, but they are not ready yet.  “There is a lot of discussion about a more robust domestic market wanting feed stock… (and that creates) other benefits.  That creates a lot of jobs.”

Dr. Seidel made it clear that the long term solution is something called “Extended Producer Responsibility” which is in place in BC and many other provinces.  EPR means that manufacturers or importers are responsible for the entire life cycle of their products, including end of life recycling.  That means, for example, that Tim Hortons and Starbucks are required to develop and manage a process to ensure their cups do not end up in the landfill.  “This saves municipalities millions of dollars each year” she noted.

This just makes sense; we no longer let chemical companies dump toxic materials.  In today’s world so called “externalities” need to be re-internalized, just like nearly every Province and State has  done with tires and electronics.  The idea is, if you produce something, you are responsible for the long term effects of that product, so manufacture it better and have a plan for it when its useful life is over.

This video explains how BC runs their EPR program and that many businesses enthusiastic about it because it tells them the outcomes that are required, but not how to get those outcomes.  This means industry uses the free market to figure out the best “stewardship” solution for them:

As usual, if governments set the objectives and not the processes, the market will clear itself in the most efficient manor.  Nearly everyone, including businesses, can get behind the idea of being responsible for their mess, as long as big brother is not barking orders at them.

Dr. Seidel also stressed the consumers must do a better job of not putting mixed media products (i.e. metal container with a plastic coating inside) or contaminated products (like unwashed plastic containers) into their blue carts.  “Ultimately, it all has to be cleaned and separated”, and that is costly.

As with all things science and technology, the future is bright.  Dr. Seidel recently toured a massive automated facility in BC that using optical scanners to determine what types of plastics are on the conveyor belt and then using a blast of air to push particular items off the belt into matching piles at just the right time.  “That type of sophisticated automation is expensive and needs huge volumes (to make it cost effective).”

To that end, Alberta has talked about Extended Producer Responsibility for some time, but so far “… the province has done nothing.”  If the Alberta and other provinces were to make EPR the law, the playing field would be leveled for all businesses.  This does not mean that 100% of products would have to be recycled; it simply means that manufacturer need to have a formal plan for how to handle the waste from the products they create.

The Canadian Federal Government is aware of this concept and even has a simple web page discussing the issue.

Here is a brief summary of each Canadian Provinces EPR program status taken from THIS September 2017 report:

  • Alberta: “Alberta’s stewardship programs (tires, electronics, paint, used oil materials, beverage containers) perform well, but the provincial government does not officially endorse EPR as a policy instrument”
  • British Columbia: “(BC) has consistently “set the pace” for the rest of Canada in requiring producers to step up and take full responsibility for a full range of consumer products and packaging.”
  • Manitoba: “Manitoba has performed well in the adoption and implementation of EPR and it continues its focus on the 12 existing programs developed and adopted under EPR legislation.”
  • New Brunswick: “New Brunswick continues to have one of the lowest number of legislated EPR programs in the country and there has been no progress on transitioning currently operating stewardship programs, such as that for tires, to an EPR approach.”
  • Newfoundland & Labrador: “The province has only two EPR programs in place – one for electronic waste and the other for paint, and these have been in operation for several years.”
  • Nova Scotia: ” Discussions about the possibility of implementing EPR or even a stewardship program to provide industry funding for municipal programs appear to have completely stalled.”
  • Ontario: “After several false starts (since 2002!) over the years, the shortcomings of the WDA – including its inability to transition to full and individual producer responsibility – were addressed with the repeal of the WDA and the adoption in November 2016 of the Waste Free Ontario Act that provides the necessary framework to wind-down existing programs and transition them to a new producer responsibility regime..”
  • Prince Edward Island: “Prince Edward Island has been active in establishing EPR programs in keeping with its commitment to the goals of the CCME Canada-wide Action Plan and now has 11 established programs in place including those for electronics, used oil, pharmaceuticals, lead acid batteries and mercury containing lamps and switches.”
  • Quebec: “Quebec continues to have one of the largest lists of products and materials covered by EPR regulations in the country.”
  • Saskatchewan: “Saskatchewan consistently re-states its commitment to EPR but delivers the programs with only partial EPR approaches.”
  • Yukon NWT & Nunavut: No notable EPR programs beyond containers and tire recycling. “… (they face) high barriers in implementing diversion programs and EPR, due to small remote populations and the cost of handling, storing and transporting waste…”

If you are interested in what is happening with EPR in US states, THIS map will help explain their current status.

Never waste a good crisis is a common line in Politics.  Lets not waste this one with half measures; lets finish the job by having Government’s set the common sense requirement that if you make it (or import it), you need to make sure it has an exit strategy.  By most accounts BC got it right with their business friendly EPR program and we can use that as a model for other provinces and states.

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We would like to thank the following for their assistance with this article:

Note that Chestermere Utilities (CUI) was contacted by phone about this story and we expected some comment, but in the end, none was received.

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