Just as household recycling bins are stuffed with holiday waste, there’s some uncertainty about where blue box contents will go in future.
Crackdown in China creates recycling fears
China, the largest importer of North America’s recyclables, has clamped down on what it takes, enforcing a “national sword” policy that sets tough regulations on contamination levels in recyclable waste - writes lfpress.com.
Until now, re-usable trash from the West has been a cheap source of raw materials for China, which has taken about 55 per cent of the world’s recyclable paper and huge amounts of waste plastic. But China has warned it won’t be the world’s garbage dump any longer,
Municipalities are bracing for the fallout, a possible problem finding markets for their recyclables.
Jay Stanford, London’s environment boss, isn’t concerned, yet.
“There’s potential for some big challenges in 2018,” he said Wednesday. “We just don’t know when that will occur.”
Across the continent, municipalities are scrambling now that “the China sword,” as it’s been called, has fallen.
So far, the most drastic measure has been some municipalities storing recyclables until another market is found, said Rob Cook, chief executive of the Ontario Waste Management Association.
“I’m not aware of any circumstance yet where materials have been landfilled or sent to an incinerator. Those are drastic, last resorts and I’m hoping we don’t get to that point. I don’t think we will,” he said.
Meanwhile, since some import permits weren’t renewed months ago, there are some strategies to deal with the market adjustment.
Cook said China hasn’t banned all materials, but has set higher standards to guard against contaminants in waste streams.
Some recycling operators are making changes so recycling waste can still go to China, he said. Others have found new markets in India, the Philippines and Indonesia and are looking for alternatives in North America.
London, Cook said, is well-positioned for the challenge because it has a newer recycling plant and its contractor, Miller Waste Systems, is highly respected and has access to other markets.
London’s two-stream system requires paper and other recyclables be separated at the curb, which helps prevent waste contamination.
Single-stream systems, such as Toronto’s, with all recyclables put out in one container and sorted later, improve the chance of broken glass and other contaminants ending up in bales of paper-fibre products during processing, Cook said.
“Those are the municipalities who are having a larger challenge with this because more contamination happens when you mix everything together,” he said.
Stanford said Miller acted early in 2017 to ensure London’s recycling waste had a home. He said Londoners should know cleaner materials have a better chance of moving in the marketplace, requiring vigilance to keep it sorted properly and keep garbage out of the blue box.
Only between four and six per cent of the material weight that comes to the London plant is considered non-recyclable, he said.
Standford said Londoners make mistakes when they put things such as plastic foam cups and packaging, scrap metal, small appliances, plastic toys, small propane canisters and wooden food crates into blue boxes.
Stanford said the big issue is how closely tied the industry is to the rise and fall of world markets and that “we need to have stronger market capacity locally, regionally and nationally” in North America to offset the loss of China.
“In the long run, the most sustainable system is having markets as close as possible.”
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said that could happen in Southwestern Ontario.
He pointed to ReVital Polymers in Sarnia, a new advanced plastics recycling plant that opened after another recycler fell into receivership.
“I think it will put more pressure on what we’re doing now to change instead of shipping (waste),” he said.
“I see this as an economic opportunity for Southwestern Ontario. We have the talents.”
If it forces municipalities and corporations to do more, “that’s not a bad thing,” he added.
Cook said this isn’t the first time China has put restrictions on the industry, but this time, insiders are looking closely at other alternatives.
“This is what happens with markets. They change and they evolve and this is maybe an opportunity for us to be more domestic and create this circular economy around how we deal with our recyclables,” he said.
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