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Recycling in Turmoil as China Slams Door on World’s Waste

When China announced a new ban on 24 types of recyclable waste on January 1, cities across Canada were left scrambling with a growing mountain of plastic and paper waste that they suddenly can’t get rid of.

Some municipalities in Canada and the U.S. have had to approve emergency exemptions to allow for plastic waste to be landfilled, while other cities are warehousing their plastics and paper waste and frantically trying to find new buyers.

“You’ve had the largest market in the world close its doors,” said Allen Langdon, managing director for Recycle BC.

An estimated 50% of the world’s recyclable material – plastics, paper, metals – is sold to China, which is now imposing strict new bans on all but the cleanest recyclable waste.

British Columbia appears to be one of the few provinces that has been spared a crisis, at least in terms of plastics, thanks to the fact that it anticipated the problem several years ago and moved to a system for dealing with recyclables locally that other provinces will now likely adopt.

“Most provinces are looking at B.C.’s program as the flagship,” said Graeme Dobinson, managing partner at RecycleSmart Solutions, which is one of the companies that B.C.’s recycling policies helped create.

B.C. handles its own plastic recycling through Recycle BC and Merlin Plastics for the residential sector. But the province could face challenges with mixed paper.

About 70% of the recyclable waste that Recycle BC manages is some form of paper, including newsprint and cardboard. About 90% of that was sold to China. Starting in March, any paper shipped to China must have a contamination rate of no more than 0.5%.

Contamination includes textiles and plastic bags mixed in with paper at the curbside. Getting to 0.5% is “virtually impossible” for sorting facilities, Langdon said. Recycle BC is now looking for alternative customers, both domestically and internationally, for its mixed paper.

“We continue to send the material to China,” Langdon said. “Whether we do in the future is uncertain.”

As for plastics, most of the residential recyclable plastic collected in B.C. is processed in B.C. Independent haulers contracted by the commercial sector – fast-food restaurants, for example – might be scrambling to find new markets for the lower-grade plastics and paper they collect.

“On the commercial side, there are specific plastics recyclers that may not use Merlin Plastics and may depend on Chinese markets,” Dobinson said. “So we have seen some small impacts for some very low-grade plastics.”

The policies announced January 1 come into effect at the beginning of March. They are an expansion of a ban on contaminated waste that China started gradually phasing in several years ago. But the recent expansion on banned material has caught several provinces and countries, including in Europe, unprepared.

It shouldn’t have, said Sharon Singh, a lawyer specializing in corporate and social responsibility at Bennett Jones LLP.

China isn’t the only Asian country that has been cracking down on contaminated waste imports. So has the Philippines and India, she said.

“Perhaps they didn’t take heed of the messages that were sent back in 2012, when China started imposing these restrictions,” Singh said. “This ban is not something that is new or should come as a surprise to a lot of folks. China has been doing this progressively over the last decade.”

B.C. appears to be one of the few provinces that anticipated the restrictions on plastics. In 2011, the B.C. government adopted extended producer responsibility policies. Companies that sell products packaged in plastic, cardboard, paper or other recyclable material must pay a levy, which funds the residential recycling program managed by Recycle BC and set up in 2014.

Since then, 20 new curbside collection programs have been established throughout the province and have created new business opportunities for waste haulers.

The new policies have been good for Merlin Plastics, which invested $20 million in an expansion to handle the plastics that it renders down into pellets. The Delta-based company now recycles all the recyclable plastic collected through residential collection programs in B.C. It is also largely responsible for the creation of RecycleSmart.

RecycleSmart now has satellite offices in Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. It provides recycling consulting services to business and municipalities. It also provides a technology approach for waste haulers: sensors that tell them when dumpsters and recycling bins are getting full, which reduces unnecessary trips by waste haulers.

Plastic is a petrochemical made from oil and natural gas. But it has a limited number of times that it can be recycled before it becomes degraded. B.C.’s Klean Industries has developed a process for taking the end-stage plastics and tires and turning them back into oil.