Q&A: What China’s plastic ban means for waste management industry
China’s decision to impose restrictions on the recycling of imported paper and plastic has caused a headache for Canadian municipalities. The limitations put in place present a challenging new dawn for the waste management sector.
Colin Bell from RecycleSmart Solutions explains what the ban means for the industry and possible solutions moving forward.
How big of a threat to our planet’s future is the proliferation and dumping of plastic items?
Plastic items that are dumped are both unsightly and dangerous. Aside from the obvious visual clutter one of the most pressing issues that humans should be concerned with is that plastic is getting into the food chain especially in marine animals. Recent studies have shown that microplastics are showing up in the fish we eat in increasing amounts. If we don’t stop dumping plastics we will be essentially poisoning ourselves through our sloppy habits.
Why did Canada ship so much of its garbage to China?
We shipped recyclable materials to China for a few reasons:
- North America does not have the processing and manufacturing industries to recycle many types of materials. In many cases the cost of labour makes the current methods of sorting materials only economically feasible in low labour cost countries.
- It was easy. Prior to the new regulations coming into place there was a well-established and easy to access market for all kinds of materials, there was no reason to change as the existing system was working. Suddenly the market has changed drastically and it will take some time for the industry to adapt.
- A lot of the material being shipped was in fact garbage but due to cheap shipping costs and a low rate of inspections there was not a lot of motivation to change, now with much more stringent regulation a lot of material will stay in North America for disposal which in a way is probably a lot more efficient than shipping garbage around the world.
Now that the ban on foreign garbage has come into effect, what does this mean for our municipalities?
The main issue is going to be finding methods of reducing the contamination in the recycling stream. This is going to be difficult and take years to solve. There are a few ways you can reduce contamination.
First, you can do more source separation which means instead of having residents mix paper, plastic, metal etc. into one bin, you educate and provide citizens with separate containers for paper, plastic, metal, and other materials.
This is a huge change in both citizen’s mindsets and equipment/bins. Remember for a city with a one bin system currently this could mean more than doubling the number of recycling bins that need to be purchased, managed and picked up.
A second way to reduce contamination is by investing in better sorting technology. Recently, Torontonians became aware that black plastic is actually not recyclable in the city’s blue bin system because the plant that processes the blue bin recycling is not capable of sorting black plastics items.
In this case the plant would need to be upgraded in order to sort black plastic, which would then reduce the amount of material that the city is sending to landfill and clean up the sorted material that the city is exporting (or trying to).
Would you say the industry is in crisis? And what are the solutions?
I wouldn’t say the industry is in crisis. However it is undergoing a major shift. For years, China would take anything we ship their way. But as of January 1st 2018, it’s not as easy anymore. This means North America needs to get creative and find new markets. This change of path has already begun as evidenced by the trade data from the US, which shows a huge shift in the end destinations for materials.
In January 2017, China and Hong Kong accepted 77% of recovered plastic exports. By December of 2018, that number had fallen to only 18 per cent. Emerging markets in India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam have taken some of the volume but a substantial amount of plastic waste is still seeking a home.
Source Separation – The last few years have seen a move towards more mixed or “comingled” recycling programs where materials are mixed together. While people love the convenience of mixing plastic, paper and metal in one bin, the reality is that it does not create clean and easily recyclable material. If your facility produces materials that can be easily separated, it’s helpful to re-evaluate how the materials can be separated using on site collection systems and containers.
More aggressive sorting will produce higher quality materials, but there is a cost associated either through higher labour costs or investment in more advanced sorting equipment. Overall, source separation may require more work and upfront investment, but in the long-run it will enable the continuous operation of your recycling program.
Start Innovating – If there was a time to take a good look at your current processes and systems it is now. More important than ever, you should review what waste by-products your facility is producing and what you can do with them.
Everything from reusing material in-house or finding a complementary use for cutoffs/by-products should be considered. An example is the auto maker Subaru, which has developed a process in its manufacturing plants where bumpers that are made with imperfections can be reground on the spot to make new bumpers.
Find A Local Source For Your Material – One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It might take a bit of upfront work, but imagine finding another business across town or next door that needs what you are currently shipping to China (or just found out you can’t anymore!).
Often the barrier to finding someone who wants your material is the legwork, but thanks to the internet, the amount of effort required is greatly reduced. Take for example the Austin Material Marketplace where companies are posting and finding homes for all kinds of materials.
Most of these sites are free so there is no real risk in posting and seeing if anyone wants what you’ve got. A good Canadian example is MaterialExchane.ca which focuses on businesses in the GTA area of Ontario.
What will the new regulations relating to waste management mean for property and real estate managers in Canada?
Unfortunately it means waste management and recycling is going to become more time consuming and complicated.
While the recycling market may have transformed, there are still opportunities to responsibly and cost effectively recycle materials. It may take more time and effort but for companies committed to reducing the amount of waste disposed of in landfill/incinerator it’s still possible.
To future-proof your business, it pays to know the resources available to you. They may include specialized waste brokers or consultants who often have relationships or market knowledge that can be invaluable when looking for creative solutions.