A decision about recycling made more than 9,500 kilometres away from Saskatchewan is having an impact in this province.
At least that’s the findings from a recent investigation into Canada’s recycling industry.
The decision, made in December 2017, saw China put a stop to purchasing Canadian recyclables. Canada had shipped almost half of its recyclables there.
With a 98-per-cent drop in recycling exports to China between 2016 and 2018, Canada’s recycling industry has suffered, a Global News national report found. It spotlights Saskatoon’s Loraas Recycle facility, which has seen backlogs. The recycling, 650 bales of plastic recycling packed in large cubes bound together, has nowhere to go after markets dried up.
Joanne Fedyk, executive director of the Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council, believes China had good reason for closing the lid on Canadian recycling — the culmination of a chain of events.
“People were shipping them straight up garbage (and) calling it recycling,” said Fedyk. “Or they were shipping them a lot of materials that were mixed together that were difficult to do anything with.”
Despite this, Fedyk also believes China brought these issues on itself.
“They paid higher prices than domestic mills would here for recyclables,” she said.
Janet Aird, the City of Regina’s manager of program development and delivery, said the city’s program isn’t having the same level of troubles Saskatoon is experiencing in getting rid of recycling. But there have been other impacts.
“The market price for the sale of paper has dropped,” said Aird. “The city gets the revenue share from the sale of recyclable materials and that’s had an impact on the amount of revenue share that we’ve earned.”
Once the city collects residential curbside recycling from blue bins, it’s taken to the Emterra recycling facility west of town to be shipped. Aird said the city has not seen backlogs at the facility or any recyclables ending up in the landfill like other cities have encountered. But they’re keeping an eye on the situation.
“As part of our ongoing discussions with (Emterra) we’re monitoring that,” she said. “We would be in discussions with them when and if that situation did arise.”
Andres Cuellar, a district manager for Emterra’s prairie operations, wouldn’t comment when reached by phone, directing any questions to the city.
The grim prognosis on recycling in Canada has raised the question about what can be done to solve the issue. Fedyk believes exporting recycling to China caused a reduction in recycling markets in North America and those markets need to breathe new life.
“When (China) shut the door, we were cut short,” she said. “We need to develop domestic recycling markets again and get those back up and running. There wasn’t (enough) time for us to adjust. Even a couple of years’ notice isn’t long enough to reopen mills.”
One Saskatchewan recycling organization has found success using these domestic mills.
SARCAN, which recycles beverage containers, paint and electronics, has shipped their recyclables to North American facilities to be repurposed. SARCAN’s director of operations Kevin Acton said they are able to do this because the quality of their recyclables is a higher grade than what was being shipped overseas.
“There was no market for it in North America,” he said. “Nobody wanted it or needed it for any kind of reprocessing.”
He said SARCAN’s recycling is of a higher quality because it’s finely sorted right at the depots.
“When it gets to our plants, all we do is we fine tune our material, bale it and then it’s pure,” said Acton. “So there’s a demand for our materials in manufacturing facilities.”
Curbside programs, like Regina’s, allow residents to put recycling into their carts unsorted. It then makes the eventual journey out to Emterra’s facility. Acton said municipal recycling programs do this because it’s cheaper.
He added there are other problems with recycling. Some retailers use adhesives to glue price labels to plastic containers.
“(Recycling facilities) can’t melt the adhesives so, as a result, those containers are not recyclable,” he said. “There’s no market for them.”
SARCAN is hoping to lighten the load of curbside programs through a partnership with the cities of Regina and Saskatoon to accept glass food containers. That program began earlier this month. Acton said glass can cause problems during curbside pick up.
“It gets broken,” he said. “Which is a quality issue.”
REUSE TRANSCENDS RECYCLING
For others, solutions need to transcend recycling altogether. It’s part of the reason why some businesses are using less waste, which means buying items that aren’t packaged in plastics and paper to begin with.
Regina retailer Mortise and Tenon has taken on this approach. The store, which sells everything from furniture to clothing and accessories, encourages customers to bring their own containers to shop with and has started featuring reusable produce bags and straws. Dani Hackel, one of the store’s owners, said it’s important to think about the impact waste has on the environment.
“We’re going to get to the point where not thinking about it isn’t an option,” said Hackel. “If everyone made small changes now, it would make a huge difference overall.”
She said the store’s waste-conscious efforts evolved out of customer needs.
“They wanted to find things that would reduce their waste and improve their lifestyle,” she said. “We looked into what that would look like if we took this route.”
The store features numerous self-care and home-care products, such as shampoos, conditioners and soaps in large jugs. Customers can fill containers they bring with these products and refill them when they run out. This saves having to buy new containers each time.
Composting is another recycling alternative and something Mortise and Tenon offers through Bokashi composting bins. This composting method ferments all types of food, including meat and dairy products, when bran is spread over the food. The method, according to Hackel, has advantages to regular composting bins.
“It’s zero smell and it’s all sealed too so you don’t have to worry about pests,” she said.
With all the information about alternatives, it could appear to some that recycling has reached its expiry date. Hackel believes it’s still useful, but the alternatives are just as beneficial.
“Look for ways to be a more responsible consumer,” she said. “Try and reuse and keep as much out of the system as you can if there’s parts that aren’t working.”
Back at SARCAN, Kevin Acton agrees recycling is still a viable option, but notes changes are needed.
“It’s not that recycling is broken,” said Acton. “It’s that people took the most cost-effective way (for recycling), not the best way for the material.”