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article imageDo Canadians really know where their plastic waste ends up?

By Karen Graham     Sep 28, 2019 in Environment
Canadians are taught to recycle plastics - with the belief the waste plastic is being refashioned into something useful. CBC's Marketplace wanted to track the lifecycle of Canadian plastic, so they put trackers in plastic bales.
Where waste plastics end up has become a big question to environmentalists, consumers who make a point of recycling, and government officials around the Globe.
Many countries used to depend on China and other Asian nations to dispose of our plastic waste, but China put a halt to accepting all but a few very specific types of plastics. Canadian plastic waste then began turning up overseas in places like the Philippines and Malaysia, which sent it back.
Canada promised to do better. As a matter of fact, on August 30, 2019, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) released a report on the recycling efforts in North America after China enacted ‘National Sword' policies which blocked plastics and many other recyclables from entering the country.
Bales of crushed blue PET bottles and bales of various other plastics. In Olomouc  the Czech Republi...
Bales of crushed blue PET bottles and bales of various other plastics. In Olomouc, the Czech Republic.
Michal Maňas (CC BY 3.0)
According to the report, "the 2017 Post-Consumer Plastics Recycling in Canada, most of the recyclable material collected in Canada remained in North America for reprocessing into new products rather than being shipped to overseas markets." The report went on to say that "eighty-eight percent of the material reported was reclaimed in Canada or the U.S., and 10 percent was exported overseas. The destination of the remaining two percent is unknown.
The real truth behind Canadian recycling
Let's talk about the CBC Marketplace investigation first. Journalists bought bales of film plastic ready for recycling and then hid trackers in the middle of them. The bales were put back into the plastic recycling stream in British Columbia, a province known for its efficient recycling system.
CBC Marketplace used Basel Action Network, a U.S. charity that combats exports of hazardous waste from industrialized countries and specializes in tracking waste, installed tracking devices into nine bales — three for each company.
Located in Delta  BC  Merlin Plastics is a processor of  post-consumer and post-industrial plastic.
Located in Delta, BC, Merlin Plastics is a processor of post-consumer and post-industrial plastic.
Merlin Plastics
Using an alias email, Marketplace reached out and commissioned three major waste collection businesses with ties to municipal programs in B.C. to process the material. The bales were picked up by Merlin Plastics, Waste Connections of Canada, and GFL Environmental Inc.
On their websites and promotional videos, all three companies use buzzwords like "sustainability" and "environmental solutions." Waste Connections has a video that goes so far as to say, "sustainability and becoming greener… have been the hallmarks and backbones of Waste Connections from the day we formed the company."
Merlin Plastics sent the bales to a recycling processing plant in Delta, B.C. and it was confirmed to Marketplace the waste was "shredded, washed and pelletized it, then sold the resin to a customer that make similar material."
GFL truck at Ingram Transfer Station in Toronto.
GFL truck at Ingram Transfer Station in Toronto.
GFL's bales went straight to a waste-to-energy facility, a landfill alternative that creates power by incinerating garbage. The big problem with this sort of disposal is that while the toxic gasses emitted through the incineration process are trapped in the incinerator and are then treated with chemical "scrubbers" - the resultant ash has to be sent to a landfill.
Myra Hird, an environmental studies professor at Queen's University and founder of Canada's Waste Flow research group, says "That waste that is produced then has to be landfilled in very [specific], highly engineered landfills for hazardous waste. "It's far more toxic than the original products."
GFL told Marketplace in a written statement that while traditional recycling would have been a preferable solution, no one would have been willing to buy the processed plastic.
Waste Collections sent their bales to a junkyard in Surrey, B.C., as well as a landfill in Richmond, B.C. Marketplace reached out to the company, and rather than respond directly, sent an email to the original alias and said: "There was some miscommunication and the driver took this load to a waste facility."
Bank of river full of plastic garbage
Bank of river full of plastic garbage
PJeganathan (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Global News investigation
In April 2019, Global News reported on a "months-long" investigation into recycling - speaking with dozens of communities, companies and industry leaders across the country about the mounting challenges faced by Canada’s recycling industry.
The investigation provided some dire news about the recycling industry in Canada. First - most recycling is sent to landfills. Fewer items are being accepted in the blue bins. The financial toll of maintaining the recycling programs is creating an economic burden on many municipalities.
It has come to the point that the North American supply of recycling — things like paper, cardboard, and plastic — has far exceeded demand, and for months, cities have been scrambled to find new buyers. In the U.S., some towns have resorted to burning their recycling and even canceled recycling programs altogether.
The bottom line? Canada produces about 3.3 million metric tons of plastic waste a year. With only 9 percent of this waste being recycled into useful products, that means that about 2.8 million metric tons is being thrown away as garbage into the landfills.
More about plastic waste, Recycling, Cbc marketplace, Unethical, Landfills
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