Canada is trying to point the way out of a global plastic waste crunch partially of its own making.
Whales are choking to death on plastic bags in garbage-filled foreign waterways. Giant patches of plastic garbage are growing even larger in the world’s oceans, while minuscule bits of it are starting to show up in Canadian waterways.
And now, six months after China shut its doors to accepting roughly half of the world’s plastic waste, bales of Canadian recyclables are being diverted to landfills or shipped to other plastic-choked regions of Asia for disposal.
“It’s piling up,” environmental scientist Tony Walker said.
Walker, who teaches resource and environmental studies at Dalhousie University, is among a number of scientists, activists, industry leaders and politicians who are sounding the alarm about plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
They estimate more than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste are being dumped into the world’s oceans each year, or one dump-truck load of the stuff every minute.
At this rate, it’s expected that plastic will outweigh fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.
The federal government estimates 8,000 tonnes of plastic entered Canadian waterways in 2010 alone, despite the country boasting better than 80 per cent coverage with its recycling programs.
Canada urged the G7 countries this weekend to make a concerted effort to reduce plastic waste to zero, so that existing plastic materials can eventually be re-used and recycled within the waste disposal system.
The federal government is also taking steps to reduce — but not ban — single-use plastics at the summit itself.
But the lofty goal of zero plastic waste faces a number of significant hurdles, including the way Canada handles its own plastic waste.
The problem with China
For decades, Canada and other developed countries had been selling their waste plastic to China, where it was sorted, cleaned, processed and re-used in the country’s massive manufacturing industry.
That all changed on Jan. 1, 2018, when China began refusing shipments of a wide variety of plastic waste products, including plastic contaminated by foreign materials such as food or fabric.
Waste industry experts say they’d been expecting the shift for years, as China’s economy has improved and it can no longer pay “dollar-a-day” wages for workers to sort plastic waste by hand. However, it still struck a major blow to the industry, cutting off the No. 1 destination for plastic recyclables in the world.
Industry experts say China shut its doors because it simply doesn’t need the materials anymore. Its economy is growing out of a purely manufacturing-based society, and its citizens are producing enough plastic waste of their own that there’s no need to buy it from other countries.
That’s left many countries in a bind, including Canada, where waste disposal is handled on a municipal and regional level.
“A lot of municipalities are scrambling,” Walker said.
Where else can it go?
With China out of the picture, it’s tough to determine exactly where all of the backed-up plastic waste is going.
Waste management expert Colin Bell says the industry is “somewhat opaque,” but there has been an increase in shipments to countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and India.
“We’re seeing a shift to those lower-income countries where there’s less environmental regulation and lower cost of labour,” said Bell, a managing partner at RecycleSmart in Richmond, B.C.
Many of those lower-income countries also happen to be feeling the plastic crunch the most, with massive amounts of garbage clogging their waterways and littering their shores.
Bell says the West is not necessarily to blame, as most of that trash is the result of poor collection infrastructure in those countries.
“It’s not like it just falls off the boat into the ocean,” he said.
Nevertheless, those other countries currently lack the processing infrastructure to handle all of the waste that China is turning away — it might be years before they build it up.
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“It’s going to be a slow shift to those other developing markets, and until they get up to speed and the plants get built, there’s going to be more plastic than we can deal with,” Bell said.
Piling up the plastic
While some municipalities have found new destinations for their plastic, others have been forced to send bales of it to landfills.
“A lot of it is being landfilled just because there’s nowhere to put it,” Bell said.
“A lot of municipalities are scrambling,” added Walker. He says plastic waste can’t simply be stored away until a new buyer is found, because the materials are combustible and present a fire hazard.
The Canadian Plastics Industry Association says it has most of the means required to handle Canada’s plastic waste within the country, but it will take years to build up the scale to handle all of it.
“The market’s tighter,” said Joe Hruska, the CPIA’s vice-president of sustainability.
“Industry is reacting… but it takes time to implement that capacity.”
He added that burning the plastic waste is an interim option, but ultimately, Canada will need to find new long-term solutions that do not include China.
Activists, scientists, government leaders, the plastic industry and the waste industry are united in their support for eventually achieving a so-called “zero waste” plastic economy.
But the problem with achieving a zero-waste economy, in a nutshell, is peanut butter.
Plastic containers that are collected with food still inside — peanut butter being the most common example —more work to clean than they’re worth, Bell says. They’re also hard for many industrial sorting machines to sort through.
Other recyclables can also present a problem at older sorter facilities, including black plastic containers and the thin plastic film that covers many packages.
The CPIA’s Joe Hruska argues a zero-waste economy is achievable using a producer-focused policy called extended producer responsibility, or EPR. The policy calls for companies to take responsibility for helping dispose of the waste their products create, whether it’s plastic bottles, film or packaging.
“EPR is good for plastics and keeping it out of the environment,” Hruska said. “We can do better though.”
EPR is already in use in many areas of the country, but Hruska says it can be spread beyond Canadian borders to help with the broader plastic problem.
Activists have also suggested a sweeping ban on single-use plastics, such as bags and straws, would help cut down on waste while encouraging people to be more conscious about how they use plastic.
“These single-use plastics are the poster child for how we use plastics in general,” he said.
Some municipalities, such as Toronto, have implemented a five-cent tax on plastic bags, while Montreal has banned them outright.
Walker says the issue should be addressed at the federal level, much as it has been in countries such as the U.K., where there is a sweeping tax on bags.
Rwanda and Kenya have gone even further by criminalizing the import or use of plastic bags, on penalty of jail time.
Walker isn’t recommending jail time, but he does see Canada’s G7 presidency as a “golden opportunity” to influence the future of how plastic waste is handled.
“We need to make some bold moves,” he said.