May 2, 2019 6:00 am

If Canadian trash is turning into a diplomatic headache, why can’t we dispose of it ourselves?

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte berated Canada on Tuesday in a long-running dispute over the 100 shipping containers of garbage exported to the Southeast Asia capital of Manila six years ago, threatening to sail it back to Canada.

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A spokesperson for the Filipino president was unequivocal in his message: get Canadian trash out of the Philippines or risk jeopardizing seven decades of diplomatic relations.

Trash might seem like an odd thing for Canada to risk an international snafu over, begging the question: why don’t we just get rid of our own recycling instead of shipping it to the other side of the planet?

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READ MORE: Philippines keeps telling Canada to pick up its trash — why is it still there?

The answer to what seems like a simple question is actually quite complex, says Sally Krigstin, a professor in the University of Toronto’s faculty of forestry.

It has to do with the quality of the so-called recyclable materials you toss in the blue bin, what else accidentally gets mixed in there, the processing capacity of the facility its shipped to for sorting, and whether there’s still a market to sell crumpled aluminum cans and day-old newspapers (a Global News investigation this week shows there isn’t, really).

READ MORE: Is Canada’s recycling industry broken?

But the real impediment, Krigstin says, is actually just people.

“The public is genuinely interested, but the biggest issue is for them to understand,” she says. They need to know:

“Where is this material going and what is it being used for and is the economic value to it? How much is actually being recycled into a new product?”

WATCH: Is Canada’s recycling industry broken?

Recycling used to be simple, Krigstin explains. Remember when the glass jars went into one box, the cans went in another, and the paper and cardboard in yet another?

“We used to have a better sorting system,” she says. Now, we dump it all into one blue box –– adding in a few extra items that often aren’t actually recyclable –– and ship it elsewhere to sort.

At that point, it was easy for Canadians to sell abroad because other countries actually wanted that material, says Mike Chopowick, director of policy and communications for the Ontario Waste Management Association.

Countries like Malaysia, China and the Philippines took the materials, he says, because they could use them. Now that our recycling programs have “evolved,” Chopowick says, they’re less inclined.

China banned the import of international recycling in 2018, sending the global industry into a tailspin. That ban is not wholly unsurprising, Krigstin says. After all, once you load up your blue bin here in Canada it goes to a sorting depot that will organize it into “waste streams” earmarked for abroad. How much it can be sold for depends on the grade, she says. Is the recycled paper Canada once shipped to China 10 per cent plastic or more?

“That’s been quite a bit of a problem where they’re refusing to take our newsprint because there’s too much waste in it that they [then] have to sort out and dispose of,” Krigstin says.

“The crux of the matter is: have they agreed to buy this level of contamination? Do they know what they’re getting?”

In the case of the Philippines, Krigstin says, the answer is probably no.

WATCH: The hazards of recycling

The recycled paper example also hints at part of the reason why Canada can’t just shift gears and recycle it all on our own. While China is still heavily reliant on print media and has a use for the paper, Krigstin says the same cannot be said for Canada. In Ontario, there used to be several paper mills –– one in Thorold and another in Whitby –– that have both since shuttered.

“How many papers do we read?” Krigstin says. “There’s not always a market for it.”

READ MORE: The losing economics of recycling, and why Canada’s green industry is deep in the red

Canada needs to figure out if there’s a market for materials so that if there isn’t, we’re getting innovative, she says. Sometimes that will mean finding more clever ways to recycle products, while other times that will mean finding ways to ditch the non-recyclable material altogether.

In B.C., where the recycling rate hovers just shy of 70 per cent (the highest in the country), producers are required to recover three-quarters of the paper and the packaging they produce. There are fines if they don’t comply, which can serve as motivation to shift to material that recycles more easily.

WATCH: Canadian cities are coming to terms with a bleak new reality for the recycling industry

Cost-wise, a styrofoam egg carton will cost about 200 cents per kilogram to recycle, whereas a paper carton costs just 25 cents.

Legislation could play a role, Krigstin says, pointing to some states in the U.S. that have banned styrofoam. It wouldn’t necessarily be that hard to replicate in Canada, she says.

“Styrofoam is much more harmful than the plastic grocery bag and they’ve banned those here.”

While the industry is working to meet the high quality demands of countries that used to take Canadian recycling, Chopowick says part of the change comes back to people.

“We’ve never had a 100 per cent rate of non-contamination,” he says, meaning that not once has everything dumped in the blue bin actually belonged there –– a fact that often surprises people.

WATCH: What to toss in your blue bin

He wonders how much people who recite the three Rs –– reduce, reuse, recycle – have become a little too focused on recycling as the solution.

“I suspect people have forgotten about the first R, which is reduction,” he says. As a society, Chopowick says we’re generating more and more waste: disposable but not recyclable coffee cups; elaborate packaging for every single online order.

“We don’t have the capacity to handle [it] all.”

As a Global News series on Rethinking Recycling makes clear, the industry is having a moment of reckoning.

READ MORE: Canada’s recycling industry is on life-support. Here’s how to fix it

“It’s a watershed moment,” said Lorenzo Donini, director of government affairs and municipal relationships for GFL Environmental in Western Canada.

“We have to come clean, we have to be honest, we have to get back to the truth, to reality with these programs.”

— with files from Carolyn Jarvis, Megan Robinson, and The Canadian Press

Read Global’s three-part series investigating the state of Canada’s recycling industry. Read Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 of the series here.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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