Then, Malaysia’s environment minister announced plans to send 3,000 tonnes of plastic waste back to Canada and 13 other countries, in an effort to keep the nation from becoming a dumping ground.
Now that they’ve done this, other countries could look closer at the waste that Canadians are punting abroad, and even start sending it back, one waste expert at Queen’s University told Global News.
WATCH: Malaysia to ship back tonnes of plastic waste that countries sent for ‘recycling’: minister (May 28)
“The Philippines has put us on, at minimum, the Asian radar,” Prof. Myra Hird told Global News.
“So we should expect that other countries will similarly be scrutinizing the so-called recycling that we’re sending them and they will be opening up those containers to see exactly what’s inside and we should fully expect more containers to more countries to be demanding that we take our waste back.”
Malaysian Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin revealed on Tuesday plans to send thousands of tonnes of trash out of the country after her own became a prime destination for waste.
The move came after China blocked imports of plastic waste and broke the flow of as much as 7-million tonnes of trash each year.
Containers sent to Malaysia were supposed to hold recyclable waste, but they actually carried materials that the country felt was better suited to landfills.
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Trash imports to the southeast Asian country have come as dozens of recycling factories have started up in Malaysia, a number of them without licences to operate.
People there have grown concerned about environmental issues.
Canadians should be “shocked” and “embarrassed” at what’s happened with their waste, and they ought to be doing “everything” they can to “bring that waste back,” Hird said.
Canada, she said, produces more solid waste per capita than any other country in the world — worse than the United States, worse than Japan, China or the U.K.
Research from the Conference Board of Canada around municipal waste backs her up, too.
“Municipal waste” includes material “from households, including bulky waste, similar waste from commerce and trade, office buildings, institutions and small businesses, yard and garden waste, street sweepings, the contents of litter containers, and market cleansing waste.”
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A Conference Board report showed Canada ranking last out of 17 countries when it came to municipal waste generation, with 777 kilograms produced per capita in 2008.
That was twice as much as Japan, the top performer among the countries that the Conference Board looked at.
Further research has shown Canada growing worse on municipal waste.
A 2016 report by Statistics Canada showed waste diversion from residential and non-residential sources growing from over 6.6-million tonnes in 2002 to over 8.4-million tonnes in 2012.
The reason it grew so much? Waste generation growth is linked to “rates of urbanization, types and patterns of consumption, household revenue and lifestyles,” according to the Conference Board.
The Great White North’s per capita income and average household disposable income have grown over the past few decades, “leading to increasing household consumption rates.”
WATCH: How to solve the recycling conundrum (May 1)
However, waste has also grown in Canada in a way that it hasn’t in other countries.
The Conference Board noted that some of Canada’s peer countries have kept their per capita waste generation “steady, despite economic growth.”
Japan, for example, kept its waste generation at 400 kilograms per capita between 1990 and 2007.
There are numerous ways to reduce waste production — but recycling isn’t exactly one of them, if you ask Hird.
“Recycling is highly problematic,” she said.
“It’s not a solution to our waste issue at all. It creates environmental problems. It creates pollutants.”
Hird is far from the first to raise concern about Canada’s recycling industry.
A Global News investigation showed Canada’s industry facing growing challenges such as recycling being sent to the landfill, fewer materials being accepted in blue bins and mounting costs for municipalities.
Recycling involves transporting waste around the world using non-renewable fossil fuels, Hird said.
Canada’s waste, she noted, has now “travelled all the way across Canada, across the planet,” and now it’s “travelling back.”
Recycling is handled by private industry, she noted. Materials are only recycled when there’s “profit to be made.”
And even when the waste is considered useful, there are situations where materials will only be used one more time.
Hird raised the example of polystyrene, a material used in foam containers and packaging.
Once used, polystyrene might be dropped in a blue bin, taken to a recycling centre, then taken on trucks to a separate facility where it’s liquefied.
The material might then be transported again to another facility in another country, where it will be made into picture frames or other items you might buy at Dollarama, “which maybe gets one more use.”
“Recycling polystyrene is using a lot of non-renewable fossil fuels,” Hird said.
“It produces pollutants in the processing of it for recycling, and we’re getting, what, one more use out of it before it goes into a landfill.”
Malaysia, she said, has determined that the recyclable material Canada and other countries sent its way is “not of sufficient quality to make it worth their while.”
A silver lining?
If there’s a silver lining to be taken away from the situation, it’s that Canada now has a chance to learn the depth of its waste issues, and perhaps, how to cope with them.
“It’s not about getting conscientious Canadians to sort their material better,” Hird said.
“It’s about learning the real limitations of recycling and the end of disposal, and thinking about waste in a different way.”
WATCH: Canadian cities are coming to terms with a bleak new reality for the recycling industry (April 29)
What are some ways to change how Canada handles waste? Have the federal government reduce plastic packages through new rules; and create financial incentives for industry to reduce their dependence on the material.
Those are just two recommendations that came out of a federal consultation on moving toward zero waste.
People may be angered and frustrated to learn that recycling isn’t a solution to waste — but they don’t need to despair, Hird said.
“It could galvanize us into actually coming up with solutions,” she said.
— With files from Carolyn Jarvis, Megan Robinson, Reuters and the Associated Press