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COLUMN: Everyone has a role to play in making our recycling of plastic world-class

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 2/7/2020 11:54:00 AM

We hear constantly how much better are Europe’s recycling programs. Many of the European recycling programs that report the highest waste diversion rates are often greatly assisted by the fact that energy recovery through burning of waste has long been considered a valid recycling technology in those countries. Even where it is not considered ‘recycling’, it is labelled as the fourth R — energy recovery — after reduce, reuse, recycle. Most Canadian provinces do not consider energy recovery to be an environmentally preferred waste management tool, so our recycling statistics generally do not include energy recovery. 

Canada is actually doing well in many areas of recycling but one would not know it from the constant barrage of news stories about such things as garbage being dumped on the ports and beaches of developing countries or about carefully source-separated recyclables going to landfill after all. In fact, Canada’s recycling programs are one of the greatest environmental achievements of the last three decades of the 20th century. It is only in the first two decades of the 21st century that growth of recycling has slowed significantly and may even be backsliding. 

We are pretty good at collecting source-separated post-consumer recyclable materials but there is no point in collecting them if there is no market for them. We have pretty good markets for aluminum and steel, and almost as good markets for paper and fibre packaging. The big problem is plastics. We have a very small plastics recycling sector, far too small to accept and effectively recycle all the plastic packaging that is used in Canada. 

In recent years an industry has sprung up to recycle used plastic beverage bottles, but the number of companies that are in the business of recycling other types of plastics is very small. There should be an excellent opportunity for investors in this space. 

Just as there is no point in collecting recyclable materials unless there is a market for them, there is no point in recycling plastics — which involves washing and pelletizing or flaking them so that they can be used in the same equipment that converts new plastic resin into products and packaging — unless there is demand for recycled plastic in those goods. Canadian manufacturers have been slow to incorporate recycled plastic into their operations. 

This slowness is due to three assumptions:

  • that recycled plastic cannot be used where it comes into contact with food
  • that recycled plastic is inferior to new plastic
  • that recycled plastic will cause problems with the machinery that is used to convert plastic resin into products. 

Yet, each of these assumptions is false:

  • recycled plastic is now being used in food contact applications and 100% post-consumer recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is even being used for bottled water in Canada
  • provided the recycler is a quality performer, it is impossible to distinguish between recycled plastic and new plastic except with highly sophisticated equipment
  • it may have been the case decades ago that the quality of recycled plastic caused some problems with the machinery used to convert it but those problems are long past and recycled plastic now runs as well as new plastic. 

The recycling and use of recyclable materials is not the only part of the loop where problems exist. Far too many of our source-separated plastics are not well-sorted at the source. In most Canadian recycling facilities, recyclables are sorted and unwanted contaminating materials are removed by hand, and this is not very pleasant work. Sorting machines, however, are expensive and too many operators find it cheaper to use low-wage workers to sort recyclables. 

The real solution, which is providing better recycling education for the householders and consumers who put the materials into the recycling containers, rarely gets addressed. There are some excellent systems in other countries that inform consumers better and more conveniently on which waste stream is appropriate for each packaging type, but until our municipalities and provinces get their act together to provide uniform recycling instructions for the whole country, these problems of communication with the public will be only partially addressed. 

The lack of uniform rules also poses challenges to manufacturers and packagers, potentially the key players in recycling. Once Ontario’s new circular economy legislation makes manufacturers and packagers legally and financially responsible for the end-of-life of their packaging materials, it will not be an easy transition for them. 

Just as a circular economy is becoming the new mantra for governments across Canada, so does circular responsibility need to be adopted by all sectors involved in recycling society’s wastes. No one company, no one government, no one waste hauler or broker association can put Canada on a world-class waste diversion and recycling pathway. We need all of the players involved in the circle of recycling to come together to find cost-effective answers to one of Canada’s largest environmental dilemmas.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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