In a series of blogs on the Sustainable Hamilton website, we will explore the root causes behind the failure of the recycling industry and some actions being taken by small businesses to reduce the impact of this menace of rising plastic dumps. After all, every drop in the ocean counts. For the series, please welcome SHB volunteer and guest blogger Vani Manocha Lalit, who combines a knowledge of the environmental field with a unique perspective on Canada’s recycling culture.
Part 1: What makes Canada’s plastic problem so acute?
Plastic that was once a convenience and then a necessity, is now a problem that many governments across the world are grappling with. For Canadians who always thought recycling programs were their best answer to their addiction to consumption of plastic, it is heartbreaking to see the recycling industry collapsing by the day. According to the Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste, Canada produced 4.8 million metric tonnes of plastic in 2016. The production in that year was 12 times that of the plastic that was recycled.
Today, plastic forms a major chunk of waste that any Canadian household generates. Other items include glass, aluminium cans, disposable coffee cups, paper, food waste and more. But what makes it inconvenient is that on average, only 9% of the total waste generated in the country is actually recycled. More and more recycling now ends-up in landfills and the recycling companies are struggling to get the revenue they had once expected.
In the current situation where recycling is failing and the mounting garbage dumps are crying for help, we might want to look up to the other two Rs of waste management – reducing and reusing. However, before that, let’s summarize some challenges that make recycling most difficult.
To begin with, Canada’s economy is designed to be linear and to throw away plastic. We consume plastic in the form of packaging, cutlery, bottles, takeaway containers, shopping bags and more and we discard about 70% of the plastic introduced through domestic and imported products. With more and more people coming to live in Canada, the volumes of waste are only going to rise. At the same time, the recycling facilities in the city are struggling to keep workers to sort the waste and the turnover rates are really high.
Adding to the problem is the fact that many times, blue bins also contain waste that should not be there. This is technically called contamination. Despite the various programs run by city governments to educate people about waste segregation, we often get lazy or just follow our instinct while putting the item in blue or black/clear bags. By doing this, we are increasing the workload of workers who have to open all bags and sort items to be turned into bales of plastic films. Another form of contamination is the left-over food in containers that are put in the blue box. Even a blob of butter, ice cream or curd renders the plastic container contaminated, which means it would end up in the landfill. A CBC report recently suggested that Edmonton and Toronto are the two cities with highest contamination rates.
For a recycling industry already struggling to make enough money to stay operational because of rising costs of sorting and processing, losing markets for recyclable products has come as a big blow. Last year, China announced that it would no longer be the dumping ground for North America’s waste. This was followed by similar calls from Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and others. Soon after, some cities like the city of St Albert in Alberta refused to take glass bottles, jars and clamshells in the Blue Recycling Bag. The city of Hamilton in Ontario also rejected black plastic and Styrofoam products as recyclable products, citing unpredictability of the recycling market. Though the rejections were enough to evoke a sense of emergency about the big “plastic problem” of Canada, have they really led to reduction in our consumption of plastic? I don’t wonder that for most of us, the answer would be, “No”. However, a silver lining here is that another report notes that “recycling programs continue to send these materials to end markets, the majority of which are in North America.” Also, the Federal Government has announced a ban on single-use plastics to come into effect as early as 2021.
It is not surprising that despite knowing many of the facts related to our “plastic problem”, many of us have not been able to do much. Often, we don’t have the time and other times we don’t know how to do it. In either case, expecting the governments to bear all the load is as good as ignoring our responsibilities. Many times, all it takes is 1-2 minutes a day from each one of us to rinse the containers properly to avoid contamination. Alternatively, when unsure where a particular waste item goes, one could go to the city website or app to read the guidelines on a particular item. Along with that, we could also avoid products that come with excessive packaging and are not an absolute necessity. But in our busy, rush-rush lives, all this looks like a big ask, doesn’t it?
Vani Manocha Lalit is a certified ESL teacher who works for language development of newcomers and refugees and supports the career transition team of a private company. Her passion for writing about environment-related issues comes from her work as a communications specialist and a copy editor with science, environment and sustainability organizations in India and Canada. She is always on the lookout for ways to bring education and environment together in her work.