The Power is in Your Hands, and Your Wallet...

Posted on April 16, 2018

On Tuesday, April 3, I attended a meeting organized by the Recycling Council of Alberta to discuss the changing market for recyclable materials. This is a global shift, and one that has been coming for some time, yet still caught the industry off guard.

Speaking at the event were a number of leading experts, including Tammy Schwass (Alberta Plastics Recycling Association), Tom Baranowski (Seaport International), Lorenzo Donini (GFL Environmental), Al Metauro (Cascades Recovery), Tony Moucachen (Merlin Plastics), Karl Tiemstra (Can-Cell Industries), Grant Harrington (West Can Marketing), Mark Badger (Canada Fibers), and Rob Rennie (SUEZ Canada Waste Services Inc.).

To fully understand the need for this meeting, we need to look at the some of this history involved.

In the 1980s, global political currents were changing and there was a push toward free market policy. These changes facilitated a sharp rise what was a very small global waste trade. The theory was that waste material had value, and that nations with small economies could receive and process waste material and then sell it back at a premium. The theory sounds great – empower small nations, diversify economies, and reduce the amount of landfill waste.

Over the years, the global waste trade grew, and grew, and grew. Municipalities began single stream recycling programs – blue carts and blue boxes, and new technology was developed to sort the material. There were buyers for materials from all across the planet. The targets for contamination in bundles were set low, generally around 1.5% overall.

And as the programs grew, somewhere along the way the focus on quality became relaxed. Sorting machines and teams could not keep up, and contamination levels rose. And they rose. And they rose. Food, trash, and other items were making their way into the recycling stream. And what was once a global market started shifting to being very China-focused. Chinese businesses were paying top dollar, even for contaminated bundles – effectively squeezing out international competition that could not pay as much for material that was more than 10% contaminated.

In 2011, the plastics scrap market was worth $5 billion USD, and America was sending 23 million tons of scrap plastic to China.

And as the market was growing in China, the Chinese government noticed impacts on their environment and on the health of Chinese citizens. In Wen’an, there was a 60% increase in respiratory disease in a very short period of time as the industry grew.

In 2011, the Chinese government announced regulations and the Green Fence program rolled out in 2013 as an enforcement tool. There were strict limits on what would be acceptable and what would not be allowed in the material recovery programs. Millions of loads were inspected, and 22,000 containers were turned back.

China remained steadfast in their commitment to regulation and protection of environment and lives. They remained in communication with the global community about their regulations, and continued to enforce them as best as they could.

Despite China’s continued insistence that waste sellers must send better quality materials, contamination levels continued rising. Globally, we were producing more waste but we were doing a less effective job of managing the waste. Our bundles were decreasing in quality, leading to more material being burned or discarded in China. Our wasteful ways were China’s problem, and this was never the intention of the global waste trade. As a society, we all own a part of that broken promise – the Chinese people expected a safe and profitable industry that would make provinces without industry – like Wen’an – leaders in the material recovery sector. What we sent them, without proper checks and balances, was our trash.

In 2017, China once again communicated with the global community about the growing problem with the global waste trade. Only this time, they were closing the doors on contaminated and toxic waste. This was the roll out of what’s called the National Sword.

The Chinese government believes in material recovery, and continues to receive containers of well managed material. China did not close their borders to our materials, but they did close the door to containers full of double-digit contamination.

And then, very quietly and without the media attention that China received, other consumers in the global waste trade followed China’s example. The global market shifted and made a bold statement about the way that we manage our waste as a planet. Countries, lead by China, called on global governments and influencers to bring forward policies and regulations that would make waste sustainable.

Globally, this has been a 7 to 10 year discussion. Depending on where you are in the conversation, some have been talking about this for 30 years. Academics and scientists were writing about the damage that the program was unleashing in the 80’s and 90’s. And very little effort was invested into changing consumer behavior. We continued with single stream program roll outs, and consumers were told that anything put in a blue cart or blue box would be recycled.

But that simply isn’t true. And we know that now. Some of our plastics are not recyclable, despite having a symbol on them. The processes are simply not economical, and so material is burned or discarded. Glass is often hard to market – it’s cheaper to make new than it is new repurpose glass. And so much of our recycling is so badly contaminated that we cannot find buyers for it.

Cities have been stockpiling material. Thousands of tons of material sit in fields and in Quonset huts across the globe while middle-managers scramble to find buyers. And in some cities, the material is starting to be incinerated and discarded in landfills.

In the meeting this week, which was attended largely by front line team members from municipalities in Alberta, we discussed the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. There is money to be made for some companies. There are others who are trying to help consumers shift their buying patterns and behavior. Some representatives believe strongly in Extended Producer Responsibility, while others did not.

While cities are scrambling to find buyers, and some are having to resort to disposal of waste material – I question whether we need to press pause and step back to look at the rules and processes around waste. Is our system setup for success? What can we do differently? Do we need to roll back the clock? Why are we trying to find buyers, and not trying to curb waste production? I thought that the Rs were reduce, reuse, and then – as a last resort, at the end of useful life cycle – recycle.

Without contributing voices from producers/manufacturers or legislators, our conversations about solutions were limited. So I offer this to you as my solution to our waste crisis –

You are the solution to the waste crisis. We – the Canadian consumer – buy the products that become the waste material that is being stockpiled, that poisoned Wen’an, and that industry is now feverishly trying to rehome. What if…… What if we just stopped? What if instead of writing to companies – which has been happening as long as companies have existed – what if we used our wallets as our voice? What if instead of a tweet asking a company to stop doing something detrimental to the environment – we empower and inspire our fellow Calgarians by posting on social media about who is doing things right?

The greatest movements – the ones that shook the world to its core – started with people talking to people. We don’t need boycotts – we need Buy-Ups! Let’s encourage the businesses and community leaders who are doing things right. Let’s support the leaders who are manufacturing or retailing with minimal waste – and in some cases Zero Waste.

This week, I want to highlight two strong community leaders who have shown me just how passionate they are about this issue. Sharon Howland with the City of Calgary and Jill Hawker of All Things Jill and The Apothecary in Inglewood are fierce and vocal advocates for what’s right. Both are true rock stars and heroes in my view – from the way they work and run their businesses, to their willingness to join – and lead – these very important conversations. My thanks to Sharon and Jill, and everyone else giving their time, energy, and support for environmental concerns in Calgary.

Please, head out this week and support a local business that is doing things right. There are retail shops, restaurants, grocers, butchers, banks, clothing manufacturers, contractors, and more who are sustainable and zero waste businesses. Go check them out, and chat them up, then tell your network about them.

Share the things that you are passionate about with the people you are passionate about.

Be well,
Executive Director

This article was originally shared in the April 7th newsletter. Get great content like this every month by signing up!

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