Is Recycling Futile?

Alberta’s blue-bin boondoggle

By Niki Wilson

We Albertans find it hard to resist the allure of produce perfectly packaged in plastic clamshells. The containers are convenient—the strawberries, cherry tomatoes and blackberries are gloriously free of grubby-finger jabs and travel-induced bruising. But when the berries are gone and the clamshells sit yawning and empty, they cause real headaches for the people tasked with recycling them.

Few know this better than Sharon Howland, the City of Calgary’s program manager of waste and recycling services. The City used to send some of its plastic clamshells overseas to China to be recycled. But in early 2017 China announced it was closing the door. Effective January 1, 2018, the Chinese government would enforce its new National Sword Policy, its latest and most restrictive regulations on imported recycled materials. They would no longer accept plastic clamshells, and suddenly Howland found herself with a surplus in storage and nowhere to send them.

The National Sword policy cut a deep swath through the recycling market—and not just for plastics. Until that point, Canada had been exporting the majority of its recyclables to China and other Asian countries. Now those imports would be limited to only the highest quality—a tiny fraction of what had been accepted before. “The policy change was not a surprise,” says Christina Seidel of the Recycling Council of Alberta (RCA), a recycling advocacy organization. Many municipalities or their recycling brokers had been shipping to China goods with high contamination rates: Tucked away in bales of plastic and paper were other materials that didn’t belong there, or the recyclables themselves weren’t clean. This could dilute the quality of products manufactured from the recycled material. “They don’t want our crap,” says Seidel. “They are a primary manufacturer, so they need clean raw materials.” Chinese recyclers were forced to clean up the mess on their end—often by hand-sorting. “Anything that was left, they were burning,” she says.

In 2019 Calgary landfilled 2,000 tonnes of plastic clamshells that had been collected in blue bins-—about 92 semi-trailer loads.

Calgary’s Howland tried to send surplus clamshells to the city’s Alberta-based plastics recycler, Merlin Plastics, but as domestic markets flooded with product, it quickly reached capacity, and that door closed too. To complicate matters, due to long storage times the clamshells had begun to grow mould, “because people do not clean food packaging properly,” says Howland. By mid-2019, with total storage costs having risen to $330,000 and no recycler to be found, the City of Calgary landfilled 2,000 tonnes of plastic clamshells—about 92 semi-trailer loads worth.

Calgary is not alone in their recycling woes. Other Alberta municipalities are struggling with changes brought on by China’s new policy—and not only the challenge of finding markets. For many cities and towns, National Sword was a critical blow to a residential recycling model already fraught with issues.

The loss of revenue associated with plummeting recycled commodities prices means some communities are finding it difficult to fund recycling programs. Meanwhile, many municipalities are experiencing problems tracking the fate of their materials. Why should a community pay an increasing price for recycling services if it can’t get assurances that its goods are actually being recycled, not just landfilled somewhere else?

“The industry is in crisis,” says Seidel.

 

To understand the issue, it’s important to understand how recycling works—and how it doesn’t. Recycling begins with collection—your peanut butter jar, old printed documents and that unruly tower of cardboard boxes stacking up from your Amazon orders. Big communities such as Edmonton and Calgary provide pickup from homes and collect all materials in one bag or bin. This is known as the single-stream approach, or the “co-mingling” of materials.

Co-mingled materials usually have higher contamination rates because people throw in more garbage or materials they aren’t quite sure are recyclable (the industry calls this “wish-cycling”). “These are your tiki heads, your kiddie pools, your inflatables,” says Howland. Contamination also happens when containers aren’t clean, like when there’s enough peanut butter left in a jar to make a couple more sandwiches. Some municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) can get the gunk out, while others don’t have equipment sophisticated enough.

At the MRF that handles Calgary’s recycling—Cascades Recovery—about 12–15 per cent of what comes in from residents is not recyclable. Rates vary greatly from one community to the next—Edmonton’s contamination rates are higher, at 21 per cent for single-family dwellings and 27 per cent for multi-family, says Jawad Farhad, who oversees recyclables processing at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre (EWMC).

Collecting recyclables in a single stream is convenient for residents, but the sorting process proves more complicated, says Seidel. It either requires a lot of manual labour, which typically creates more errors and contamination than when residents pre-sort materials, or it requires highly sophisticated mechanical sorting—the kind used, for example, at Calgary’s MRF. But not many such facilities have that capability.

Smaller communities such as Edson and Jasper typically have multi-stream approaches, where recyclables are “source sorted,” or put into different bins by residents themselves at depots or community recycling areas. Seidel says that for most municipalities a multi-stream approach would cost less and generally reduce contamination—for example, the kind that happens when a partially cleaned spaghetti jar bleeds watery sauce all over an old utility bill. Anne Auriat, the manager of the Edson and District Recycling Society, says their facility—which caters to Edson, Hinton and Yellowhead County—has been able to weather the market downturn because all of its product is source-separated, “so the quality is there and we are able to [sell] it.” Though she doesn’t track it, she suspects her contamination rate is around 2–3 per cent, based on feedback from buyers. In Jasper, operation services manager Ross Derksen says he thinks their rates are similarly low. “It has to be under 3 per cent for something like cardboard or the buyer won’t take it,” he says.

Whichever way they’re sorted and/or cleaned, the recyclables are eventually squashed into bales. The next step is to either sell the bales to a recycling company that makes something from them, or pay a brokerage firm to take them away and hopefully find a recycler. This can be challenging on multiple fronts. The first is finding a recycling plant in North America that will take the materials. There simply aren’t enough to support all Alberta municipalities, says Seidel. There used to be more, but “we have undermined our domestic processing and recycling capacity for the better part of two decades,” she says. Over that time, Canadians opted to send the majority of their materials to China, because it was cheaper and quality standards were lower. Domestic companies couldn’t compete and “a lot of recyclers reduced their capacity or shut down.”

 

Sharon Howland says Calgarians’ metal cans and properly cleaned foil and glass now go to recycling plants in the US and Canada, along with plastics—including clamshells, thanks to equipment upgrades at both Cascades Recovery and Merlin Plastics. For citizens who remain skeptical, Howland encourages them to be vigilant. “Everyone should be asking hard questions of their service provider.” Meanwhile these upgrades cost money. “We have seen increasing program costs, as Cascades Recovery has built storage contingency and equipment improvements into contract costs,” she says.

Calgary also experienced a dramatic decrease in revenue, “primarily because the prices for paper and cardboard have dropped significantly,” says Howland. Paper accounts for a large chunk of Calgary’s recyclables—70 semi-trailer loads of paper a week are shipped to Southeast Asia because there aren’t enough paper mills in North America. The City’s residential recycling program is funded by the blue cart program fee applied to the utility bills of all households receiving blue cart collection. Given rising costs, Calgary increased its blue cart fee from $8.50/month in 2018 to $8.80/month in 2019.

Edmonton too has seen increases in operating costs as it improves sorting efforts to meet new quality standards. So far, though, Farhad says Edmonton is managing these within its annual operating budgets, though “revenue is not [the] primary goal” of recycling, he stresses.

The cost impact has not been as bad for Edmonton’s facility as it has been for others, he explains. “The biggest reason is that we have been diversifying where our commodities go,” he says. Edmonton’s relationships with the limited number of recycling companies were already established when China’s National Sword policy came in, so it was easier for the City to change course and send what is now 90 per cent of its plastics and almost all of its metals (98 per cent) to markets in Canada and the US.

The biggest challenge was finding a home for paper and cardboard, says Farhad—by far the largest proportion of Edmonton’s recycling tonnage (91 per cent), and growing due to the rise of online shopping. He has been able to send 80 per cent of cardboard to domestic markets, but like Calgary, all paper (and the other 20 per cent of cardboard) is shipped overseas to South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Edmonton and Calgary can leverage large volumes of quality product to secure their place at the front of the domestic recycling queue, but many smaller towns and cities are so far back they can’t see the door. “[We have] far lower bargaining power” in the market, says Matthew Goudy, chief administrative officer for the City of Lacombe. Most rural centres don’t have MRFs, and are dealing in relatively low volumes, which are more expensive to move. When paying a trucking company to ship recyclable goods, it’s most cost effective when the truck is carrying only one commodity, such as all plastics or all glass. Otherwise the shipper has to pay for that truck to go to two or more recycling facilities instead of one.

“I have to ensure there’s 20 tonnes on a truck,” says Edson’s Auriat. She pools resources from more than one community: “If you have a full load, you get a little higher price.” Municipalities can wait until they have a full truckload, but then they are paying for storage. It all adds up.

“Recycling costs us an awful lot,” says John Greathead, director of operations in Jasper. He says that over the past decade—and especially since China’s National Sword—Jasper has lost tens of thousands of dollars in recycling revenue as they make ever less money for products they’ve historically sold for a profit. The town has often ended up paying a brokerage firm to take materials off their hands.

Like many municipalities, they are also struggling with administrative capacity. A larger town might have dedicated positions such as a director of recycling, but “in Jasper you’ve got John and Ross,” he says, referring to himself and Derksen. “We’ve got a lot of other responsibilities too.”

 

But rising costs are the least of a municipality’s concern if recycling isn’t doing what it’s supposed to in the first place: benefiting the environment. That’s something Goudy in Lacombe knows well. After the contract with its recycling service provider ended this spring, Lacombe put out a new request for proposals. That process yielded only one bid, and it would have increased the rate Lacombe had been paying by 75 per cent. It was too much. As a result, Lacombe cancelled its curbside recycling program last spring. But it wasn’t just about cost. The company that provided the lone proposal couldn’t guarantee Lacombe’s recyclables wouldn’t end up in a landfill. “We have been unable to track product or get satisfactory assurances about where the product is going,” said Goudy.

Derksen in Jasper is having the same experience. “It’s really hard for me to get answers on the record,” he says. “It’s why we’ve spent time and money investigating our plastics.” At one point Derksen hopped in his vehicle and followed a truckload of Jasper’s plastics to Lethbridge to ensure it was recycled properly at Full Circle Plastics. It was. The company used Jasper’s plastics to manufacture products such as parking curbs—some of which Jasper bought back from them.

Still, Derksen can’t be following every truck that leaves town. He continues to call brokers to try to get assurances, and to track Jasper’s bales through waybills—documents issued by a shipper giving details about where the material has gone. But it’s not very consistent. One broker told him by phone that a recent shipment of paper ended up somewhere outside India, but wouldn’t confirm this in an email. Another broker told him a paper shipment was going to BC, but the waybill said it went to the northwestern US. While some of the materials that residents of Jasper are dutifully dropping off and sorting at depots may be getting recycled, Derksen says he’s learned to be “very skeptical.”

The Recycling Council of Alberta’s Seidel shares this concern. “For too long communities have simply contracted out their recycling services to private companies without knowing for sure where their material was going.” She suggests communities include clauses in contracts with their brokers that require transparent communication about what happens to the material. But based on Goudy’s experience in Lacombe, this might be tougher than it sounds for rural Alberta.

Howland says the City of Calgary knows where its recyclables go. “We hold Cascades Recovery to a high standard,” she says, and was doing so even before the National Sword policy. “Cascades needs to disclose to the City where all recyclables are going and what the intended use is, as part of ensuring that recyclables only end up in the hands of legitimate recyclers and product manufacturers,” she says. Calgary pays Cascades Recovery to travel to destination markets and visit pulp mills, paperboard factories and packaging manufacturers before sending any material their way. “The City only works with legitimate recyclers that have been screened through this comprehensive vetting process.”

In Edmonton, Farhad says he’s confident that the City’s materials are being recycled, because they sell the majority of what comes into their MRF from residential programs (after it’s been sorted and the residuals landfilled or made into biofuel). “Some of the brokers we work with will come to our MRF and audit us for quality,” he says. “They want to make sure that when they buy our product, they have a market for it.” In other words, it doesn’t make financial sense for a broker to pay for a bale of plastic and then pay again to have it landfilled. In 2018, 300 quality-audits of baled products were conducted in-house at EWMC to ensure the product met the high standards now required.

 

Every Alberta municipality is feeling the impact of the changes associated with China’s National Sword policy. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that the policy has pushed many recycling issues out into the open for the public to see. “Citizens should recognize that there are real struggles in the recycling industry and that Canadian solutions are needed,” says Lacombe’s Goudy. “Advocating to their MLAs or MPs to support development of recycling processing capacity locally is the most effective way to improve recycling in Alberta.”

Governments could help build capacity by supporting the development of provincial and national high-end recycling facilities, including more-sophisticated MRFs that can clean and sort product to the high standard now required, and recycling plants that can manufacture recyclables into new products. “We need to ramp up our domestic infrastructure, and then we need to be loyal to it,” says Seidel. Farhad agrees. “We need to make sure we are more resilient by building more recycling hubs within Canada so we’re not affected by international policy changes like what happened in China.”

Why should a community pay an increasing price if it can’t get assurances that its materials are actually being recycled?

Another way governments could help is by implementing extended producer responsibility (EPR), a cradle-to-grave regula-tory strategy in which the producers take responsibility for reducing environmental impact and managing the product and packaging across its whole life cycle, from selection of materials and design to its end-of-life management. An example of this is Recycle BC, the province-wide blue bin program funded by over 1,200 businesses that supply packaging and printed paper to BC residents. Recycle BC is mandated to ensure that all recyclables entering the program are properly recycled, not landfilled. They are also required to conduct research and development to find ways all kinds of packaging can be recycled, and to identify new uses for materials that are currently unrecyclable. A very important benefit of this program is that when the companies pay to manage their recycling, it “takes the financial burden off of the municipalities,” says Seidel.

One of the side effects of EPR in BC has been better harmonization, she says, where every municipality is recycling under the same rules. “What you recycle in Prince George, you recycle in Vancouver.” While this helps minimize confusion about what can be recycled across the province, it also helps create opportunity in the recycling market. For example, if one community wants to recycle plastic film (e.g., grocery bags) but the four communities around it don’t, it’s much harder for that community to find a market. But if everyone does it, recycling companies can be guaranteed large volumes and are incentivized to provide the service. “It’s economies of scale,” says Seidel.

Proponents such as Seidel urge Albertans to keep recycling where possible. Even with its many flaws, this province’s residential programs are still diverting a lot of material from landfills—almost 150,000 tonnes of newsprint, cardboard and mixed paper alone annually—according to a 2019 report commissioned by the RCA. If you include other items such as tires and electronics, Alberta residents are recycling over half a million tonnes per year.

The report says the province’s recycling sector as a whole (including commercial) generates $700- million in economic value, as well as supporting over 7,500 jobs per year. But the authors also say the province can do better. In 2016 Albertans only diverted 16.5 per cent of their combined residential and commercial waste to recycling, the second-lowest rate in the country after Saskatchewan—and much lower than Ontario (25.9 per cent), BC (40.2 per cent) and Nova Scotia (43.9 per cent).

When recyclables get landfilled they create additional environmental issues. Landfills eat up city or agricultural land and wildlife habitat. A recent study found microplastics in landfill leachate—the liquid sludge that forms from a mixture of moisture and decomposing landfill materials. Leachates are difficult and expensive to deal with, and landfills in general are costly to build and run, while recycling can (potentially) make money. “It’s a missed economic opportunity,” say the authors of the RCA-commissioned report.

If programs were put in place to both increase the amount Albertans recycle and capture a more diverse range of materials—major appliances such as washing machines, say, or an expanded list of electronics—the RCA report suggests that 5,790 jobs could be created in Alberta (both directly and indirectly related to the industry), and roughly $760-million added to the local economy.

It sounds promising, but also like a distant dream. Even industry advocates are quick to conclude that recycling will never be enough to manage the massive volume of waste Albertans produce. “Why are you using a paper Tim Horton’s coffee cup with a plastic lid? That’s fully avoidable,” says Howland. She emphasizes we need to do what we learned as kids in elementary school. Recycling is important, but reducing and reusing are even more so.

Niki Wilson writes about science. Her previous AV story (Nov 2019) was about the spread of wild pigs in Alberta.

RELATED POSTS

The Plans to Strip-Mine Coal in the Mountains

It looks like spectacular wild country, but some see it more as a big money sandwich. The top layer of that sandwich is comprised of alpine grasses, forget-me-nots and stonecrop, glacier lilies and ancient, brave pines whose branches have been gnarled and weathered by centuries of wind. In summer, solitaires and ...

Is Recycling Futile?

We Albertans find it hard to resist the allure of produce perfectly packaged in plastic clamshells. The containers are convenient—the strawberries, cherry tomatoes and blackberries are gloriously free of grubby-finger jabs and travel-induced bruising. But when the berries are gone and the clamshells sit yawning and empty, they cause real ...

From Grey to Green

Every year, the world uses an estimated 10 trillion kilograms of concrete. Nearly every major construction project makes use of the stuff. It’s in everything from office buildings, dams, bridges and sewers to sidewalks, home foundations, patios and birdbaths. And our use of it is only projected to climb. According ...