Part 1: Is Canada’s recycling industry broken?
At the Loraas recycling plant in Saskatoon, 650 bales of worthless plastic pile up outside. Among the towers of packaging: a crumpled parmesan cheese container, a spray bottle of tile cleaner and a tub of garlic mayo.
A lot of this plastic, tightly compressed into cubes, has been sitting here for months, waiting for a buyer. But no one has come knocking.
“This material here is very hard to move,” said Dale Schmidt, manager of Loraas Recycle. “Currently, it moves at a negative value and it only moves once in a while. We’re having a real hard time getting this stuff to market.”
What once could be sold for profit now costs money to haul away, and the notion that Canadians are saving the planet by putting things in a blue bin is proving to be a delusion.
The recycling industry in Canada is having its moment of reckoning.
Part 2: The losing economics of recycling: Canada’s green industry is deep in the red
At the Bluewater Recycling Association plant outside of London, Ont., an aluminum pop can is the most precious item they receive.
It’s worth more than paper. More than plastic. More than cardboard.
Selling these products is how recyclers make a profit — and aluminum is the moneymaker. Though it only makes up two per cent of everything that’s trucked into the Bluewater plant, the metal is worth 25 per cent of the company’srevenue.
And yet, even aluminum isn’t immune to an industry whose profits are plunging.
“Last year this time, we were selling it for about $1,900 a tonne,” said Bluewater Recycling Association president Francis Veilleux. “This year, it’s closer to $1,300 to $1,400 a tonne.”
After China stopped accepting much of the world’s recycling at the start of 2018, the market was flooded with product. The dwindling number of buyers who are left demand only the highest-quality material — and at a fraction of the cost.
Only two plants still accept Veilleux’s aluminum. Aluminum pie plates and cat food tins are no longer accepted. Just pop cans and beer cans.
In today’s bleak new recycling reality, the price of commodities — like paper, plastic and glass — has tanked.
Part 3: Canada’s recycling industry is on life-support. Here’s how to fix it
At the Merlin Plastics plant in Delta, B.C., beads of reflective, grey plastic bounce along a processing line.
What was once a detergent bottle has been washed, ground down and reduced to pellets so that it can be sold to create new bottles.
This is the future of recycling.
Not because of what’s happening here — but because of who is doing it.
Anyone in B.C. who makes a product, sells a product or imports a product that’s collected in a blue bin has to pay to recycle its packaging. The province is the only jurisdiction in North America that is both funding and managing its entire recycling system — instead of leaving that responsibility to municipalities and their taxpayers.
The model is called “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR, and it’s regulated under a provincial law that came into force in B.C. in 2014.
“EPR is really about saying, ‘You made this, you’re responsible for it at its end of life,’” explained Usman Valiante, a senior environmental policy analyst with Cardwell Grove.
“You chose the raw materials to use in your product or packaging … Now, we want you to take the responsibility that once the consumer’s done with that soft drink bottle or that potato chip bag, that you set up a system to take responsibility to pull that stuff back from consumers… So you might then take that material yourself and put it back into the next cycle of soft drink bottles or potato chip bags”