Shortly after Canada agreed to take back its contaminated waste from the Philippines, the Malaysian government announced that 60 illegal containers filled with waste from other countries, including Canada, would be sent back and that the Asian nation won’t be “bullied by developed countries.”
The Malaysian government investigation found that trash falsely labelled as imports from Europe and North America was ending up in Malaysian landfills.
“Canada is bad at recycling,” Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence, told CTV News Channel. “We only recycle nine per cent of our plastics. It’s abysmal; we need to do better.”
Brooks said that in the past, a lot of Canadian plastics waste was processed in China, and after China banned that practice in 2018, “people have been looking for other places to ship this stuff.”
“I think people thought that we were good recyclers because for a long time we could just ship it out of sight out of mind and now the curtain’s been drawn back on this big problem,” he said.
Malaysia said the contents of the shipping containers amount to 3 million kilograms of non-recyclable plastic waste.
So much material is sent abroad since Canada doesn’t actually process much recycling domestically, said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, in an interview with CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday.
“Recycling materials are a commodity, they are raw materials for new production cycles, and they go to the highest bidder. Globally, most of the production happens in that part of the world,” she said. “It’s really just a matter of economics.”
Shipping waste to other countries is “actually far more common than Canadians know” said Myra Hird, professor of Environmental Studies at Queens University, in an interview with CTV News Channel. According to Hird, the waste often changes hands through a series of contracts to move it out of the city, province and country it came from, and along the way things get mislabelled or intentionally smuggled to illegal sites for disposal.
The waste sent to the Philippines was expected to be recyclables, but ended up being contaminated household waste, which is in part due to what St. Godard called a “complacency” in developed countries like Canada.
“Over time, we’ve made less and less efforts to send homogeneous materials — just plastics or just the paper that they were looking for — and other materials got mixed in,” she said, which meant destination countries had to add extra labour to sort out materials. “Now they’re pushing back.”
Blaming “loose regulations” and even looser enforcement of waste legislation, Hird said that the Malaysian and Philippines situations are “not an isolated incident” and that “more of these incidents will hit the news” unless the Canadian government steps in.
“We as Canadians must take responsibility, our government must take responsibility,” says Hird. “We need to bring it back as safely as we can, and we need to deal with it as safely and as environmentally responsibly as we can here.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by St. Godard and Brooks.
“This is certainly a stain on our reputation,” said St. Godard. “There has to be oversight to ensure that (companies) are transparent about what they’re shipping and that we are overseeing what’s leaving our docks.”