GARBAGE – China’s ban on foreign garbage reveals recycling’s weakness

Recycling seems like a neat solution until we can’t dump our
garbage on another country and have to deal with it ourselves

Policy Analyst
Frontier Centre for Public Policy

CHINA HAS DECIDED that what goes around doesn’t have to come around – at least not around there. As 2017 came to an end, China stopped importing most recyclables, putting Canadian recyclers in a bind.

The Chinese decision also revealed weaknesses in the basic premise of recycling.

Lee Harding.

Many environmentalists regard recycling as imperative for the environment. They view miners and oil drillers as plunderers of the earth, and manufacturers as the planet’s poisoning polluters. They view the planet as precious and its resources as scarce.

Recycling seems like a neat solution – renewing materials without touching the earth, and inspiring everyone to be more earth-conscious and less driven to consume.

But then recycling hit a huge roadblock.

China announced the decision in July 2017. The campaign against “foreign garbage” includes plastic, textile and mixed paper.

Now recyclers all over the world are scrambling for new markets. The 28 European Union countries exported 87 per cent of their recycled plastic to China. Japan, the United States, Australia and Canada were also largely reliant on China to accept their recyclables.

But China has enough garbage and recyclables of its own. Market economics and massive industrialization have created a growing, western-influenced middle class. More Chinese than ever have the power to buy, and throw out, more things.

Halifax used to send three-quarters of its recycling exports to China. While it has found new markets for hard plastics and papers, the city has nowhere to send film plastics. Three hundred tonnes of film plastics have been sent to the dump since August 2017.

Already, Calgary has amassed 5,000 tonnes of paper and plastic and the city has no solution.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for some Canadian recyclers. Why?

Because they represent another group often vilified by environmentalists: big business.

Recycle BC’s provincewide system takes in 185,000 tonnes annually. According to managing director Allen Langdon, “We have economies of scale that are greater than just individual municipalities.” Stringent sorting allows continued exports of quality plastics to China and a local processor has also been buying such plastics for three years.

Don’t mourn that Canadian landfills are receiving more trash because of China’s decision. Unless a buyer wants those materials for more of that hated consumerism, recyclables are just trash anyway.

As painful as it may be to admit, recycling only makes sense when it actually makes cents – or, better yet, dollars. It’s as much a business as anything else.

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

© Troy Media

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4 Comments on GARBAGE – China’s ban on foreign garbage reveals recycling’s weakness

  1. Ken McClelland // February 24, 2018 at 10:48 AM // Reply

    Interesting that China is refusing foreign recyclables when China is the source country of many of these same recyclables that they are now refusing. Many of the cheap Made in China products that are purchased in our daily lives come over-packaged (it is a long, sometimes rough ocean journey from China to North America) in robust plastics and materials that are not only hard to get open in the first place, but even harder to responsibly dispose of. China has been using the rest of the world, particularly rampant consumerist North America, as a waste dumping ground for years. Part of the solution is to shop local, buy Canadian, and a significant amount of that problem goes away, and brings with it a potential boost in local and Canadian business, and perhaps an improvement in employment in what is left of our manufacturing sector.

  2. If it can’t (or won\t) be recycled then don’t buy it. Un recycled plastics are killing the oceans and air that all things must have to exist.The city of Kamloops must get on board the recycling and re use gravy train.To do other wise is suicidal.Hard plastics are one thing but plastic derived clothing and film plastics are another.These virtually indestructable materials must be transformed into in products where indestructability is a good thing.Like insulation,wood like products and road surfaces.Concrete can be reinforced with plastic fibers as can asphalt and glass . We must find ways to clean pdc ( plastic derived clothing ) without them breaking down to micro particles going to the oceans.Solar cells and glass could be built with a recycled plastic component.
    Surely with all the brain trusts around the world some ” bright light” can figure this one out.Our ( all of us ) very survival depends on it.The oceans are depleted and the creatures that are left will perish because of plastic particles.Salmon are disappearing because of it.The forests could be saved if we use recycled plastic to build things instead of wood. Plastics can be stablized to prevent it’s break down.
    We should be telling the manufacturers that we will not buy products made of plastic.We shoild be demanding our governments enact new laws regulating the over production and un necessary use of plastics Like the fast food industry ( Mac Donalds,A & W. Tims etc ) must find substitutes for plastic covers or stir sticks and one use cups etc.

  3. Yes I understand the environmentalists are generally the problem for not allowing big industries to create more junk which creates more recycling therefore (eventually) creating just the right amount of “economies of scale” in order for another big industry to turn all that junk into more…junk.
    I really wonder how some people can actually get paid to generate basically nonsense, technically junk, verbal junk.

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