Updated: Oct 20, 2020
As seen in the January 2020 Issue of APeeling
The way we live today has resulted in an environmental disaster with increased amounts of garbage making its way into our eco-systems. With all major cities in Canada having a recycling program, it may surprise you to discover that Canada only recycles 11% of its plastic waste with the rest of it ending up in landfills, water systems, and on road sides. (1) Since the 1980’s we have been talking about the three R’s - Reduce - Reuse - Recycle - and our governments have created new waste management services to bring our recyclable waste to manufacturers who can reuse it in the production of new products for us to use and throw away. So why do we have a garbage problem?
Recyclable waste ends up in our environment due to the inefficiency of the waste management process. The current system is fraught with rising costs, falling profits, and increasing environmental devastation. It is time for a new way of processing our recyclable waste to make it efficient, profitable, and environmentally friendlier.
The Current System
Municipal governments recycling process consists of five steps:
Recycling into new manufactured products.(2)
Each step has multiple steps, which lead to contamination, pollution, and decreased profits for waste management companies. “Our biggest concern and our biggest challenge today is municipal solid waste and contamination in our inbound stream,” James Delvin, CEO of ReCommunity Recycling, which operates 31 facilities in 14 states, told Green is Good Radio. “It’s an economic issue if you think about we go through all this effort to process this material, and roughly 15 to 20 percent of what we process ends up going back to the landfill. It’s incredibly inefficient to do that.” (3)
Let’s look at each step of the process:
We all have the best intentions when we recycle, however, we are lazy in our recycling efforts because instead of educating ourselves about what is recyclable and cleaning our recycling before putting it into the bins, we contaminate our recycling with garbage.
There are more recycling materials than demand for them, resulting in an excess amount of waste being stored or placed in landfills because no one is buying it. Calgary tried storing 200 tonnes of clamshell plastic containers while waiting for the recycling market to purchase them, however due to storage costs hitting $330,000, they buried the clamshell packaging into the local landfill. (7)
Canada is not the only country experiencing a lack of demand issue. “A large portion of America's plastic and paper waste used to go from our recycling bins to China, where it was refashioned into everything from shoes to bags to new plastic products. But since the end of 2017, China has restricted how much foreign trash—er, recycling—it buys … As a result, The Atlantic reported Tuesday, some American cities and towns are sending all those recyclables directly to the landfill.” (5)
When you add up the costs of collecting our recycling only to have to send it to the landfill after paying to sort it and store it, the costs to taxpayers is wasteful. Still, the bigger concern is the cost to the environment, which is irreversible.
You see the big trucks come and collect your household waste and feel good because you’ve done your part to help the environment, however, have you thought about what it costs to collect your recycling. Not only do municipalities need to buy specialized equipment, hire people, and build a facility to store the recycling until it can be sent to a sorting or conversion facility, it also costs us environmentally due to carbon emissions.
Since municipalities send our recycling to sorting facilities as one big pile of garbage, the cost to sort our garbage reduces the profitability for recycling companies, which are overwhelmed with the amount of contaminated material along with the amount of recycling materials available to them. If the cost of sorting, bailing, and transporting the material is higher than what manufacturers will pay, our recycling will end up at the landfill.
Take glass for instance, broken glass can contaminate the paper and plastic products, it is heavy so the cost of transporting it is high, and the cost of sand is lower than the cost of recycled glass, so it costs cities money to recycle it. (4)
Once the recycling materials have been sorted and pressed into bales it is sent to be shredded, melted, or crushed into raw materials for reuse before being sold to manufacturers.
Most of our recycling was purchased by China until they closed their borders to our trash. Other developing countries have picked up the contracts, I’m sure you heard about the Canadian recycling company who sent containers of garbage to the Philippines and caused an International crises. When you consider the emissions of the trucks and the cargo ships which take our trash to the developing world for conversion, the environmental impact is huge. A cargo ship running on diesel will emit as much sulphur into the air as 50 million to 59 million new diesel cars, depending on which study you read. (6)
The demand for recycled materials has decreased due to a number of factors, thinner bottles, lower new resource prices, and the switch to digital from paper consumption. The value of one tonne of recycled material went from $180 in 2011 to $80 in 2015 and has not recovered to a highly profitable level. (4) When you consider that, “The value of recovered waste products has plummeted over the past five years, and the amount of effort required to extract them has risen.” (4) you can see the future of recycling is in trouble without serious innovation.
The current system isn't working. It's time for an innovative answer.