Calgary finds new markets for recyclables after Chinese ban

The city has found new buyers for most of its recyclables after China banned imports last year, which had forced Calgary to store mountains of plastics and paper.

But city faces lower prices due to slumping demand

Workers at Edmonton's waste management facility sort through different recyclable products on Dec. 28, 2017. (CBC)

The city has found new buyers for most of its recyclables after China banned imports last year, which had forced Calgary to store mountains of plastics and paper.

China was a major market for the world's recyclables before it stopped accepting certain materials at the end of 2017, citing too many toxic contents mixed in with the waste.

By early January, Calgary had stockpiled 5,000 tonnes of recyclables with nowhere to go. Officials stuffed the plastics and paper in storage sheds, shipping containers, trailers and warehouses, stoking fears some or all of it could end up in a dump.

Sharon Howland, of Calgary's waste and recycling services, said Wednesday the city has found buyers for most of the trash. Mixed paper is now heading to new mills in India, Vietnam and Indonesia, while plastics are going to Ontario and the Lower Mainland in B.C.

Howland said the city is still having a "small challenge" finding buyers for clam-shaped plastics that are used to contain berries and salads at grocery stores.

"We have a small amount material still in storage from 2017, and we're just shipping that material off as the shipping containers come available," she said.

Howland said the city is getting lower prices for its materials due to slumping demand from mills that process the waste.

A general view shows a recycling yard on the outskirts of Beijing in 2016. China stopped receiving certain materials at the end of 2017, citing too many toxic contents mixed in with the waste. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Before the Chinese ban, Calgary's third-party recycler, Cascades Recovery, had shipped all of the city's mixed paper and half its mixed plastics to China, which was a major importer of the materials to feed its manufacturing sector.

China cracked down on foreign recyclables after receiving too many toxic materials.

The Chinese ban had sent municipalities across the country scrambling for alternatives. Halifax, which relied on the Asian country to buy 80 per cent of its recyclables, started sending some of its waste to the dump, but has since found new buyers.

Cutthroat business

Still, in a sign of how cutthroat the recycling business has become, Halifax's manager of solid waste wouldn't disclose where those buyers were, fearing the city could be outbid by another municipality and potentially lose the markets.

Christina Seidel, the executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta, said other municipalities in Alberta have similarly found new markets for their waste.

"There are markets that can be found for many materials," she said. "The problem is that … most of the alternate markets may not be as lucrative and may require additional processing."

For instance, Seidel said, there are no markets in Canada that accept mixed plastics — they need to be sorted, which likely comes at a higher cost.

"Either you have more labour in sorting or you have more sophisticated equipment that do the sorting for you," she said.

About the Author

Reid Southwick

Reporter

Reid Southwick spent 10 years in newspapers reporting in New Brunswick and Alberta before joining CBC in late 2017. In Calgary, he has covered business news, crime and Alberta's fentanyl crisis. Get in touch with Reid by email at reid.southwick@cbc.ca or on Twitter @ReidSouthwick.