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Alberta municipalities explore options for eliminating recyclable products

Starting Monday, Alberta municipalities will no longer be able to send certain paper and plastic products to China. Like other Canadian cities, many Alberta municipalities have been shipping thousands of tonnes of unsorted items like plastic wrap, grocery bags and cardboard to China.

New policy means certain paper and plastic products can no longer be sold to China

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

Starting Monday, Alberta municipalities will no longer be able to send certain paper and plastic products to China.

Like other Canadian cities, many Alberta municipalities have been shipping thousands of tonnes of items like plastic wrap, plastic grocery bags and cardboard to China each year.

But the Chinese government announced in July that it would stop accepting shipments of certain plastic and paper products by the end of 2017.

Christina Seidel with the Recycling Council of Alberta says this restriction is a "wake-up call" for Alberta cities and towns who now need to figure out what to do with their unsorted recyclables.

"This is something we should have always paid attention to but we've become lazy over the last three years. That's what has to change," she said.

Recycling in Alberta's largest cities

Some of Alberta's largest municipalities are already looking to other foreign markets to purchase their unsorted recyclable products.

Sharon Howland with Calgary's Waste and Recycling Services department said the implications of the Chinese government's restrictions on mixed paper and plastic is "astounding."

Before the policy change, Calgary's third-party recycling company sent all of the city's mixed paper products to China. Roughly 50 per cent of the city's mixed plastic products were also being sent to China. Howland said although the restriction comes into effect Jan. 1, many Chinese companies stopped accepting recyclables in July. 

"This is not something we haven't faced before. While China has always been a huge player in the recycling market and we've always been reliant on them, there's always been huge fluctuations in the recycling market," Howland said. 

Calgary has been storing its unwanted recyclable items since the summer until the city can find another foreign buyer.

Edmonton currently sells about 10,000 tonnes of recyclables to China each year, according to city officials. That's about 25 per cent of Edmonton's collected recyclables.

The city, which already sells unwanted recyclable waste to other countries like Indonesia, will continue to rely on other markets to buy their plastic and paper products.

Edmonton also uses its biofuel facility to get rid of unwanted waste.

Trent Tompkins, Edmonton’s director of waste collection services, says the city already relies on foreign markets other than China to buy certain recyclable products. (CBC)

Trent Tompkins, Edmonton's director of waste collection services, says China's upcoming restrictions are something city officials anticipated.

"It will have an impact, but some other municipalities who may not have the same options that we do are certainly going to be harder hit," he said.

The future of recycling in Alberta

Seidel says because items collected through recycling programs in Alberta are unsorted, it's a challenge to sell to foreign markets. For many of the province's recycling programs, everything goes into one bin.  

With little sorting happening, few markets are still willing to take the unsorted waste, she said. 

It's then up to recycling programs on the municipal level — which are often funded by tax dollars — to deal with the unwanted waste.

"We need to take a closer look at our systems and design it more effectively so we get marketable materials coming out," she said.

Seidel says Alberta is the only province that still doesn't track how much recycling is sent to foreign markets. She says it's because each municipality is taking on recyclables collection itself. 

In British Columbia, a program called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) puts the onus on the manufacturer of the materials to deal with the recycling of a product.

It's something the Recycling Council of Alberta would like to see implemented in Alberta so taxpayers will no longer be paying for municipal recycling programs. Instead, manufacturers could be held responsible for recycling.

"They're the one supplying materials and they're in the best position to actually deal with changing anything that needs to be done to make a better system," she said.

Tompkins and Howland both said EPR programs have been discussed with industry and city officials in their respective cities. Yet, provincial legislation would need to be put in place first before municipalities like Edmonton or Calgary can change their recycling programs.

"It's a topic being discussed," Tompkins said. "I don't think there's a significant push but I think these types of situations may start the conversation."