'We're not hitting the panic button': City unsure how China's recycling ban will affect local programs

An import ban in China on most foreign recyclable materials has caused paper and plastic products to build up in depots across Canada and the U.S., but City of Winnipeg officials would not say whether this will affect the city

A ban on most foreign materials has caused plastic and paper to build up in other municipalities.

Recyclable materials are piling up across the country after China tightened its standards on foreign materials. The City of Winnipeg says there is no backlog of materials, yet. (CBC)

An import ban in China on most foreign recyclable materials has caused paper and plastic products to build up in depots across Canada and the U.S., but City of Winnipeg officials would not say whether this will affect our city

"We're not hitting the panic button, but we're not immune, we're like other cities in North America," said Coun. Brian Mayes who heads up city council's water, waste and environment committee.

"It isn't that they've banned all imports, but they've certainly made it much more stringent — the quality requirements to ship it over there," he said.

The ban came into effect on Dec. 31 but China has been refusing shipments for months, causing a backlog of materials to build up in cities that rely on exporting the material there.

The City of Calgary has stockpiled five million kilograms of recycled waste since October, and Halifax sought approval to divert 300,000 kilograms of film plastics to the landfill after storing it for months, but ended up burning it instead.

"The majority of our recycling, for paper at least, goes to China so if we are going to keep exporting there and getting that revenue we are going to have to look at the quality issues," Mayes said.
Coun. Brian Mayes, chair of city council's water, waste and environment committee, says the city is looking at how the Chinese ban will affect Winnipeg's recycling programs and investigating the financial implications. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Mayes says the city gets between $6 million and $7 million a year for the materials, but also gets subsidies from industry groups such as Multi-Materials Stewardship Manitoba (MMSM).

"It's not a crisis, but it does have financial impact. We do millions of dollars of revenue, in terms of what we sell for recyclables, so we've got to get on top of this," Mayes said.

In the meantime, Mayes says, Winnipeggers are still encouraged to recycle and a plan to deal with any potential back log will be addressed.

"I don't want people to think we're going to start burning plastic bags. We'll take a look at what the options are," he said.

Currently, the city's recycling is handled by Emterra, but the city has put out a request for bids for a service provider to handle the processing and marketing of recyclable materials that will close Jan. 25.
An import ban in China on most foreign recyclable materials has caused paper and plastic products to build up in depots across Canada and the U.S., but City of Winnipeg officials would not say whether this will affect our city. 1:33

Sorting recyclable goods

According to a MMSM report, the province recycled 85.8 million kilograms in 2016, with 59.6 million kilograms coming from Winnipeg and the surrounding area.

In other cities, CBC News has reported, the ban has been driving down the revenues from recyclables because of the sudden influx in supply.

China used to be the main recipient of the world's recyclable plastics and paper, but has now stopped accepting almost all foreign materials because it tightened its standards for acceptable levels of contaminants.

Plastic bales that are mixed with non-recyclable goods or hazardous wastes are being rejected.

MMSM says Manitobans will now need to put a greater focus on making sure non-recyclable goods don't end up in their blue bins.

"We need to work harder at reducing contamination in the blue bin and reducing our consumption of materials," a spokesperson for the industry-funded group said in a statement.

Processors of recyclable materials will need to find better ways to sort products to ensure contaminant levels are within China's new standards. (CBC)

"As consumers, we need to take greater responsibility in identifying what is truly recyclable, and educate ourselves on what can and cannot go in the bin."

MMSM said it will also be important for consumers to try to reduce waste, both recyclable and non-recyclable, by making better choices when shopping, and trying to re-use as many items as possible.

There will be 'short-term pain'

While Winnipeg and Manitoba have yet to feel the full effects of the ban, those in the industry say there will be costs down the line.

"I think we are at the start of this, so [there will be] a number of financial implications for recyclers, processors, and potentially for municipalities as well," said Ken Friesen, executive director of Canadian Beverage Container Recycling Association (CBCRA), which is responsible for the "Recycle Everywhere" campaign.

"In order to be able to sell the product in China, they have very stringent restrictions on contamination levels and many programs exceed those levels currently," he said.

"The emphasis on reducing contamination will be greatly increased."

Waste management companies must now make sure the product they are sending is properly sorted, meaning increased costs at sorting facilities, and some contaminated recyclable products ending up in the trash.

"Don't throw coffee cups into your recycling because that is actually a contamination at this point and not an accepted material, and so you have too many of those in a bale of material and the whole bale can get rejected," said Friesen.

Friesen says while Manitoba has fared well so far because of the relatively low volume of waste it produces compared with other, more populated regions, more thought needs to be put into reducing the dependence on foreign buyers to process raw materials.

"There definitely will be a period of uncertainty, and in the long term if we develop more mills that can process this material on the continent … that would be a good thing, but there will be short-term pain," he said.

Frisen said CBCRA continues to encourage people to recycle, but there will be an emphasis on making sure the material people put in the bins is designated as recyclable.
Processors compact plastic and paper products into bales, which are then shipped to buyers who turn them into new materials. (CBC)

He says down the road China may loosen the restrictions because they rely on the materials to develop new products.

"They also need the raw materials, the recyclable material, in order to manufacture new products and we're hearing now already of some manufacturers who are not getting enough material," said Friesen.

He says he doesn't foresee any local recycling being diverted to landfills any time soon.

"I fully expect that we will not have material being shipped to landfill in Manitoba. If we talk in a year from now and the situation hasn't changed, that might be a different thing, but not before then."

City declines interview

A request to speak with someone in the water and waste department was declined, but a spokesperson said they are reviewing the implications of the ban, and a report will be prepared and presented to council.

The City of Winnipeg says there is currently no backlog of materials here, recyclables are being shipped out as usual and nothing is being diverted to landfills.

The city also said it doesn't ship any of its recyclables directly to China, but wouldn't say where they go or how much revenue is brought in from their sale.

CBC asked the city followup questions about its recycling program. Those answers did not arrive before deadline.