Most of the plastics that Winnipeggers toss in their recycling bins are sent to China to be remade into fly swatters, dolls and other plastic objects that never get recycled again, a CBC News investigation has learned.
City of Winnipeg documents show 82 per cent of plastic waste in 2009 was sold to International Paper Industries in Vancouver.
That firm's marketing manager, Doris Wong, confirmed that 4,835 tonnes of Winnipeg's "mixed rigid plastics" are then shipped to Hong Kong to be remade into countless plastic goods for world markets.
The goods are made from everything from tossed yogurt tubs to margarine bins.
These so-called second-life durable goods, like carpets and polar fleeces, do not get further recycled. Instead, consumers trash these items after they get old or worn down.
As a result, nearly everything plastic put in Winnipeg's blue bins ends up in a landfill somewhere in the world.
But at least the materials were recycled at some point, said the city's solid waste manager, Darryl Drohomerski.
"Is it better to landfill (the plastics) the first time through? Probably not," he said. "So at least you're getting more life out of it — whether it becomes something that is recycled once more, or twice more, it's still better than zero times."
Eco-watchdogs say Winnipeg's plastic recycling system betrays the recycling symbol found on almost all blue boxes: the three arrows in a closed loop, suggesting the materials are continuously recycled.
"The whole idea of recycling plastics, for me it's a total fraud, it's a total scam," says Manuel Maqueda, co-founder of California-based Plastic Pollution Coalition.
Winnipeg's recycling system works like this: the plastics are picked up by trucks, dumped at a city recycling facility, sorted by hand at a conveyor belt, bailed into one-metre cubes, then sold on world recycling markets.
Drohomerski said it's better to ship the plastics overseas than bury them in a local landfill site.
"Really, in a way, we're kind of closing the loop by sending material back there so they can actually turn it into new packaging or new products as opposed to them using oil to actually make new plastics to ship back to us," he said.
While the lion's share is bound for China, clear plastic bottles and milk jugs get a different destination.
A company called Ekman Recycling purchased most of Winnipeg's milk jugs in 2009 (about six per cent of the city's plastics), and trucked them to Minnesota, where they were remade into products like plastic decking for use in backyard patios.
Another company, Merlin Plastics, bought all of Winnipeg's pop and water bottles, about five per cent of the city's plastics.
Those materials are shipped to Vancouver and resold to remake fruit cartons and drink bottles, for example. Coca-Cola bottling in Canada, for instance, uses that kind of recycled plastic to make up to 10 per cent of the content of its bottles.
A mere one per cent of Winnipeg's blue bin plastics in 2009 were recovered locally, by Transcona-based X-Potential. The company used recycled plastics to make plastic curbs and landscape ties.
The plant burned down in 2006 and is now being rebuilt.
On Saturday, the city is holding a public forum at the Convention Centre downtown to discuss the future of garbage and recycling in the city.