Why China's recycling ban matters to Calgary

A recycling ban by the Chinese government has forced Calgary to search for someone else to buy its recyclables, with 5,000 tonnes already piling up since October.

Calgary joins other cities in searching for new destinations to ship recyclables

A scrap collector delivers recyclables on a tricycle to a recycling yard in Beijing, China. Calgary is looking for new markets to sell recyclables to following a ban by the Chinese on recycled materials. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A recycling ban by the Chinese government has forced Calgary to search for someone else to buy its recyclables.

Sharon Howland, of Calgary Recycling and Waste Services, said the city has stockpiled 5,000 tonnes of recycled waste since the ban went into effect in October.

"We had some empty storage sheds at some of our land in the southeast, so we took advantage of that," Howland told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"We're also using some shipping containers and some trailers as well, and a little bit of warehouse space. To give you an idea what that [5,000 tonnes] means for the whole program, the city's program generates about 60,000 tonnes of recyclables annually," she added.

"It's a small amount so far, but the situation is evolving, and we're monitoring and adjusting as we go."

'A few ruining it for the many'

The ban came about as a result of a few bad actors, who included toxic materials in their recycling, Howland said.

"The situation with China and why they implemented the policies that they have, is really [a story of] a few ruining it for the many. There's a few companies out there that don't sort the materials properly, so they send loads with garbage mixed in to Chinese mills — and that's where they put the barriers down to say 'Nope, we don't want this material anymore. We want good, clean recyclables to feed our manufacturing mills.'"

"You can't blame them for instituting this ban," she added. "And so those few companies are ruining it for those of us who have been sorting our recyclables properly for decades."

Searching for secondary markets

Prior to the ban, Calgary's third-party recycler, Cascade Delivery, sent all of the city's mixed paper products and half its mixed plastic products to China, which has long had what Howland describes as "an insatiable appetite" in order to feed its manufacturing sector.

Secondary markets the city has targeted to replace China include Thailand, Indonesia, and India.

"There's a lot of other Southeast Asian countries that are ready to jump in to the market to fill this gap," she said.

Workers at Edmonton's waste management facility, which is also affected by China's ban, sort through different recyclable products. Prior to the ban, Calgary's third-party recycler, Cascade Delivery, sent all of the city's mixed paper products and half its mixed plastic products to China. (CBC)

There are also domestic markets for recyclables, including Cascade Delivery, the city's third-party recycler.

The city is also urging the provincial government to follow British Columbia's lead by implementing an extended producer responsibility program (EPR), where the manufacturers of packaging and products take financial and environmental responsibility for products all the way through the end of their life.

Fees offset costs

As far as costs go, Howland said there were no numbers yet to measure the cost of storing unsold recycling, but added that, "our recycling program does pay for itself through utility fees as well as revenue generated from recyclables, so we do use that to offset any expenses for programs like this."

David Biderman, the executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, said the responsibility for ensuring recyclables are properly disposed of requires a collective effort.

"There's a role for the private sector and the public sector, but it does all start with the individual," Biderman told the Calgary Eyeopener

"We all need to be more mindful about what it is we're recycling and the condition of the thing we're putting in the recycling bin."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener, CBC's Stephanie Dubois and CBC Edmonton