As cities struggle to keep recycling programs afloat, Windsor-Essex is 'one step ahead'

When China shut its doors to much of the world's recyclables last year, waste authorities around the world began to panic — but not in Windsor.

EWSWA sells its material exclusively to processors in North America

Cathy Copot-Nepszy is the Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority's manager of waste diversion. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

When China shut its borders to much of the world's recyclables last year, the people who run recycling programs in many cities began to worry.

In London, Ont. for example, 40% of its recycling ended up overseas in 2018. Half of that went to China, and the other half went to India.

In February, the Michigan city of Westland starting sending the contents of its blue bins to the landfill, citing "extreme global changes in the recycling market" that drove up the cost of its program from $18 to $80 US per tonne.

But here in Windsor, the Essex-Windsor Solid Waste Authority (EWSWA) was nowhere near as concerned.

Workers at the EWSWA's container plant sorting items on April 10th, 2019. Items at this facility go through an optical sorter first, then are handled by humans. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

That's because the authority only sells the items it bundles to processors in North America.

"EWSWA has been working strategically for years to get established in the domestic market," explained Cathy Copot-Nepsy, the authority's manager of waste diversion, noting that Windsor's proximity to the U.S allows its material to be more enticing to American processors than other cities further along Highway 401.

"[This] has allowed us to be one step ahead of all the other recycling plants who have been sending it overseas."

While the EWSWA has been relatively insulated from the effects of the Chinese policy change, Copot-Nepsy admitted that they have had to make some adjustments.

"What happened is you had an oversaturation now in the domestic market," she said, meaning that other cities were trying to sell to the same processors as the EWSWA. "[This] forced us up our game and to further reduce contamination in our facilities."

By contamination, Copot-Nepsy is referring to items placed in the wrong coloured bin, such as a milk carton in the red fibre bin, or material that is not actually accepted by the authority's program, such as wood, cookware and non-container metal and plastics, something she refers to as "wish-cycling."

A plastic bag amidst newspaper at the EWSWA's fibre plant on April 10th, 2019. Sorting contamination such as this bag out of the recycling stream increases costs. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

"We'll see different things that come in that actually shut us down, cause thousands of dollars worth of repairs on equipment, on belts," she said.

In addition to increased public education — such as encouraging the use of the "Recycle Coach" smartphone application — the EWSWA is also investing in new machinery to better sort the material it receives. Next week, the authority is installing an optical sorting machine in its fibre plant, similar to one already in place in the the container plant.

"It's actually been something in the plan for a little bit, it was recommended a few years back," Copot-Nepsy said when asked if this machine was purchased in response to market conditions.

"This is something we need to invest in."


Jonathan Pinto is the host of Up North, CBC Radio One's regional afternoon show for Northern Ontario and is based in Sudbury. He was formerly a reporter/editor and an associate producer at CBC Windsor. Email


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