Politics

Canada hasn't issued any permits for companies to ship waste, government says

The federal government has issued no permits for Canadian companies to ship trash overseas since regulations changed three years ago — raising questions about how waste is still ending up on the shores of Asian nations.

New regulations introduced in 2016 require exporters to get permits to ship waste to other countries

Minister Yeo Bee Yin opens up a container of contaminated Canadian plastic scrap at Port Klang in Malaysia (Eric Szeto/CBC)

The federal government has issued no permits for Canadian companies to ship trash overseas since regulations changed three years ago — raising questions about how waste is still ending up on the shores of Asian nations.

Canada introduced new regulations in 2016 requiring exporters to get permits to ship waste other countries would consider hazardous, including trash. The changes were the result of the diplomatic dustup with the Philippines over 103 containers of trash that arrived in ports there in 2013 and 2014 wrongly labelled as plastics for recycling.

"This garbage was shipped to the Philippines under the previous Conservative government, when Canada's regulations did not comply with the international standards set out in the Basel Convention," said Sabrina Kim, spokeswoman for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. "In 2016, we amended our regulations to prevent this situation from happening again."

And yet it has. Malaysia this week is demanding Canada pay to take back a shipping container filled to bursting with plastic grocery bags and packaging Malaysia says is too contaminated to be recycled.

This latest garbage embarrassment is shining new light on what Greenpeace Canada calls the "myth of recycling."

"I think it is a shock to Canadians that we ship so much garbage overseas," said Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada's oceans and plastics campaign.

Environmental Defence program director Keith Brooks says most Canadians have no idea that after they dutifully drop their plastic packages and soda cans into blue bins, a lot of them still end up in landfills or burned in far-flung countries.

"The curtain has been pulled back or the wool's been pulled off our eyes and we now see that 'Oh my gosh this is totally not working the way that we thought it was working' and we are contributors to a big problem," he said. "We are a global pariah as a result of exporting our contaminated plastic to less-developed countries. It's shameful."

After five years of negotiations with the Philippines, including attempts to convince the Philippine government to dispose of the garbage locally, Canada agreed earlier this month to take back dozens of the containers sent there in 2013 and 2014 and pay for the cost of shipping them. Last week it contracted a major global shipping company to handle the waste, which is to be taken to Vancouver and burned for energy at a plant in suburban Burnaby.

Recycling 'myth'

Canada is investigating the Malaysia situation now. Canadian officials have thus far refused to say whether any other countries are requesting Canada take back garbage.

Statistics Canada reports the country exported 44,800 tonnes of plastic waste in 2018, much of it to the United States. Once waste goes to the U.S. it is not tracked to determine what happens to it in the end. Brooks said plastics that originate in Canada are often mixed with American waste and then shipped to Asia.

Canada is not the only culprit. Canada's container was among 60 that Malaysia says were imported illegally from 14 different countries, including the United States, Japan, France, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Philippines has complained of illegal trash turn up from Australia and South Korea. Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have all reported an increase in global garbage dumps, as unscrupulous business owners try to get in on the $3-billion trash industry.

Both Malaysia and the Philippines are looking at their own importing businesses as part of the problem — companies that get paid to take plastics for recycling but then just dump them in landfills or burn them.

The issue has become particularly bad since China, once the world's largest importer of recycling plastics, slammed its doors to the materials last year. China found it was disposing more than it was recycling because the materials arriving in its ports were often too contaminated with food waste and non-recyclables to be useful.

Malaysia is denouncing Canada's for what it calls irresponsible exporting of plastic waste, becoming the second Asian nation to make plans to ship Canadian trash back across the ocean, after the Philippines. 2:27

Greenpeace Canada says the countries sending trash also have a duty to investigate their side of the equation. King says Canada's Liberal government is talking a lot about the plastics problem but thus far hasn't actually done anything about it.

Canadians produce 3.25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. Less than 10 per cent of the plastics Canadian toss out are diverted from landfills, and not all of what is diverted is actually recycled.

King says there is just no way Canada can absorb the amount of plastic waste its people produce, and the idea that the material should be burned or recycled is missing the mark. Burning waste for energy comes with its own host of environmental problems, namely air, soil and water pollution, while recycling is just not working.

King said Canada needs to ban the plastics that are the hardest to recycle — bags and heavy takeout-food containers as a start — and work towards producing products that can be reused instead.

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