How our waste winds up in places like Malaysia and the Philippines

Many Canadians have been surprised — and unhappy — to learn that Canada sends vast amounts of its recyclable waste overseas. CBC explains what happens after we throw our recycling in the bin.

The line from your blue bin to a container in a distant port

How do the products you put in here end up in shipping containers thousands of kilometres away? (Kate Porter/CBC)

For the second time in five weeks, an angry government in Asia is demanding Canada take back unwanted waste.

First it was the Philippines — now Malaysia.

Many Canadians have been surprised — and unhappy — to learn that Canada sends vast amounts of its recyclable waste overseas.

They've been dutifully putting their plastic, glass and paper into the blue bin, believing they are doing the right thing for the environment. But the recycling process can be complicated, and the outcome isn't always as green as we might think.

What happens to what I put in the blue bin?

According to Myra Hird of the School of Environmental Studies at Queen's University, we don't really know.

"People think that when they put something in their recycling bin, it's actually going to be recycled. But this is not the case."

She said the waste might be recycled, but everything depends on market value. (More on that later.) 

You may be tossing your recyclables into a blue bin supplied by a municipal recycling program, but the municipal government's responsibility ends once the blue bin contents are sold to a recycling company. Waste and recycling is for the most part handled by private industry in Canada.

Canadian recycling companies take the material from municipal programs and sort it, clean it and compress it into smaller cubes. Those cubes are then put up for auction.

"[Municipalities] are only responsible for that first contract," said Hird. They need to know where the recycling and the waste first goes. After that, they're not responsible for knowing the rest of that chain." 

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Who buys it? 

It might be bought by a Canadian company that will further process it into pellets that are sold to the plastics industry to be used in new products — such as pipes or plastic bags.

But it could also be bought by a recycling broker who will sell it again — often to companies overseas who seek to make a profit from it. All perfectly legal. But, said Hird, hard to follow.

"These brokers mean that these contracts can change hands several times between the source and the destination." And, she said, there is no accountability.  

For years, China was a huge market for the developed world's plastic waste, taking in about 45 per cent of the world's plastics waste since 1992. But last year, China announced it no longer wants it. Canada, and other countries, needed to find new markets.

How is Canadian plastic waste ending up in Asian countries?

"We don't like to keep our waste around," said Hird, "so we move it between regions. We transport waste to the United States, to South Korea, to obviously, Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere."

And while companies in those countries may be willing to buy it, governments in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam started to crack down late last year — imposing bans and stricter regulations.

Malaysia's environment minister opened a container of contaminated Canadian plastic scrap at Port Klang. The country says it will send the unwanted waste back. (Eric Szeto/CBC)

Companies buy recyclable waste, because they can make money on it. This is where market value comes in. But recycling, said Hird, is not a stable industry. 

"Something that we put in the recycling bin in January … that may get recycled if there's value in it, if there's a market in it." But if there's no market, she said, then by November or December, that same material might be put in landfill because there's no longer a significant profit to be made.

What's more, said Martin Vogt, president of Ontario-based company EFS-plastics, overseas companies do not always recycle all of what we send. "They're picking out the good plastics, and that plastic will be recycled. But most of it ends up in the oceans, in landfills … and sometimes it's burned."

How much does Canada recycle itself?

Much less than you might think.

"Canada recycles only nine per cent of the plastic that we use here in this country," according to Keith Brooks of Environment Defence.  

And Hird cautions that Canadians are not made aware of the costs of recycling. "Recycling means changing that material, which often involves significant transportation."

She uses an example of polystyrene — a standard, versatile foam plastic used to make everything from food containers to protective packaging — that is collected in Kingston.

"[It] gets shipped to northern Ontario using trucks that use non-renewable fossil fuels. It's then liquefied and made smaller, more compact, and then it's put on more trucks which are then taken to Montreal, which then are put on ships that go to the United States and go to South Korea. All of this for one more use for that polystyrene."  

So is recycling in Canada working?

According to Brooks, not really. 

"We need to reduce the amount of plastic that we use. That means banning some plastic [by] the government. We need to hold producers responsible for this plastic ultimately — that's a really important thing. And we need government to take action to do that.

In British Columbia, legislation shifted the onus of handling recycling onto the businesses that create the waste, something known as "extended producer responsibility." Recycle B.C, a non-profit, took responsibility for the province's waste recycling about five years ago. It works to keep contamination levels low, so its recycled products are usually higher quality, making them easier to sell.

And Recycle B.C. spokesperson David Lefebvre told CBC News in April,"all of the plastic that's collected here in the province ends up here in B.C."

There are calls for the Canadian government to create a stronger end market for recyclables, by making it mandatory for manufacturers to use a certain amount of recycled material in new products. (CBC News)

Is there a solution?

Vogt agrees the solution requires government involvement, but had a different take than Brooks.

He said governments need to, "come out and say we need to have recycled content in our products in order to create the circle economy and basically get the industry going." 

But Brooks and Hird both say the real solution lies in reducing all waste, not relying on recycling.