China’s decision to no longer import low-grade recyclable materials – paper, plastic, glass, and metals – does not appear to be having a major impact in Quebec for now. But that development is a warning that effective recycling begins and ends at home and, as the experts say, we have to do a better job.
The mantra, reduce, recycle, and reuse is as much a clarion call to governments and industry to improve and refine methods as it is an appeal to all, to accept responsibility for how we treat the planet and what we do with our garbage.
According to at least one environmental group that promotes sustainable waste disposal, Quebec has been exporting as much as two-thirds of
recyclable materials collected throughout the province, most of it to China. That stuff is beginning to pile up at some of the 27 sorting centres,
because China is no longer buying.
“For years, China has been buying bales of paper, plastic, and metal, with quite a high degree of contamination,” says Karel Ménard, general menager of the Front commun québécois pour une gestion écologique des déchets.
“For some of Quebec’s sorting centres, this was an easy and profitable way to get rid of recyclable materials,” he adds.
With its ready supply of cheap labour, Chinese dealers could carry out a second-level of triage.
As the world’s second largest economy, China no longer wants to be the world’s dumping ground, and its new policy is disrupting the recycling industry worldwide: It will only accept recycled materials if they are less than one per cent contaminated, compared to the previous five percent standard. Wet paper or cardboard, and plastic bag pieces, for example, are no longer wanted.
The new standard means only clean, high-quality plastics and papers can be recycled. Paper with any traces of food or liquid on them, cardboard with pizza grease, dirt leaves, or plastic bags are considered contaminants.
As a result, bales of paper are beginning to pile up outside the biggest sorting centre in Quebec, the St. Michel sorting and recycling centre at the old Miron Quarry, as we saw the other day on an impromptu visit. Ménard estimates that by mid-February, some 6,000 bales of paper were exposed to the elements. (one bale is about one cubic yard.)
This is a serious challenge because paper constitutes about 80 per cent of recyclable materials collected, though at least some of it is being sold to India.
Ménard said other markets could be developed in Asia. “Eventually, India, Viet Nam, and South Korea could replace China as markets for our recyclables, but this is hardly ideal – We are exporting resources, which means exporting jobs,” he says.
“Collecting recyclables costs Quebec about $160 million a year. We should keep these materials here, process them here,” Ménard says.
Some recycling centres have closed in past years because of the changing market. Those that remain in operation will have to upgrade triage operations to continue exporting, and that is one reason why Quebec this winter set up a $3 million fund to assist private companies that sort, treat, and repurpose waste.
One idea that could help is to recycle more glass. So far the Société des alcools du Québec refuses to participate in a rebate program to reward consumers who return glass wine and spirits bottles to SAQ outlets. According to a 2015 figure from Recyc-Québec, only 14 per cent of the 156,000 tons of glass generated by Quebecers are recycled, the rest end up in landfill.
The city of Saint Lambert is taking a lead, with its recent decision to rent a custom glass-recycling bin and have its contents transported to a glass recycling facility in nearby St-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
One Quebec recycling firm that is cited by Ménard as an example is Via, based in Levis, across the St. Laurent from Quebec City, one of four it operates to service most
municipalities in eastern Quebec.
According to general manager Jean-Sébastien Daigle, Via, which runs on a not-for-profit basis, has as its main goal integrating people into its work force who have functional handicaps. Three of five of its employees have physical or mental issues.
It is constantly investing as it adapts its methods and equipment to changing market conditions, such as coping with less newsprint, because of diminishing circulation of daily newspapers, and more carton, because of increased shipments from Amazon and other online stores.
While it is proud to sell 65-70% of its materials in Quebec, the remainder, mainly newsprint, is sold to South Korea, Indonesia, and India.
To remain profitable requires sufficient volume, and Daigle says his firm, as the third largest in Quebec, is big enough to justify new investment in up-to-date technology.
“We are able to sell what we have, but I remain cautious, because we do not control the market, but for now we are selling all of our materials.”