China’s Ban Reveals Recycling Weakness

Commentary, Environment, Lee Harding

Recently, China decided what goes around doesn’t have to come around—at least not around there. As 2017 came to and end, so did Chinese imports of most recyclables, leading to a tough time for Canadian recyclers. Not surprisingly, it also revealed many weaknesses in the premise of recycling in the first place.

Many environmentalists regard recycling as imperative for the environment. They view miners and oil drillers as plunderers of the earth, and manufacturers as the planet’s poisoning polluters.They view the earth as precious, with its resources not only finite, but  scarce. Recycling appears to be a neat solution by renewing materials without touching the earth, and inspiring everyone to be more earth-conscious and less of a want-on consumer.

China announced the decision in July 2017 as a campaign against yang laji, or “foreign garbage,” including plastic, textiles, and mixed paper. Now, recyclers all over the world are scrambling for a new market. The 27 E.U. countries export 87 percent of their recycled plastic to China. Japan, the United States, Australia, and Canada were also largely reliant. China now has enough garbage and recyclables of its own..

The reason China has a domestic recycling program is that they have generated enough trash for it, so they don’t need “foreign trash.” Market economics and massive industrialization have created a growing, and Western-influenced middle class. Now, more Chinese residents than ever before have the power to buy, and throw out, more things.

Halifax used to send three-quarters of its recycling exports to China. While it has found new markets for hard plastics and papers, film plastics still have nowhere to go. Three hundred tonnes of film plastic have been sent to the dump since August, 2017. Already, 5,000 tonnes of paper and plastic has amassed in Calgary, and the city has no solution.

Meanwhile, some Canadian recyclers have continued business-as-usual. Why? Because they represent another group often vilified by environmentalists: large-scale, big business. Recycle B.C. has a province-wide system that takes in 185,000 tonnes annually. According to managing director Allen Langdon, “We have economies of scale that are greater than just individual municipalities.”. Its stringent sorting allows continued exports of quality plastics to China, but a local processor has been buying such plastics for the past three years.

In the end, environmentalists don’t have to mourn greater amounts of Canadian landfill trash because of anything China does. Unless a buyer wants those materials for more of that hated consumerism, recyclables are just trash anyway. As painful as it may be to admit, recycling only makes sense when it actually makes cents—or better yet, dollars. It is as much a business as anything else.