That is Part 1 in a three-part series investigating the state of Canada’s recycling industry. Read Part 2 and Part 3 of the series here.

On the Loraas recycling plant in Saskatoon, 650 bales of worthless plastic pile up outside. Among the many towers of packaging: a crumpled parmesan cheese container, a twig bottle of tile cleaner and a bathtub of garlic mayo.

A number of this plastic, tightly compressed into cubes, has been sitting here for months, waiting for a buyer. But nobody has come knocking.

“This material here could be very hard to maneuver,” said Dale Schmidt, manager of Loraas Recycle. “Currently, it moves at a negative value and it only moves now and again. We’re having an actual hard time getting these items to market.”

What once could possibly be sold for profit now costs money to haul away, and the notion that Canadians are saving the planet by putting things in a blue bin is proving to be a delusion.

The recycling industry in Canada is having its moment of reckoning.

“It’s a watershed moment. We’ve to come back clean, we’ve to be honest, we’ve to get back to truth, to reality with these programs,” said Lorenzo Donini, director of presidency affairs and municipal relationships for GFL Environmental in Western Canada.

In a months-long investigation, Global News spoke with dozens of communities, firms and industry leaders across the country in regards to the mounting challenges faced by Canada’s recycling industry. The result’s dire: with few exceptions, more recycling is being sent to landfill, fewer items are being accepted within the blue bin and the financial toll of running these programs has turn out to be a burden for some municipalities.

While recycling has never been a money-making enterprise, cities and recycling firms depend on the revenue from the products they collect on the curb — things like plastic, paper, aluminum and cardboard — to offset the price of sorting and processing.

Every part had a price — for a time.

Now, commodity prices have crashed. Some products haven’t any buyers, and recyclers are paying to do away with some things.  

“If we don’t, we are going to keep going towards a cliff that we go off of that completely erodes all public trust in this system.”

WATCH: Post-China ban — Canada’s latest recycling reality

What put Canada on this position was its dependency on China.

“It became a drug almost for this country — and in North America — that ‘Oh, China will take it. China will take it,’” Schmidt said.

For years, Canada shipped roughly half of its recycling exports to China with the idea it was all being transformed on the opposite side of the Pacific.  

“It’s since come to light that, in reality, what they were doing was mining out the invaluable materials, they usually were, largely, burning the low-valuable materials,” Donini said.

But in the beginning of 2018, China declared it didn’t need to be a dumping ground anymore, banning 24 varieties of waste, including certain varieties of plastic and paper. Any material that continues to be accepted needs to be of the very best quality, meaning the country won’t take dirty pizza boxes and leftover shreds of low-cost plastic.

Other Asian countries have tried to fill the void. From 2016 to 2018, a 98 per cent drop in Canadian plastic exports to China was countered by a greater than 1,000 per cent increase in exports to Malaysia. But Malaysia couldn’t handle the flood of materials and, in October 2018, banned plastic imports as well. India did the identical. Vietnam imposed restrictions. So did Taiwan.

The drug that was China was gone. The message from the remaining of Asia was clear: we don’t want your trash.

“Now, we’re going through withdrawal from that drug,” Schmidt said.


Withdrawal has been predictably unpleasant.

The North American supply of recycling — things like paper, cardboard and plastic — has far exceeded demand, and for months, cities scrambled to search out latest buyers.

In Cowansville, Que., a recycling facility went bankrupt. The Quebec government responded with a $13-million bailout for the industry and a pledge of one other $100 million within the 2019 budget.

Within the U.S., some towns have resorted to burning their recycling and even cancelled recycling programs altogether.

While much has improved for the reason that initial shock in Canada, the brand new reality is dreary.

“The issue is in North America itself. We don’t have enough mills to totally process the fabric that we’ve got,” Schmidt said.

The fallout is that more recycling is ending up in landfills than at any time in recent memory.

It’s measured by something that’s called the residual rate — the leftover. The residual rate tallies how much of the recycling a plant receives actually finally ends up being trash.

“(At) a very good plant, the rule of thumb was that if you happen to could keep your residual rate to eight to 10 per cent … that was a very good measure,” Donini said. “Now, you’re more of a 25 per cent residual rate if you happen to’re doing well … I’ve heard of residual rates as high as 40 per cent.”

The City of Toronto’s residual rate was 22 per cent in 2015. Today, it’s hovering around 30 per cent.

“We’d like a really high-quality standard of fabric to have the option to maneuver at a very good value so, ultimately, some materials are faraway from the system and find yourself as garbage,” said Matt Keliher, general manager of solid waste management services for the City of Toronto.

As a substitute of landfilling products at the top of processing, some cities have simply told residents they are going to accept fewer items to start out with — a move contrary to the ethos of recycling.

The City of St. Albert, north of Edmonton, stopped taking five varieties of packaging last November.

We desired to be sure that the items that we collected in our blue bags were capable of be recycled to be made into latest products,” said Olivia Kwok, town’s supervisor of waste and diversion programs.

Items now not accepted for curbside recycling include glass bottles, single-use cups comparable to coffee and yogurt cups, plastic clamshell packaging – the sort used for berries and pastries, chip cans and non-deposit Tetra Pak containers, that are commonly used for soup and broth packaging.

“Those are items that go to the rubbish,” Kwok said.

On the Bluewater Recycling Association plant near London, Ont., milk cartons, aluminum pie plates, aluminum food cans and small yogurt cups aren’t any longer accepted.

“Every resident desires to do more, not less, and we share their frustration. We’d love nothing more (than) to come back out and say, ‘Hey, we are able to accept these materials,” said president Francis Veilleux. “But the actual fact is today we’ve gone just a little bit bit too far. We’d like to take a step back, refocus on the suitable materials, and let’s do those right and be sure they get marketed.”

Determined to not send his products to a landfill, Schmidt of Loraas Recycle in Saskatoon was paying for somebody to take his plastic film.

“Then, finally, that company closed … and the marketplace for plastic film or low-density polyethylene totally collapsed,” he explained.  

With out a buyer to take it, plastic film needed to be cut from Loraas’ recycling program. Now, it goes straight to the landfill.

EFS-plastics, certainly one of the few processing plants that accepts plastic film in Canada, is popping down multiple requests per week from recyclers and municipalities across North America eager to offload their product.

“It’s purely a matter of capability that we are able to’t do it for them,” said Eadaoin Quinn, director of business development and procurement for the corporate, which is positioned outside of Stratford, Ont. The EFS-plastics plant is taking all that it could possibly, however it simply can’t absorb the world’s excess supply.

“It’s an enormous problem,” Quinn added.

The crossroads where the recycling industry finds itself may hold its biggest test up to now: the way to discover a latest way forward and, perhaps, a latest mantra — get well, reinvigorate and reinvent.

“I feel there may be nothing about this example that may’t be salvaged. But it surely does need some course correction,” said Donini of GFL, optimistically at first.

But then he warns, “If we don’t make these changes, we’re going to start out flirting with real disaster.”

— With files from Christian D’Avino


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