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The Green Fence and the Future of Recycling

January 25, 2018 The Green Fence and the Future of Recycling

If you’ve been following the recycling news in the past few months – and I know you have – you may have heard the term “green fence” thrown around, but just what the heck is the green fence anyway?

The term refers to “Operation Green Fence,” a policy program implemented by China in 2013 to improve the quality of recyclables being exported to China. After years of decreasing quality of materials entering China, and no longer wanting to bear the financial and environmental costs of dealing with those materials, the Chinese government cracked down on imports of North American and European recycling.

This program increased enforcement of regulations to stop dirty recyclables and trash entering China. The result? North American and European recyclers were forced to improve processing or find other markets for their materials. It was a rude awakening that we here in North America needed to do things better when it came to recycling.

Rather than return empty, container ships such as this one are loaded with North American and European scrap commodities before returning to China. (Photo credit: Recycling Today)

 

Five years later and China is again telling the rest of the world it doesn’t want our trash, and rightly so. As of January 1, China, the world’s largest importer of recycled materials, is renewing its campaign against foreign garbage with bans and stricter contamination limits on numerous recycled materials including plastics, metals, cardboard and mixed paper.

The effects of the “green fence” are being felt only a few months after the impending restrictions were announced, and the United States is being hit particularly hard. US scrap exports to China were worth over $5.6 billion last year, and recyclable materials are the sixth largest US export to China. With a lack of domestic infrastructure to handle the volumes being collected, the future of US recycling is uncertain. Some companies are being forced to landfill or store materials, while others have stopped accepting materials altogether.


Here in Canada, we send about 21% of recycled plastics to China, but the effects of tightened restrictions are being seen across the country, and Yukon is no exception.

Changes in the market are requiring local processors in Whitehorse to ensure that paper and plastics shipped south are clean, so they don’t end up landfilled.

Whitehorse Blue Bin Recycling recently asked customers to begin sorting recyclables into two streams, a dry paper stream and a clean container stream, to increase the quality of materials being recycled. While China’s new regulations are forcing changes to Yukon recycling, volatile recycling markets are nothing new. In 2008, recycling commodities markets crashed, and in 2014, poor market prices forced the temporary closure of Raven’s public drop off.

Raven Recycling is urging the public to keep up the good work by continuing to sort and rinse recycling, and to separate plastics and paper in packaging to ensure the materials get recycled.

Cardboard is loaded at Raven Recycling for shipment to recycling mills in BC and Washington.

 

Elsewhere in the country, the regulations are having varied effects.

Edmonton, which sells paper and cardboard to China, is hiring extra staff and slowing sort lines to ensure they get coffee cups, plastics and other contaminants out of their paper stream. So far they are managing to keep contamination low enough, but things are tenuous. In 2013, when standards were first tightened, the city lost $1 million in revenue due to flooded markets.

Calgary has stockpiled five thousand tonnes of recyclables since October, and Island Waste Management in P.E.I. has stored more than 100 tonnes of plastics (mostly grocery bags) and incinerated another 60 tonnes in a waste-to-energy facility.

Halifax recently sought approval to landfill 300 tonnes of film plastics, a practice that has long been banned, but decided to burn them instead.

The City of Winnipeg says there is currently no backlog of materials. Recycling is being shipped out as usual and nothing is being diverted to landfill. Even so, recyclers in Manitoba are actively seeking ways to reduce contamination, foreseeing costs down the line.

The City of Toronto is still shipping material, but revenues are decreasing due to an oversupply of recycling and low prices. They also have a single-stream recycling system – one bin for all materials – and contamination is high, around 25%.


One jurisdiction that seems unaffected by the new restrictions is British Columbia, where residential packaging and printed paper are covered under an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program. This program requires the producers of these materials to be responsible for collection and recycling at the end of a product’s lifespan. This EPR system funds Recycle BC, the organization in charge of residential packaging and printed paper recycling province-wide.

Recycle BC has guaranteed a supply of plastics to a local processor, and BC has been recycling plastics locally for over three years, creating second-generation plastics with value.

According to Recycle BC Director Alan Langdon, BC is also producing high quality paper and cardboard, giving them access to markets unavailable to other jurisdictions. BC’s paper and cardboard are cleaner than most provinces because many cities in BC require residents to separate paper from other recyclables. BC has also facilitated widespread plastic bag recycling by installing bag drop offs at major pharmacy chains such as London Drugs.

The benefits of an EPR system are evident in BC. Similar programs have potential to be developed in other provinces. For example, Ontario has laid out ambitious goals for waste diversion and EPR programs in their Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario. China’s new regulations could be just the thing to kickstart EPR programs nationwide that support domestic infrastructure for recycling and promote the circular economy.

 Residents of the City of Vancouver sort recycling into three
streams. BC is one of few provinces with an Extended Producer
Responsibility (EPR) program in place for residential
packaging and printed paper. (Photo: City of Vancouver)

 

We are entering a new reality of recycling and waste management. This is a wake-up call to North Americans, and the world, that we need to better manage our own materials and find ways to process recycling locally and sustainably. It’s a rallying call for implementation of more EPR programs and legislation to address our growing waste problem. It’s an endorsement for transition to a circular economy in which we treat these precious materials as resources, not waste.

Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to reflect on our current lifestyles and the amount of materials we create only to quickly dispose of them. We must challenge ourselves to change for the better. We must strive to take less, embrace environmental design, reuse and repair items, and recycle materials as a last resort, because continuing on with business as usual is no longer an option.

 

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