Waste land, Part 3: Ontario has a blue-bin crisis

ANALYSIS: China has shut the door on our recycling, and the province must scramble to figure out what to do with it — but there are no perfect solutions
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 19, 2019
A 2018 report indicates that Ontario’s existing landfills have approximately 123 million tonnes of capacity remaining. (Peter Power/CP)

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This is the final instalment of a three-part TVO.org series on waste collection in Ontario. Click here for Part 2; click here for Part 1.

In the first part of this series, I set out to contextualize precisely how much stuff Ontarians throw out every year. In 2016, according to Statistics Canada, it was 9,475,472 tonnes of non-hazardous waste. I crunched some numbers and determined that that weight was comparable to approximately 100 Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or 1.5 Hoover Dams.

That’s a lot of stuff. And it’s not a one-time total. It’s an annual tally. A hundred carriers a year, every year. 

Collecting it all is a major industry, divided among public and private operators using thousands of trucks. In the second part of this series, I explained the logistics of how the various forms of waste are handled once they are picked up. Garbage is taken by garbage trucks to transfer stations, loaded onto tractor-trailers, and hauled away for incineration or burial in landfills. Recycling is sorted at Material Recovery Facilities and, in theory, becomes a commodity that can be sold. Organic waste and yard waste are allowed to decay through natural processes or turned into compost. And all of this happens so effectively and efficiently that most of us don’t have the slightest idea how any of it works.

But the happy status quo may not last for much longer. Arguably, it’s gone already.

Organics and yard waste are relatively easy to handle, once collected — nature does its thing and needs little to no additional intervention from us. But trash and recycling both require active human intervention. Trash is always a sunk cost: it must be buried or burned. Recycling, in theory, can generate money, which offsets the cost of its collection and sorting. But that economic model has been thrown into chaos in Ontario and all across the developed world. Our recyclables might be sellable goods, but our main customer has stopped buying.

In Part 2, I very carefully noted that I was describing an ideal and hypothetical scenario — how the collection of blue-bin material is supposed to work. The system is currently breaking down. For years, a huge quantity of our recyclable material was being exported to China instead of processed domestically. And China has slammed the door shut.

There has been some reporting on this, but the reality is not widely known or appreciated. Indeed, it’s likely that the general public really recalls only one particular angle of this much broader story: the heated war of words — and threats of real war! — between Canada and the Philippines a few months ago. The Philippines was angry and increasingly frustrated that 100-some-odd shipping containers full of Canadian waste had been rotting in a Philippine port after having been deposited there (probably after an illegal bribe was paid to a local official) for five or six years. The dispute was weird enough to get noticed and talked about, and it was eventually resolved after Canada agreed to bring the waste back. But the story actually provided a peek into a bigger one: What was the trash doing there in the first place?

The answer was that it had been intended for export from Canada to China, for processing there. China had been importing absolutely gargantuan quantities of waste, including millions of tonnes of recyclable materials and hundreds of millions of tonnes of used electronics. In 2017, China began restricting, even outright banning, the importation of certain categories of waste and recyclable material over environmental and economic concerns. And, as I noted in Part 2, even in Canadian sorting facilities, so-called recyclable materials are often contaminated with non-recyclable goods. Some of what was arriving in China — as was the case with those 100 shipping containers eventually dumped in the Philippines — was just assorted household trash, falsely labelled as valuable recyclables. This was driving up costs and eroding profits. Fed up, China cut off the flow.

To say that this has had a massive impact on global waste management would be an understatement. Canada was hardly the only country using China as a cheap dumping site for its waste. All over the world, blue-bin programs sold to voters as environmentally friendly ended up simply being trash conduits across the Pacific Ocean to Chinese recycling plants and incinerators. 

The fact that China was cheap and available made it a bottomless pit for North American garbage — and that cancelled out the need for North American governments to develop much in the way of local processing capability for recyclables. Nor was there much of a business case for private-sector companies to develop their own capabilities. Why figure out a way to process it all close to home when Chinese firms are willing to pay for it to be shipped across the Pacific? For North American municipalities, it was a perfect arrangement: Chinese money paid for our waste and offset the costs of operating the local collection programs.

But that’s all over now. And there’s not nearly enough local capacity to keep up with the amount of recyclables we’re processing. China’s decision has set off a series of moves by other municipalities and governments across North America and the world. What little local processing capacity there was suddenly became a precious asset and was quickly snapped up. Other Asian markets have taken in some of what’s still being produced, but they lack the capacity that China had and are paying less per tonne for our recyclables. This has been a nasty surprise for local governments in North America and elsewhere — not only are they having to scramble to find new options, but they’re also seeing the bottom line erode. 

Meanwhile, Ontarians are still doing what they’ve been taught to do — preserve the environment by carefully putting certain items in the blue bin. My large City of Toronto blue bin, full to the lid, was just hauled away this very morning. But I wondered whether there was a chance not one scrap of that material would end up being recycled. With local facilities maxed out, blue-box materials that would once have been sorted for future sale will likely be dumped into nearby landfills, at considerable environmental and economic cost. 

There is simply no other option. The facilities that sort the blue-bin materials are filling up. One recycling industry official interviewed by the Toronto Star this week summed up the challenge succinctly: “Put simply, there does not exist today the infrastructure to properly address this change in global recycling markets.” Matt Keliher, general manager of Solid Waste Management Services for Toronto, told TVO.org via email: "The city has been impacted by the changes to global recycling markets due to the restrictions imposed by China, but we are still able to move and sell our materials. We are just getting less for them. It is still worth it to recycle, but increasingly important to recycle right."

So what do we do?

For now, Ontario, like every other jurisdiction, must scramble. Local capacity must be used as efficiently as possible. New possible partners must be cultivated. Recyclables that can still be exported to China — some categories of clean, separated material are still acceptable — must be carefully sorted and sent abroad. The rest is trash, fit only for burial. This will turn our so-called recycling bins into something of a sham, but it will at least prevent the sorting facilities from overflowing with smelly refuse that has nowhere else to go.

This is, to put it mildly, an imperfect solution. Our recycling program would be an obvious charade — a feel-good exercise that costs additional money and accomplishes virtually nothing. There is also the undeniable truth about trash: it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the economy, and there’s only so much landfill capacity in the province. Toronto, for instance, is already shipping its trash to a dump hundreds of kilometres away, near St. Thomas. A 2018 report by the Ontario Waste Management Association stated that Ontario’s existing landfills have approximately 123 million tonnes of capacity remaining. That’s enough for roughly 13 years of waste at current levels, using Statistics Canada’s 2016 figures. But those 2016 figures were before China cut off the bulk of our recycling exports. If large quantities of blue-bin material are redirected to our landfills, that capacity won’t last us nearly as long.

There are other options. Ontario could ramp up the incineration of collected waste. Simply burning the trash is obviously not ideal for the environment, but it’ll have to be considered as landfills approach capacity. There are other incineration-like options, including systems that use the hot gases created by the incinerators to provide electrical energy — an efficient use of energy that must be expended anyway.

But the real answer is clear: until Ontarians dramatically reduce the amount of waste they produce every year, there is no good option. We’re either going to bury it, burn it, or export it. Or, most likely, some combination of all three. 

Update: This article has been updated with comment from Matt Keliher, general manager of Solid Waste Management Services for Toronto.

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