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Globalization infiltrates the Yukon’s recycling bins

You’re going to have to do a better job sorting your junk or else China won’t take it

Keith Halliday | Yukonomist

Your recycling bin is now on the front lines of globalization, believe it or not.

You may have thought you were just doing your bit helping the environment by putting your junk mail and yogurt containers in the blue bin.

Actually, you’re a bit player in a giant global commodities market.

And if, as you do the recycling, you’re wondering what exactly your role is, you can tell your friends you’ve become an unpaid commodity harvester feeding wood fibre and plastic feedstock into multi-billion-dollar global supply chains.

Rich countries generate so much recycling that they end up shipping vast amounts to developing countries where lower wage rates (and sometimes slacker environmental regulations) make sorting and re-processing more economic. Your cereal box may have gone from your blue bin into a container headed to China, where it got made into cardboard before making a return trip to you as part of the box for your new Chinese big screen TV.

McClatchy, a U.S. news agency, reports that about 30 per cent of the volume from America’s biggest waste and recycling company goes to China. We don’t know the figure for Canada, but keep in mind that Canada exports more recovered paper per capita than the U.S. according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (yes, that’s a real thing).

And you may have seen the recent news about a shipment of over 100 shipping containers of Canadian recyclables — which turned out to be household trash including dirty Canadian diapers — that has been rotting in Philippine customs for several years as local officials tried to get it shipped back to Canada.

It turns out you’ve also been doing your bit for Canada’s trade balance. In 2016 we imported $64 billion in Chinese products and exported $21 billion to China in return. Your cereal boxes were part of our biggest export category to China: “Woodpulp; paper or paperboard scraps.”

From an economic point of view, this makes sense. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is guiding your recycling to where it can most cheaply be reprocessed into the product with the most value. The ships going back to China are mostly empty, so shipping is cheap. And it’s better to satisfy China’s appetite for paper with our recycling rather than increasing the pressure on Chinese forests.

But the commodification of recycling makes it hard to manage local recycling programs. When oil prices fell in 2014, it hit plastics recycling hard. In many cases, it was now cheaper to use oil to make new, clean plastic rather than re-process recyclables. This hurt the cashflow of many recycling programs.

Now China has put new restrictions on recycling imports. McClatchy reports that China is planning to ban 24 different kinds of recyclables, including mixed paper and various plastics. They are doing this because they are tired of the low quality and contamination of recycling shipments.

In addition to some of us not being very careful about following the sorting rules at the recycling depot, sometimes nasty garbage gets mixed in either by mistake or on purpose. I once visited a Canadian paper recycling plant and was astonished when they described the junk they found in the incoming shipments. Apparently public blue bins are a good place to get rid of potentially incriminating handguns.

China’s move has disrupted North American markets. According to McClatchy, the price for mixed paper in the U.S. southwest has fallen from US$80 per ton in July to a quarter of that in October. The effect on lower-grade plastics, the kind with the numbers 3-7 in the recycling symbol on the bottom, could be even worse. Large shipments may have to be warehoused or dumped in landfills.

We are not immune in the Yukon. Whitehorse Blue Bin Recycling recently told its clients they would need to start separating paper products from other recycling. “Chinese government policy is putting pressure on North American recyclers to produce higher quality material. Separating out paper allows our processor, Raven Recycling, to send a higher quality product to market.”

You may not like putting in extra effort sorting your recycling. But with China’s population being 37,500 times bigger than the Yukon’s, we aren’t setting the rules.

The nice way to position this is that it’s a reminder that we all need to put more effort into dealing with our trash and recyclables. According to the World Bank, Canadians produce 2.2 kilograms of municipal solid waste per person per day, one of the highest figures in the world. Clean and sorted recyclables get a better price for our recycling programs and have a lower chance of ending up in the landfill.

Taylor Tiefenbach at Blue Bin told me what we should do to avoid the three most common recycling missteps. First, clean containers of food residue before binning them. A jar lathered with spaghetti sauce can contaminate lots of other clean recycling. Second, pay attention to what is and isn’t allowed in each recycling receptacle. Don’t put plastic in the paper bin and vice versa. Finally, separate your packaging. Avoid leaving the styrofoam blocks inside cardboard boxes before putting them into the cardboard bin.

The frank message is that, if we don’t improve our recycling quality, we’ll all have to pay some big bills in the future for overflowing landfills and unconstrained carbon emissions.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist