Piles of recyclables wait to be processed at Surrey's Material Recovery Facility

Plastic glut grows as China turns back dirty recyclables

Recycler says catering to household convenience part of problem

Plastics and some other recyclables are piling up at recycling operations in Metro Vancouver as a result of China’s recent move to apply tighter import restrictions to weed out contaminated material.

Industry observers so far see no sign of more plastics or paper that would normally be recycled going to the landfill or Metro’s incinerator, but they agree that could happen.

“I don’t think we’re at that point yet,” Urban Impact CEO Nicole Stefenelli said. “But they are obviously limiting the loads that go into the Chinese market.”

China’s Green Fence policy puts arriving cargo containers there under closer inspection and rejected loads – such as paper contaminated with glass or plastics with too much food residue – are shipped back to the recycler at their own cost.

Stefenelli said her recycling firm hasn’t yet had any containers rejected but the more rigorous inspections and extra steps to improve quality before a load is shipped have caused a backlog of some materials, particularly plastics.

The glut of material isn’t just a waste of space, it also raises concerns for employee safety and fire risks.

About five to seven per cent of recyclables that arrive at Urban Impact must be landfilled as “residual” because it’s too contaminated to be recycled, Stefenelli said.

She hopes the residual rate doesn’t rise as China becomes more selective and said everyone involved in recycling must strive to improve the quality of what goes out.

One problem is the ever-lengthening list of materials that are to be collected and recycled, which makes it a growing challenge to find uses for some commodities.

Next year the list will get longer again when an industry-led stewardship group takes over responsibility for blue box recycling and will be required to accept more types of packaging.

Multi-Material BC has been criticized by Metro Vancouver mayors for proposing glass containers not be collected at curbside in the blue box but instead be taken to depots, to reduce glass contamination of other recyclables.

Stefenelli said excluding glass from the blue box would improve quality and increase the odds of more material actually being recycled.

“That is an example to me of somebody trying to take a stand and make sure materials are recycled,” she said. “As much as that may be politically untenable.”

Stefenelli doesn’t blame households for dirty recyclables, but said serious debate is needed on broader policy decisions.

Surrey and some other cities moved to single-stream recycling in recent years – all recyclables are thrown jumbled in the same blue box and highly automated machines do most of the sorting.

Materials can get mixed together and contaminate each other more easily with single-stream collection than in cities where residents put paper, plastics and other materials in separate bags within the box.

Stefenelli said there’s “absolutely no doubt” the easy convenience of letting residents throw everything into one container comes at a price – potentially lower quality recyclables that may be less likely to get to market.

Recycling Council of B.C. CEO Brock Macdonald agreed source-separated recycling delivers higher quality recyclables, but he noted single-streaming has advantages.

“You get a higher percentage of participation with that, but you do get some contamination,” he said.

Macdonald said he’s optimistic that a year from now, when MMBC has authority to collect all packaging, it will be easier to implement changes to improve the system.

With China looking for higher quality recyclables, he added, B.C. recyclers may need to find new markets in places like South America and South Asia.

MMBC spokesman Allen Langdon said the new agency will have larger economies of scale, giving it an advantage in finding markets for materials.

“We think there’s more opportunities for recycled content to be used domestically,” he said.

Langdon said removing adhesives, for example, can improve the recyclability of materials like PET plastics.

Video (2009): Recyclable sorting facility in Surrey

Just Posted

Search continues near Ashcroft for missing Prince George woman

Jenny Lynn Larocque’s vehicle and dog were found in Venables Valley, but there is no sign of her

Prevailing in the face of adversity

Chilliwack pilot living life to fullest will speak at UFV Oct. 23

UPDATE w/ VIDEO: Chilliwack homeless camp given eviction notice

Inside the camp that will be removed by Monday RCMP according to trespass notice

Missing Chilliwack teen found ‘safe and sound’

Boy found just as mother was organizing search

Chilliwack Rotary club reports $4,200 theft at storage shed

Rotary Train Shed adjacent to homeless camp on reserve land broken into Oct. 15

VIDEO: Sears liquidation sales continue across B.C.

Sales are expected to continue into the New Year

New B.C. acute care centre opens for young patients, expectant mothers

Facility aims to make B.C. Children’s Hospital visits more comfortable

Police officer hit by car, stabbed in Edmonton attack back on job

Const. Mike Chernyk, 48, returned to work Thursday

UBC medical students learn to care for Indigenous people

Students in health-related studies to take course, workshop to help better serve Aboriginal people

Dorsett has 2 goals, assist in Canucks’ 4-2 win over Sabres

‘It was a real good hockey game by our group,’ Canucks coach Travis Green said.

Berry disappointed: Bear tries to eat fake fruit on woman’s door wreath

A Winnipeg woman has taken her berry-embellished wreath down, after a hungry bear visited her porch

Are you ready for storm season?

BC Hydro offers tips on preparing for the storm season

Man in custody linked police search near Salmon Arm

Police have not connected arrest to search at Salmon River Road property

B.C. search groups mobilize for missing mushroom picker

Searchers from across the province look for Frances Brown who has been missing since Oct. 14.

Most Read