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