Features  Waste mismanagement

The Daily's Eric Wen unpacks the myths and contradictions of recycling's global infrastructure

In January of 2009, Montreal’s recycling industry faced a crisis: the global demand for recycling dropped dramatically and Rebuts Solides Canadien (RSC) – the privately-owned company contracted by the city of Montreal to sort its recycled material – had 20,000 tonnes of unsalable recycled materials on its hands. The options were either to pay companies to take the refuse off their hands, to store it until the market got better, or to throw it away in landfills. Patrice Hamel, plant manager of Montreal’s sorting facility, estimates that the company lost nearly $1 million that year because of this crisis.

This crisis highlights some of the problems faced by the global recycling industry that usually go unnoticed by the general public. Recycling is a common practice in Montreal, and most of North America, and is not the subject of controversial political debate. People generally know better than to throw their empty plastic bottles in the garbage, and the City of Montreal has curbside pickup for recycling. However, what happens after the trucks crisscross through our neighbourhoods collecting our recyclable waste remains a mystery to many, and we may not realize that our current recycling infrastructure is not as environmentally sound as we think.

The industry is fairly opaque, and operates without much meaningful government regulation. Right now Montreal’s recycling is handled entirely by the private sector – from collection, to sorting, to processing. Meanwhile, our recycled materials are often shipped to Asia or worse, thrown away in landfills. With roughly half of Montreal’s recycled materials being shipped overseas (emitting thousands of kilograms of carbon emissions in the process), and with much non-biodegradable yet recyclable products filling up landfills, our waste management system is significantly flawed. While the common belief is that recycling is part of a solution to the problem of our alarming rates of consumption, in fact it only tempers the damage.

Montreal’s sorting facility is located on the other side of Autoroute 40 in St. Michel, where RSC sorts all of the city’s residential recycling. Five private contractors are hired to collect recyclable waste around the city and bring them to the RSC’s sorting facility. On any given day, this totals 125 to 150 truckloads from the metropolitan Montreal area. These trucks dump all of the city’s collected materials into the reception zone of a massive warehouse where mountains of paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass are piled high around the room.

“This is finished material,” said Patrice Hamel, the Plant Manager, pointing at bales of paper stacked in tall columns as we walked across the catwalk. “The other material and categories,” he said, pointing to the heaps of unsorted plastic, “are dropped on this bin, and then they feed it onto the conveyor.”

We then walked through a series of rooms, squeezing between large machines and conveyor belts and speaking loudly over the constant industrial drone. “The workers sort the plastic with the rest of the fibres,” said Hamel as he led me through the facility’s confusing labyrinth. “In here, I have a magnet to pick up the steel cans. Here, I have two optical sorters. This machine sorts the different types of plastic. The other sorter sorts the rest of the plastic, aluminum, and trash.”

Toward the end of the line, an Eddy Current separator divides the metal that mistakenly got on the plastic line with a large magnet. We stood and watched as plastic slowly dropped down a pipe until the separator transferred a gigantic ball of aluminum into a different pipe.

Hamel then led us back out into the warehouse. “After they drop to the first floor, it goes to the baler compactor to build a bale of finished product. Afterward, the forklift puts it in the container. They load it into a dry box trailer, or in an overseas shipping container.”

Sorting is only the first step of the recycling process. The next step happens in a different processing facility, sometimes here in Quebec but often somewhere in China or India.

Recycled plastic is shipped to a processing company where the plastic is washed, shredded, melted, and extruded to create small pellets that are sold to customers who use the recycled plastic to make their products. Recycled paper needs to be de-inked – which is done either at a paper mill or at separate de-inking facilities. Recycled paper is de-baled, again sorted through a series of conveyor belts, and shredded into tiny pulp fibres. Then chemicals are added to remove any ink from the fibre. When post-consumer paper has been turned into the de-inked pulp, it can be used at paper mills to produce a new product.

Aluminum is cut into smaller pieces, chemically or mechanically cleaned, and then melted into molten aluminum in a furnace. After metal impurities are chemically removed, other metals may be added for alloy specifications and then the molten aluminum is poured out of the furnace. Glass goes through a similar process: it has to be cleaned, melted, and re-blown.

All recycled material goes through a heavy industrial sorting process. It gets shipped to another facility – sometimes on the other side of the globe – and then goes through another heavy industrial process to produce new material. In one year, the RSC receives approximately 200,000 tonnes of recycled waste from the metropolitan Montreal area. The sorting plant can process 35 tonnes per hour and operates six days per week at 19 hours per day. Forty five trucks carrying dry storage trailers or shipping containers full of recycled material leave each day to be sold to local vendors or overseas markets in Asia.

A 2009 report from the World Shipping Council estimates that the carbon emissions for a ship to carry one tonne of cargo one kilometre is 10 grams; a tractor-trailer emits 59 grams of carbon to carry one tonne of cargo one kilometre, and airfreight emits 470 grams of carbon to carry one tonne of cargo one kilometre. The distance from Montreal to Hong Kong, where much of our refuse gets shipped, is over 12,000 kilometres.

In January 2009, the City of Montreal signed a ten-year contract with RSC for zero dollars for the treatment of recycled material. The only cost to taxpayers is the inevitable garbage that is placed in recycling bins, which costs the city roughly $7 per tonne – far less than the garbage disposal contract, which costs the city $70 per tonne.

Alain Leduc is an Environmental Advisor for the City of Montreal. Despite his claim that recycling is “without a doubt” a major aspect of the city’s green initiatives, he also recognizes the adverse environmental impact of the recycling process.

The contract’s environmental stipulations have less strength than one would hope, and as it stands they act more like a suggestion than a mandate. RSC has to sell its material to local companies if it can’t get a better price abroad – but if it can, it’s not bound to keeping the product in Canada.

“We can’t oblige [RSC] to lose money to stay in Montreal,” said Leduc

Hamel estimates that roughly 50 per cent of Montreal’s recycled waste is shipped to Asia. Asian markets are more favourable to recyclers because they have better technology to accept lower-grade materials, and can process them in greater volumes. “In Asia, it is not difficult to receive [lower quality material] because they re-sort the materials at their plant,” said Hamel. “In Quebec, when [processing plants] receive the fibres, they like to have quality… You don’t have enough industry for picking up all the materials that this plant recycles. For this reason I export material to Asia or India.”

“I like having a local market, but they don’t have the same technology as they do overseas,” admitted Hamel.

When it comes to selling recycled materials to Asia, it is sometimes an inevitable necessity for companies like RSC when the choice is between trans-Pacific shipping and a landfill. If there are no local customers that have the capacity or technology to accept lower-grade recycled materials, the options are few.

Cascades is a Quebec-based company, and one of the largest producers of paper products in North America. It markets itself as being committed to sustainably producing paper entirely from recycled materials. Of the 2.2 million tonnes of paper produced per year, 1.4 million tonnes are collected by Cascades independently, and another 800,000 tonnes are purchased from municipalities and other companies like RSC.

“Cascades is probably one of the companies best known for its carbon footprint,” said Hubert Bolduc, VP Communications and Public Affairs. Cascades consumes less water for paper production than most Canadian companies, using only 9.7 cubic metres per tonne of paper produced compared to the Canadian average of sixty cubic metres per tonne. “It makes us a leader in sustainability because of the way we produce our material,” said Bolduc.

Yet while Cascades is committed to green initiatives, inevitably there is waste that goes into the process. Some of the recycled paper they receive is not of high enough quality to be used in producing new materials. This lower-quality paper is used for low-grade products or thrown in landfills. Bolduc estimates that 15 per cent of the paper they receive goes to waste.

The problem of throwing recyclables in landfills is not exclusive to companies that have to throw out their low-quality materials. When there is no buyer or storage space, sorting facilities and transfer stations have no other choice. Meanwhile, Leduc estimated that the City of Montreal only collected 50 per cent of the recyclable materials consumed in 2009. That means half of the recyclable products consumed by Montreal residents were thrown away.

Products made from recycled material are marketed to have a certain cachet, and are often sold at a premium. At your average office supply store like Staples, recycled paper could cost up to 35 per cent more than standard paper. Still, the paper industry is rampant with green washing. Some “recycled” paper is made from as little as 30 per cent recycled material, while other paper is marketed as “eco-responsible” despite containing no recycled material at all: “eco responsible” simply means it is recyclable.

Bolduc estimated that tissue products in North America is a $10.5-billion industry, but only half of that is made from recycled materials. A report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2007, only 37 per cent of paper products produced in the United States came from recycled fibre.

Right now, the problems that our recycling infrastructure faces are not being adequately addressed by the markets. Companies are not producing from recycled materials at a high enough rate and when they do, they charge customers more money for it. Asian markets process more recycled materials than North America currently does, but with that comes the problem of the carbon emissions of shipping to and from Asia.

In spite of the wasteful practices of the industry, Bolduc is not optimistic for an immediate and radical change in its operations. “Carbon footprint is the next challenge for the whole industry,” said Bolduc. “It is the biggest threat to competitiveness because companies will have to make decisions based on its carbon footprint. The minute Obama announces carbon emissions restrictions, it will be a very difficult turnaround for all industries.”

The U.S. and Canadian governments have been dragging their feet on climate change policies. In both countries, plans for a cap and trade system have floated around, but have never gotten off the ground. The Harper government wants its climate change policy to coincide with the U.S. government’s and is waiting for the U.S. to take the lead. Until then, Bolduc thinks the industry will continue on with its current practices. “There are no incentives for organizations that encourage them to try to make efforts,” said Bolduc. “The minute Canada and the U.S. announce carbon ceilings, people will start making efforts. But aside from a few early adapters and companies trying to look trendy, there isn’t much incentive for industries to do better. When we have a carbon exchange, then it’s going to change the whole dynamics of the market.”

Recycling, while flawed, is still a markedly better option than doing nothing. The EPA estimates that recycled paper creates 35 per cent less water pollution and 74 per cent less air pollution than virgin paper production. Recycling aluminum emits only 5 per cent of the emissions of new aluminum production, according to the International Aluminum Institute. The problem right now is that much of the recyclable products we consume are not actually recycled, be it because of people throwing things in the garbage instead of the recycling bin, or because of sorting facilities throwing away the materials they are unable to sell or process.

The City of Montreal does recognize these problems and is making some efforts to combat them: they have invested money in distributing larger recycling bins around the city to allow for a higher collection rate of recycled materials in order to hopefully bring the sad mark of 50 per cent up to their goal of 60 per cent, or even up to the 70 per cent rate recently proposed by the Quebec provincial government.

Most people acknowledge that consuming at such an alarming rate is not good for the long-term health of the environment. The deforestation and carbon emissions that come from producing new products are damaging and the problem is exacerbated when products that can be recycled are thrown in the garbage. The word recycle implies that there is a loop of consumption, collection, and then re-consumption, but right now too much of that is just garbage.