I caught a curious headline in the Toronto Star, yesterday: “City staff think Toronto should get out of the recycling business. Why? That’s a secret.”
Not much more to say about this because, well, it’s a secret…
But like most of you, I have spent the past three decades or so dutifully sorting recyclable waste – paper and cardboard, glass and plastic – from outright trash, before dragging it all curbside and giving myself a pat on the back for helping save the planet. (Okay, maybe not quite like “most of you” seeing as I’m an old guy, but you get my point.)
However, I suspect this typically furtive City Council manoeuvre may have something to do with the following: Studies started appearing a while back that strongly suggest the whole enterprise is a colossal waste of time at minimum, if not an outright deception foisted on the public at most: chiefly, that the vast majority of “recyclable plastic waste” ends up in Ontario landfills, or is exported to places like China and the Philippines. Where, likely as not, it’s burned in the open for fuel.
Ummm… that wasn’t the deal.
Turns out, it still isn’t. A May 14, 2022 Star story quoted one John Mullinder, who spent 30 years in the recycling industry, calling the whole thing “a little green lie”. Little? The same piece quoted “the plastics program manager” at an NGO called Environmental Defence, who said, “(Recycling) is just a one way ticket to garbage.”
The same story says that in 2019, Canada produced 1.9 million tonnes of plastics. Of that amount, just 12 per cent went for recycling, and an even smaller percentage was processed into a new product.
And even then, 12 per cent may be a stretch. Many other such studies peg the figure at closer to nine per cent.
Oh, but wait, say the folks at the Manitoba not-for-profit SimplyRecycle.ca: that number is “a wide misrepresentation” of the successes recycling programs in Canada have scored in recent years. You see, this figure represents “millions of tonnes of plastic annually that are kept out of landfills and environments across the world.” Which is a bit like saying an entire city block has burned down, but thank God we were able to save the sidewalks!
But for now, they comfortingly add, “The best way to eliminate plastic waste is to reduce consumption (You will eat bugs and be happy – ed.) or reuse/repurpose items. But when that’s not possible, recycling accepted materials will help keep them out of landfills.”
Help? To the tune of nine per cent of the total recyclable waste generated in this province? Against my instincts, I would counter this pie-in-the-sky assessment with that of Environmental Defence, which bills itself as a leading Canadian environmental advocacy organization: “Despite the efforts of Canadians to sort and recycle their plastics, only nine per cent of Canada’s plastic waste is recycled.”
Even then, the group adds, “This is a generous estimation since approximately 35 per cent of that ‘recycled’ plastic is sent abroad, where we can’t be sure what happens to it.” Oh, I dunno, see China, the Philippines and elsewhere, as referenced above, and think open-pit incinerators?
To its credit, Environmental Defence at least tries to diagnose the problem, which it tags to Canada’s “fragmented waste management system,” owing to a patchwork of municipal standards governing the collection and management of waste, and the need to hold manufacturers accountable for their plastic products.
(And here I thought garbage collection and disposal was the responsibility of government. Silly me.)
Maybe I’m over-simplifying things, but it seems there is a colossal market worldwide for recycled waste forged back into useful things again. Can’t recycle black plastic container lids? We built the freakin’ Avro Arrow in the 1950s. That thing could accelerate going straight up. Go figure out how to do it. No global markets for recycled material? Go off and create them. But most immediately, policymakers in Ontario – provincially and municipally – need to stop perpetuating the myth that each of us as well-meaning, ordinary individuals is making a difference.
I hope that’s what City of Toronto staff are trying to do. But then again, it’s “a secret”.
We’re simply not making a difference. And they all know it. They’ve known it for a long time.