Responsible recycling: Where do B.C’s collected materials go?

Less than one per cent of residential plastics that are recycled are sent overseas, according to Recycle B.C. The rest is dealt with locally.

As Canada deals with the backlash from shipping containers full of its garbage and contaminated plastic languishing in the Philippines and Malaysia, B.C.’s residential recycling organization says its materials are being dealt with responsibly.

“We have a really good system in B.C., and it’s important for people to know that we do have really good end markets, and to have faith in the recycling system,” said David Lefebvre, spokesperson for Recycle B.C.

Five years ago, B.C. adopted a recycling model in which producers of products that sell items with packaging and paper in the province are required to deal with those materials. Businesses pay fees based on the amount of packaging and paper they supply to offset the costs of collecting, processing and recycling.

Recycle B.C. is a non-profit organization, and manages the program on behalf of producers. According to its annual report, in 2017 it collected and recycled 181,514 tonnes of materials. Just over 4,500 tonnes of materials were turned into an alternative fuel but about 11,500 tonnes of materials ended up in the trash because they were contaminated.

A large pile of plastic milk jugs is sorted inside Urban Impact recycling depot in New Westminster. Urban Impact deals with milk jugs, yogurt containers, butter tubs, glass and tin cans coming from Delta, Coquitlam and Langley. Arlen Redekop / Vancouver Sun


The vast majority of plastic (containers, bags and overwrap) is processed in Metro Vancouver and turned into pellets and flakes that are sold to the plastics industry. However, some of the white foam packaging that is recycled is sent to a company in Malaysia that breaks it down and sends the processed material to its facility in China, which turns it into picture frames.

Lefebvre said Recycle B.C. has visited the manufacturing facility in China to make sure the materials are being managed responsibly.

“It’s an extremely small amount — less than one per cent of the total plastic collected goes overseas,” Lefebvre said.

“We’re also starting to shift to an end market in Metro Vancouver as well for that white foam.”

Lefebvre was unable to say what volume or weight of foam is sent overseas.

Glass from B.C. households is shipped to Abbotsford to be processed into new bottles, and to Quesnel, where it is made into sandblast materials.

Metal containers are sold to markets in B.C., Ontario and the U.S., where they can be made into new packaging or sheet metal.

Paper is sold to companies in B.C. and the U.S., as well as overseas. B.C. used to send most of its paper to China, however starting Jan. 1, 2018, the country banned some imports of waste, including plastic and paper.

Although the change has made it more difficult to sell recyclable materials overseas, Lefebvre said the province has one of the lowest contamination rates in North America and has been able to find markets in India, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan.

“Despite those shifting markets, Recycle B.C. has been able to ensure that all of the materials collected are being recycled,” said Lefebvre.

Greenpeace Canada plastics campaigner Laura Yates said she has concerns about what happens to materials, particularly plastic, in the province’s recycling stream.

“It makes sense that Recycle B.C. is taking steps to make sure that B.C.’s residential plastic waste is not being handled irresponsibly, but I’m skeptical they have 100-per-cent oversight and I believe there are probably things that fall through the cracks,” she said.

Yates pointed out that recyclables don’t have to be shipped overseas to be mishandled — it could be a matter of materials ending up in the landfill instead of being recycled.

Other materials that are collected as part of extended producer responsibility programs — batteries, paint, electronics, beverage containers, oil — are recycled according to stewardship plans that are submitted to the provincial government.

When it comes to materials collected from commercial or industrial sources, it’s harder to track how much is recycled and where it goes because the work is done by private companies.

“The commercial side of things is very proprietary, it’s hard to get numbers. They treat that information with a lot of protection because it has to do with their business models and such,” said Brock Macdonald, CEO of the Recycling Council of B.C.

However, in speaking with people in the industry, Macdonald has heard that the amount of material recycled through commercial and industrial companies could be more than what is recycled from households.

“It’s not an insignificant amount,” Macdonald said.


In the past, the council has advocated for commercial and industrial materials to be included in the provincial recycling regulation, which would provide for greater oversight and create efficiencies. Macdonald said it will continue to push for that inclusion.

“It’s not just the Recycling Council of B.C, board that’s talking about this, it’s our members in multiple sectors — government and private sector and non-profit — that are discussing that as being an inevitability,” Macdonald said.

“It’s the case in Europe … it’s not like it hasn’t been done before.”

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