Canada’s Mythical Recycling System

Canada’s Mythical Recycling System

The Myth of Recycling

I’ve been told since I was a kid that recycling is critical to making a difference in the world. I’ve taken the time to learn the different labels, making sure that everything ends up in the right bin. I was surprised to learn however, that the Canadian government doesn’t care much about my actions. Instead, they recycle only 9% of all waste generated in Canada!

Canada is allegedly one of the top thirty most environmentally sustainable countries in the world. I assume that this statistic doesn’t include the massive amounts of discarded recycling that we ship overseas. In creating such a mythical recycling system, how sustainable are we really?

pug doing some recycling GIF
The bottles better be washed out, little pug!

Where Does Our Garbage Go?

Where does it go? While we know that our provinces and territories do have responsible waste programs, to what extent are they actually implemented? It’s a difficult question to answer. The responsibility of our municipal and provincial governments end when they sell the ‘recycled’ contents to a private recycling company.

Most Canadians really have no idea where our garbage goes! Unfortunately, roughly 86 percent ends up in landfills (or overseas). Only 9 percent is recycled, with the rest being burned to generate energy. This obviously creates all sorts of emissions problems and further pollutes the Earth. We’ve heard a lot of talk about the plastic problem from the Canadian government, but we’ve rarely seen any action.

About 2.8 million tonnes (that's 24 CN towers) of Canadian waste is ending up in landfills.
About 2.8 million tonnes (that’s 24 CN towers) of Canadian waste is ending up in landfills. [Image: Andrik Langfield/Unsplash].

“But We’re Not That Bad”

Really? More than one-third of our plastics are single-use (including 15 billion plastic bags every year, and 57 million straws every day). Despite having so many recycling options, Canada recirculates only about 9 percent of our recycled waste. That’s pretty awful!

Given that Canadians generate 3.25 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, we should avoid comparing ourselves to other nations. The plastic crisis in our oceans is worsening year after year. Merely shifting the blame to someone else is no longer an option.

For the most part Canadians do recycle! We have good waste management systems and a majority of us are privileged with an education that highlights caring for our environment. As one of the world’s wealthiest nations however, we really aren’t doing enough. It’s getting to a point where Canadian citizens are already doing what they can to recycle. What we need now is more pressure on our governments to redirect our waste to more sustainably.

We need more sustainable recycling - Schitt's Creek GIF.
Typical Canadian gov! Alexis agrees, a more sustainable recycling system would be good for us!

Southeast Asia as our Dumping Ground

We ship about 12% of our recycling overseas to many Asian countries. Many of them don’t actually have the proper infrastructure (or space) to deal with the waste. And how can we blame them, apparently we don’t either! As a result, we accumulate our waste on their shorelines or they burn it, releasing harsh pollutants into the atmosphere.

In early 2018, China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste (including unsorted recycling and many types of plastics). This led to the shipment of waste to other Southeast Asian nations. Since this change in regulations, the Canadian government hasn’t issued any permits for private recycling companies to ship our waste overseas. And yet, our contaminated waste is lining Malaysian shores, and our federal government just doesn’t seem to care!

Recycling fail. Plastics waste is accumulating on shores all over the world.
We contribute to this, whether we like it or not. Click the image for nearby shoreline cleanups. [Image: Hermes Rivera/Unsplash].

Banning Plastics

The federal government did create a Zero-Waste Action Plan in 2018. It included diverting at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations by 2030. It also committed to purchasing more “sustainable plastic products that can be reused, recycled, repaired or repurposed.”

Beyond this, the fed shares responsibility for waste reduction with our provinces, territories, and municipalities. Together, they aim to encourage all systems to ban single-use plastics and introduce consistent waste collection and recycling programs.

That’s great! But it still sounds more like of a platitude rather than meaningful action. Our government has submitted a draft assessment of our plastic pollution. They know where our waste comes from, and what the future holds for us and our environment. And yet… nothing!

We can only do so much on an individual level. Of course, remember to wash out your plastics, read the labels, and buy reusable packaging where you can. But don’t be too hard on yourself! Our Earth appreciates any effort you make; but it’s past time for our governments to take action. While you may not be able to revolutionize our recycling systems on your own, you can help influence it! Together we can effect change.


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