Are we missing the bigger picture?
Canadian Packaging editor George Guidoni delves into the circular economy in the May 2019 issue.
May 21, 2019
Reaping what you sow can be a very joyless experience, and there is little joy among Canada’s recycling operators today, who have seen the market prices for virtually all of their recycled materials—including the high-prized aluminum waste—collapse at alarming double-digit rates or worse in recent months.
With market demand in a freefall and massive bales of recycled packaging waste piling up outside the recycling plants’ sorting lines, many of Canada’s well-intended municipal recycling programs are in jeopardy of outright collapse without massive government bailouts or subsidies, which would be a tragic shame in light of all the investment and public education efforts in selling the virtues of recycling to Canadian consumers over the last few decades.
While it’s true that China’s decision to ban shipments of recycled material from Canada from entering the country has played a large role in creating the current predicament, why on earth did we think that dumping our garbage halfway across the globe was a good idea to begin with?
While recycling is an effective and noble sustainability strategy, when you consider the cost of fuel required to ship recycled materials to the Far East, such a practice seems a lot less sustainable when assessed from the full LCA (life-cycle analysis) perspective.
Naturally, no one wants to see the Canadian recycling infrastructure collapse outright, but maybe the time has come to re-evaluate just how much Canadians can truly depend on our Blue Box curbside recycling programs alone to make a significant difference in the long term?
And more to the point, are we actually doing recycling in a way that will be compatible with the so-called Circular Economy model that so many nations and have pledge allegiance to in recent years?
According to a recent report from global chemical industries group Chemsec (The International Chemical Secretariat), “A Circular Economy represents a golden opportunity to combine corporate sustainability with profits, but it is obstructed by weak chemicals legislations in every part of the world.”
Titled The Missing Piece: Chemicals in Circular Economy, the study will not make comfortable reading for many companies and organizations who thought they had all the angles covered with the traditional 3R’s of reuse, reduce and recycle.
“Recycling markets can only be sustainable if they can assure that recycled materials do not contain toxic substances,” the report states. “Willingness to support the development of nontoxic material cycles will
thus not only protect human health and the environment, but will also enhance the quality of secondary raw materials and boost recycling markets.
“Unfortunately, there is a trend to focus more on recycling targets than on eliminating hazardous chemicals,” the Chemsec study points out, “but recycling targets should never be achieved at the expense of human health and the environment.”
As the report pointedly asserts, “Recycling should never be viewed as a low-cost solution.
“It might sound contradictory, but setting identical, strict rules for recycled materials will help them compete with virgin materials,” the report concludes.
“It is a fact that regulation drives innovation, and recycling is no exception.”