The Recycling Council of Alberta’s Annual Conference was held in Calgary October 2-4. As with every RCA conference, delegates from the waste management, recycling, industry and government sectors gathered to share their ideas, and debate current topics with the overall goal to advance the recycling industry in Alberta.

At one of the RCA Conference sessions APRA’s own Grant Cameron presented on plastics recycling and also touched on Operation Green Fence.

For some years China has imposed restrictions on the import of solid waste. Importers accepted materials they believed were recyclable. Materials were sorted, with the recyclables separated from the waste for recycling and profit. In this process, China found there was a significant amount of waste left over. At the beginning of 2013 they started to enforce the regulations in place previously to reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste entering the country. This enforcement has been nicknamed Operation Green Fence by market participants.

In the past, China has been the world’s largest importer of wastes, including 40% of plastics scrap collected around the world. In 2011 the United States sent 23 million tons of recyclables to China, estimated to be over 40% of all its recyclables. On the economic side of the equation, plastic scrap alone is worth $5 billion annually on the global market.

As you can imagine, a large amount of infrastructure and planning is required to deal with large amounts of plastic. Cargo ships full of recyclable materials mixed with contaminated materials would have been too much for the industry in China to deal with. Contaminated materials include dirty or unsorted plastics that cannot be processed through the regular recycling stream due to the nature of plastics composition. (Different plastics are chemically unique, respond to the heat and pressure of recycling in different ways and cannot be combined.) The choice the Chinese were left with at that point was to capture the energy from the materials or in the worst case, dispose of it as waste.

China’s response to the worst case scenario was to enforce rules with a limit of 1.5% allowable contaminant per shipment of imported recyclables. The Chinese have a list of rejected materials such as coffee cup lids, PVC pipe and garden planters and they have been inspecting up to 70% of containers entering the country. Anything discovered that was on their reject list has been sent back to where it came from. This would appear to be the message to the rest of the world that the Chinese want to deal with recyclables as commodities not as waste.

So how was this ripple felt across the ocean?

“This taught us that municipalities should not look to China for a current or probable solution unless they are prepared to meet China’s requirements,” comments Grant. “Canadian exporters quickly sought and found North American markets. Exporters are now required to be more selective both in their recycling process for what they ship overseas and what they sell to North American markets.”

“For the foreseeable future, the much more practical solution for Alberta municipalities and their recycling contractors would be to work with Canadian processors and brokers. Find out what their requirements are for commodity streams and sorting and work within that system to ensure continuing markets for their collected recyclables.”

An article in The Guardian on the Green Fence topic suggests that it might be time to explore the innovation and sustainability of managing recyclable wastes in western countries. The article goes on to explain the improved infrastructure and funding required in order manage all of the recyclable waste in our own countries.

“Perhaps we will see a shift in exporters seeking solutions closer to home at a cheaper cost. Certainly this will be required in order for the firms to build a commercially viable business in recycling; they need a constant supply of materials,” remarks Grant. “Additionally, industry and government need to continue to work together in order to build the industry here in Canada and Alberta. We need collaboration among provinces and funding along with stewardship and extended producer responsibility to get more programs off the ground.”

More on Operation Green Fence: