This short article from the Toronto Star speaks to the problem that material from single-stream MRFs may end up in China where sortation labor is cheap. Fine idea as long as you ignore the carbon footprint.
Recycling efforts create ‘contentious’ carbon footprint
Toronto Star — February 09, 2009
Ontario’s recycling scraps – dirty peanut butter jars, plastic toys, and unsorted paper – are being shipped to Asia at a rate of thousands of tonnes a month.
The blue-box castoffs are sorted by low-paid workers in huge factories, and recycled into inexpensive toys, shoes and colourful cardboard packages, before being sold back to Ontarians, where they fill the blue boxes once again.
Garbage experts say this revolving door is a necessary evil that will continue until the province has better recycling facilities so cities can process their own garbage.
“The question is, how much do we want to transport materials around?” said Glenda Gies, executive director of Waste Diversion Ontario, which oversees the provincial blue-box program. “We really do want to support the Ontario economy, we want to process these materials here.”
Most residents recycle with the belief they are helping the environment and are unaware that their municipalities are shipping materials to China and South Korea, creating a huge new carbon footprint.
“It is a contentious issue here,” said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario. “We took advantage of (China’s) cheaper labour force to have them clean, or re-clean, our recyclables, to sort out the more valuable items from the less valuable.”
With the downturn in the recycling commodities market, China’s demand for low-end mixed paper and plastic “residue” from blue boxes dropped considerably. But, Toronto, which sent up to 20,000 tonnes of mixed paper to China’s massive Nine Dragons mill in both 2007 and last year, reports that in January, the mill began requesting more of the city’s paper.
Toronto gets paid roughly $30 to $40 per tonne of mixed paper sent to China. According to Geoff Rathbone, general manager of Toronto’s solid waste department, that worked out to be about $600,000 to $800,000 in 2007 and 2008.
In addition to shipping to China, Rathbone said the city sends about 10,000 tonnes a year of its “polycoat” milk and juice cartons to South Korea. If Toronto moves ahead with plans to recycle disposable coffee cups, it will send them to the same South Korean facility, as long as the owners can handle the influx, he said.
Still, Rathbone believes local paper mills and recycling facilities are the best option. “In the long term, I don’t think (shipping to Asia) is a sustainable way to go,” he said.
It is not clear how many tonnes of Ontario’s recycled goods are sent to Asia each year. A study published by Waste Diversion Ontario looked at shipping data – voluntarily supplied by municipalities and private recyclers. Based on their information, the authors of the report concluded that four per cent of the 937,979 tonnes of blue-box materials sold in 2006 went to China, and a lesser number to South Korea. WDO’s Gies said more ongoing studies are needed before the full picture is known.
St. Godard said North American mills generally require materials be properly sorted and clean. But some municipalities, like Toronto, allow all recycled goods to be mixed into the same blue bin, because it is cheaper and easier for residents.
“You end up co-mingling materials that have to be sorted and re-sorted and re-sorted and by the time they actually reach the end market they are still so contaminated that the mills here cannot take them. But China has an extra layer of labour that can sift through them,” she said.
To get to China from Toronto, the mixed paper is stacked in bales, placed in shipping containers and sent across country to the port of Vancouver by train, said Jake Westerhof, of Canada Fibres, which sells Toronto’s paper to Nine Dragons.
From Vancouver, it is placed on a large freighter ship and spends several weeks at sea before arriving in one of China’s southern ports. It is moved into a truck a driven several hours before arriving at the massive Nine Dragons paper mill in the province of Guangdong.
Rathbone believes the increase in orders from China means the market will slowly rebound.
He says Toronto will continue shipping its paper to Nine Dragons, and pointed out the city’s contract requires that the mill adhere to environmental standards, along with health and safety rules for its workers.