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Mixed plastics: Managing them in the post-China era

Overcome the challenges presented by restricted export markets.


Conveyor in a waste sorting facility. PHOTO: FOTOLIA

The market for recyclable materials such as waste paper and plastics is undergoing a radical shift following China’s ban of contaminated or “dirty recycling” such as mixed plastics and paper as of Jan. 1.

Dubbed the “National Sword,” this import ban aims to prevent highly contaminated or hard to recycle material from being shipped to China from overseas markets. This change presents a big problem for Canada, which exports 21% of its plastic waste to China.

Any kind of dirty or mixed plastics (from food processors or manufacturing) will be affected immediately. And there will be no more mixing different plastics types. Recyclers are being forced to hire more staff to separate materials and large-volume generators can expect pressure to pre-sort.

A second set of regulations are coming into affect in 2019 that will re-categorize post-industrial PE, PET, PS, PVC and other scrap plastic as materials banned from import.

Processors have huge backlogs of material in cities across Canada. Eventually there will be no more space and recycling companies will refuse more material or start landfilling it.

How can manufacturers keep up? Trade data from the US shows a huge shift in the end destinations for materials. In January 2017, China and Hong Kong accepted 77% of recovered plastic exports. By December, they accepted only 18%. Emerging markets in India, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have taken some of the volume but a substantial amount of plastic waste is standing by.

If your recycler has stopped accepting your materials, look at these options:

Source separation. Re-evaluate how materials are separated using on-site collection systems and containers. More aggressive sorting will produce higher quality materials, but labour costs will be higher and you might need to invest in more advanced sorting equipment. In the long run it will enable the continuous operation of your recycling program.

Innovate. Review waste by-products and what you can do with them. Consider reuse in-house or find complementary uses for cut-offs/by-products. Subaru grinds bumpers with imperfections on the spot to make new ones.

Find a local source for your material. The internet will help. Companies are posting and finding homes for all kinds of materials on sites. A good Canadian example is MaterialExchange.ca, which focuses on businesses in Ontario’s Greater Toronto Area.

While the recycling market may be more challenging, there are cost-effective opportunities to recycle your materials.

Colin Bell is a managing partner with RecycleSmart Solutions, a Vancouver-based waste and recycling consulting firm. E-mail colin@recycle-smart.com. Visit www.recycle-smart.com.

This article appeared in the print version of the May-June issue of PLANT.

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