Philippines protesters wear a mock shipping container to symbolize 50 containers filled with waste shipped from Canada two years ago, outside the Canadian embassy near Manila, May 7, 2019. (The Canadian Press)

B.C. VIEWS: Reality of our plastic recycling routine exposed

Turns out dear old China wasn’t doing such a great job

Time for an update on my most popular column of 2018, based on letters and social media responses. No, it wasn’t about this or that economy-shaking move by our co-premiers, John Horgan and Andrew Weaver.

It was about plastic bags.

My prediction early last year was that Victoria city council’s bold move to ban point-of-sale plastic bags from retail outlets would spread like wildfire across B.C. Pointless virtue-signalling on behalf of “the planet” is to today’s politicians what birthday cake is to a toddler, as we will see in the federal election campaign that is already upon us.

The plastic bag ban is catching on with municipalities, but more slowly than expected. Some may have heeded my argument that prohibiting point-of-sale bags still leaves us with all the other soft plastic packaging that pours out from grocery and other retail stores, containing everything from frozen peas to deck screws.

Councils are embracing the Victoria model, where a minimum price is imposed for paper bags instead of the dreaded plastic. Retail businesses, burdened with high property taxes, love the government-imposed revenue stream that comes from charging 15 cents per paper bag. The fact that paper bag production is much more greenhouse gas-intensive than plastic is overlooked.

My prediction that these bans would weaken existing plastic recycling programs was closer to the mark. Here in Victoria, a popular commercial collection service for soft and foam plastic has just been cancelled, because the price paid no longer covers the cost.

READ MORE: Victoria’s plastic bag ban challenged in court

READ MORE: Bottle Depot ends soft, foam plastic collection

The key reason is that China has stopped accepting shipments of these commodities. Shipping containers full of soft plastic debris are piling up around North America, which can no longer offload its First World consumer problems to Asia.

You may have heard that the Philippines recently threatened war against Canada over a bunch of shipping containers full of recyclables that were contaminated with used adult diapers among other fragrant delights. No word on the greenhouse gas emissions all of this shipping produces.

According to multiple Canadian news reports in recent weeks, Chinese importers were employing their famous cheap labour to pick through the recyclables for valuable items, and burning the rest. “It was a charade,” a senior executive of Edmonton-based waste hauler GFL Environmental Services told The Globe and Mail.

This ‘ship it to Asia’ dodge is one way to explain the conclusions of a German study on plastic contamination in oceans. It found that 90 per cent of it comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa, with the Yangtze in China being by far the worst. The rest, and most damaging, is mainly lost or abandoned commercial fishing gear.

Then there was the Danish study that showed a cotton grocery bag has to be used more than 7,000 times to make it more environmentally sound than a plastic bag used once for groceries, once to line a wastebasket and then incinerated.

B.C. recycling programs are also cracking down on glass and other marginal commodities. One of the most efficient things to recycle is newsprint, and the B.C. government managed to make a mess of that by forcing newsprint producers into a broader system so they can subsidize uneconomic materials.

And what have our governments done lately? They jumped on a new feel-good fad against plastic straws.

The best solution to all of this is a functional waste system with recycling, and public education about cleaning and sorting materials. Don’t hold your breath.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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