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Recycling market crash puts crunch on local depots

Monday, 28 October 2019. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Recycling market crash puts crunch on local depots

Wes Whitfield, owner of K.J. Cameron Service Industries, stands next to 96 bales of stored cardboard he is currently unable to sell. He has more material stacked just as high in the warehouse. Wes is not alone in his struggle with a backlog, as changes in the recycling market have forced local depots to make some tough decisions.   Photo by Jess Harrington

Recycling market crash puts crunch on local depots

By Jess Harrington

On  Aug. 21, Brent Kenney, owner of Pass Beverages recycling depot, alerted the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass that, due to poor market conditions and dwindling space, the depot will no longer accept cardboard, paper, tin or glass recyclables, starting Oct. 6.

In Pincher Creek, Wes Whitfield, owner of K.J. Cameron Service Industries, has asked the Town and MD of Pincher Creek for help to move a growing backlog of material, and may also need to suspend or alter its recycling service if aid is not received soon.

If you’ve been to either of these facilities recently, you may have noticed signs of struggle — overflowing bins, or bales of cardboard stacked in the yard. These depots are far from alone.

These changes are both symptoms and outcomes of a crisis that recyclers around the globe have been contending with for months.

A long-developing crisis

The problem started roughly two years ago, when China passed the National Sword Act, a piece of legislation that imposed stricter standards on international recycling and waste imports.

Announced in 2017 and implemented on Jan. 1, 2018, the act banned 24 types of solid waste from entering the country and set stringent contamination limits on imported recyclables. This change had an immediate international impact.

For years prior to National Sword, China had been the largest importer of waste in the world. In early 2017, North America was shipping over two-thirds of its recycled material to China. Europe and Australia were shipping similar volumes.

This waste would be gathered at local depots, then shipped to large regional warehouses owned by international brokers. These brokers would then sell the material to China and a few other countries for final processing and repurposing.

Only about 10 to 15 per cent of recycled material was being processed and remanufactured domestically at the time in Canada, the United States or Mexico.

Since its implementation, National Sword and related policies have steadily expanded, increasing import restrictions to the point that the Chinese waste market is now virtually closed.

Meanwhile, the domestic market has not expanded in any significant way, and has become completely glutted.

The relatively few mills processing recycled material in North America have been swamped with supply, and most are now so overwhelmed they cannot regularly purchase new material.

This has caused the entire system to slowly back up. Last year, most local depots began storing material as they were forced to wait for opportunities to sell.

This includes larger centres. Last year, the City of Calgary spent $300,000 to store hundreds of tonnes of unmovable clamshell plastics.

At the same time, prices on most materials — especially cardboard, newsprint and plastics — have steadily plummeted.

Two years ago, a one-tonne bale of cardboard, which costs $40 to $50 dollars to process and ship, typically sold for over $100. Now, the same bale is going for just a few dollars a tonne, so depots are often breaking even or taking a loss to move their waste.

In a nutshell, North Americans are recycling more material than the system can accommodate. This has left local depots to make a losing choice: pay to have the material stored until the international market reopens or the domestic market expands, pay to have it shipped to increasingly hard-to-find buyers, or get out of the game altogether.

Where our local depots are now

The Crowsnest Pass and Pincher Creek recycling depots are both independent businesses that offer two distinct and separately funded services.

Both facilities include a provincially regulated bottle depot, and bin recycling for cardboard and plastics, which they have been contracted by their respective municipalities to provide.

Both facilities have been storing bales of bin materials for over a year and have reached or exceeded maximum capacity.

“About a month ago I managed to get rid of four semi-loads of cardboard by fluke, but before that it was over a year since I shipped cardboard,” Brent of Pass Beverage says.

“I’ve got a big building, but space-wise, I simply can’t take any more, and the municipality doesn’t have any space.”

In Pincher Creek, Wes reports that K.J. Cameron depot is currently sitting on over 100 tonnes of excess material.

Both operators have approached their municipal councils to ask for financial assistance to move these items, but Brent ultimately felt that even if Crowsnest council agreed to increase his contract, it would only delay the inevitable.

“Even if they could step up to cover some costs, we could continue for a while, but not in the long term,” he says. “I’ve been losing money for about a year, and it’s just no longer feasible to keep going.”

Pass Beverages’ recycling bins will be removed after Oct. 6. The municipality has issued a request for proposals, to try locating a new recycling contractor.

Wes has just recently approached local government and is not quite ready to pull service.

In an emergency meeting that Wes requested last week, town councillor Scott Korbett and MD planning advisor Gavin Scott promised to bring the depot’s concerns to their councils as soon as possible, and to provide a response by the end of October.

In the meantime, Wes may have to cut back on the type and volume of recycling he can collect.

As a silver lining, both facilities will be able to continue operating their bottle depots, as provincial backing for the program has protected this part of the industry from the market crash — something for which Wes and Brent are both very grateful.

They are both disheartened by the need to scale back their operations.

“My dad started the first bottle depot in Alberta here in Crowsnest Pass, and I’ve owned this business since 1995 and always had the recycling,” says Brent. “So it’s a tough moment. We did it so long — it’s such a shame we’ve come so far and now the cost will eventually force us to put this [stuff] back into the landfill.”

“I actually want to provide better service,” says Wes plainly. “This is my family’s livelihood, and we love Pincher Creek. But if we can’t figure something out, it threatens that.”

“It’s been nice to do something for the environment and live here,” he says, but the continued viability of the operation is in doubt.

Crowsnest/Pincher Creek Landfill is still able to take some recyclables, though it is facing the same problems as other recyclers. Acceptable items include tin, wood and cardboard, but not plastic.

The landfill board has asked staff to connect with Wes and Brent to see if there’s a way for the three depots to assist each other, but the three have not been able to meet yet.

In the meantime, the landfill encourages the public to take accepted recyclables there.

What can we do?

Both Wes and Brent say this crisis can be resolved only through public education, engagement and pressure.

“The main thing people at large can do is start pressuring your provincial and federal governments,” says Wes. “A lot of recycling gets pushed onto municipalities that don’t have the funding to deal with this [size of an issue].

“Give your MLA and MP a call and let them know there’s an issue you care about, and push for government programs that can help.”

Brent agrees.

“What the public needs to realize is that we have to start supporting local people who are clever enough to come up with ideas for getting rid of this stuff here,” he says.

“If there was a company in Alberta that had a new idea [for reusing a material], the government should give them money to get it going and then support them to keep it going. Otherwise, there will be no end-result use and it will just start piling up again.”

Wes and Brent agree this support needs to come quickly, as the public has grown increasingly invested in the concept of recycling. They’d hate to see that movement lose momentum because the system has been under-developed.

Both operators invite anyone who would like to learn more about the changes at their facilities to reach out to them.

“We know there are complaints and we’re trying to rise to meet them,” says Wes. “I know I’ve got nothing to hide, and people need to know it is a difficult time right now.”