Every day, about 160 tractor-trailers full of plastic waste cross the border between Canada and the United States, with about half going in each direction. They are a key link in a scrap plastic trade worth $18.8 million, but few details exist about what happens to these shipments on either side of the border — it is unclear if they are recycled, dumped in a landfill, sent overseas or burned as fuel.
Now, environmental advocates are warning that more must be done to scrutinize the opaque trade. Without better transparency, they say, efforts by governments and companies to ensure their plastic waste doesn't end up in an incinerator or the environment will fail.
“The U.S. and Canada have traditionally allowed waste to flow quite freely between the two countries,” explained Fe de Leon, a researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association. “The only qualification is that ... the facility that is receiving needs to be able to process it, and that includes incineration (and) landfilling.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Canadian companies exported largely high-value and easily recycled plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used to make pop bottles, for recycling in the U.S.
In return, American waste companies shipped less valuable, so-called “3-7 plastics” north of the international border. These mixed plastics — used in everything from takeout containers to vinyl siding — are made from several types of polymers and contain a diversity of chemical additives. This variety gives them a staggering range of melting points, toxicity and other chemical properties that make recycling difficult and expensive.
As a result, recycling companies collect and sort plastics gathered from municipal recycling bin programs, bundle them into bales and send them wherever they can be disposed of cheaply, explained Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Ontario-based Circular Innovation Council.
“Plastics move where there's demand and where the economics work,” she said. “Where there's capacity and demand in the recycling industry — that's where they're going to go.”
In many cases, recycling and turning these bales into new plastic products is the priciest option for disposal. As a result, plastic recycling companies often send them to a landfill or an incinerator. Recycling companies have also historically sent this plastic trash to poorer countries, especially in Southeast Asia, where they contribute to widespread pollution and can harm people's health and food supplies.
In January, shipping plastic waste overseas became nearly impossible thanks to a new amendment under the Basel Convention, an international treaty controlling the trade of hazardous waste aimed at curbing the international plastic waste trade. Under the new regulations, countries that have signed the amendment — including Canada — cannot trade plastic waste, except under certain strict conditions.
However, in October 2020, Canada and the U.S. signed a secretive agreement that allows an unregulated plastic waste trade between the two countries.
The U.S., which has not signed the Basel Convention, isn't bound by the new international rules and has continued to send plastic waste to poorer countries — shipments that could include waste produced in Canada.
Every day, about 160 tractor-trailers full of plastic waste cross the border between Canada and the United States. They are a key link in an $18.8M scrap plastic trade, but few details exist about what happens to them. #PlasticWaste
While it is legal for the U.S. to send its waste overseas, de Leon explained that it is illegal for countries, including Canada, that have agreed to the Basel Convention's plastic rules. However, knowing for sure if this trade is occurring is nearly impossible because companies are not required to track what happens to the plastic waste they ship between the two countries, she explained.
“(Plastic) wastes subject to the U.S.-Canada agreements are not tracked,” Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) confirmed in a statement.
An Interpol report published last year found the illegal trade in plastic waste is growing globally as companies try to dispose of their waste as cheaply as possible. To avoid increasingly stringent national and international laws controlling the trade and adding to disposal costs, some have turned to criminal practices.
The report notes criminal organizations will sometimes give border officials in wealthy countries like Canada or the European Union false information about their plastic waste shipment's final destination or hide hazardous plastic scrap at the bottom of shipping containers behind a thin layer of more benign — and legal — plastic waste.
Last year, Conservative MP Scot Davidson introduced a private member's bill — C-204 — to tackle the issue that would make it illegal to export plastic waste from Canada. It is currently at second reading in the Senate.
Still, even the waste that stays in North America remains a concern, said Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the Last Beach Cleanup, a U.S. environmental organization.
“(Plastic) is not a commodity like cotton or maple syrup. It's a waste — what concerns me is what happens to it,” she explained.
Chief among her concerns is a growing trend for industrial facilities that need to generate very high heats, like steel mills or cement factories, to burn low-value plastic waste in their boilers and kilns. Canadian companies burned 137,000 tonnes of plastic waste to produce heat or electricity in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.
While this process is often marketed as recycling by waste companies, Dell said it does nothing to reduce demand for new plastics made from fresh oil.
Plastic production is expected to drive about half of the oil and gas industry growth between now and 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. Incineration also emits massive amounts of greenhouse gases and toxic ash, notes a report released earlier this year by the International Pollutant Elimination Network, a global coalition of environmental organizations.
In Canada and the U.S., companies that burn plastic waste are subject to a suite of regional and federal environmental laws on both sides of the border, ECCC said in a statement.
Those laws do little, however, to reduce plastic waste — or help Canadians know what happens to the plastics they toss diligently into their blue bins. That must change, said St. Godard, the recycling expert.
“There are concerns about how discards are making their way into waterways, the environment, even some energy from waste,” she explained. “It's really important we start building in transparency and reporting measures to ensure materials that are being generated are actually going to ... the best use.”