We can finally admit that plastic recycling has been a sham all along

A long-running fraud is coming to an end. Whether it leads to better public policy remains to be seen, but at least now the official nonsense about Canada’s recycling measures need no longer be peddled.

For a few generations now, Canada’s recycling policy has been grounded in the maxim that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s a fine bit of folk wisdom for holding a garage sale or rummaging around a flea market, but as policy it runs into trouble if garbage is just garbage that nobody wants.

After generations of governments at all levels promoting recycling with salvific zeal, we now have the confession: recycling of plastics has mostly been a crock. Those who wished to know knew long ago. I did, but then we economists tend to be the sort who — what’s the phrase? — follow the science. We are not dumbfounded if there are unintended consequences when government regulation mandates that rubbish has resale value.

The federal government announced this month that, at the end of next year, it will be illegal to use plastic grocery bags, straws and take-out containers. Which means that if, as I do, you deploy “single-use” grocery bags for another use as garbage bags, or take-out containers for leftovers, you will have to buy plastic garbage bags and plastic food containers. The Ziploc people will be pleased.

Given that Styrofoam cartons will also be banned, restaurateurs will have to find alternative packaging for takeout — just a trifling matter pandemic-wise. If only the print media were not in such poor shape, we could return to the handy practice of wrapping fish and chips in newsprint. Lamb vindaloo may prove a greater challenge.

But leave the merits of the ban for another day. It is sufficient unto the day to note that for a very long time a recycling policy presented as the very emblem of good citizenship was promoted on false pretenses — or least with a wilful decision not to tell the whole truth.

The reason for the new plastic ban is, as the government finally concedes, that plastic is not being recycled. Less than 10 per cent of the plastic Canadians use ends up being recycled. Most of it ends up in landfills, and a tiny amount goes into the environment, or what used to be called “litter.”

Who are the environmental scofflaws who do not sort their waste products into blue, grey and green bins, and instead throw their offending plastics in with the general trash? Well, not me, and not most people. We all carefully put the plastic in the proper bin, and off it goes to be recycled. Except that most of it doesn’t. If the systems can’t sort it properly, or it shockingly got mixed up with other garbage, or it’s too expensive to handle, or there is no market for it, it ends up in the landfill.

The pressing problem now is that it ends up in a domestic landfill. Until a couple of years ago, it was shipped across the ocean to China and other Asian countries, carbon emissions be damned. There, it would be picked through for what had value. Most of it would be buried or burned.

A true environmentalist might have preferred to toss her plastics in a backyard burn barrel, which is much more eco-friendly than shipping them to China for incineration. Yet a bevy of bylaw officers would have beset that burn barrel, tut-tutting and ticket-writing with great moral indignation.

A few years back, China got tired of garbage collecting and decided to close its borders to the world’s trash. It was hardly a shock. Developing countries, like some of the desperately deprived people in them, may choose to salvage waste for a time. With even a modicum of prosperity, though, scavenging loses its appeal.

Thus a massive recycling crisis befell the world. All the faux recycling that was going on overseas would now have to be faked domestically. That made it harder for governments to disingenuously promote their sunny projects for “diverting” recyclables from the landfill, meaning into the blue box first and to the landfill later.

That’s not to say that the blue box programs are without any value. They do a little for the environment and a lot to make people feel good about themselves, not unlike clearing out the basement and having a garage sale. I still find it oddly satisfying to recycle, even though I know that it is largely a farce. Like airport security, sometimes it is better just to go along.

Whether the new plastic policy will be effective we don’t yet know. It may well be, as reducing waste on the front end may indeed work better than pretending to recycle it on the back end. But we shouldn’t take the government’s word for it. Its credibility went up in a puff of incinerator smoke long ago.

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