Canada's Waste Plastics Paper Trail

Canada is one of the biggest exporters of recyclable paper to India, but that paper is often contaminated with plastic waste, leaving a country struggling with its own waste management and pollution problems to deal with Canada’s dirty laundry.

Muzaffarnagar, three hours north of the capital Delhi, is home to 30 paper mills, where recycled paper products are turned into books, newsprint, tissue paper, and cardboard. The mills reportedly receive around 20,000 tonnes of imported waste paper a month. Much of that comes from Canada and the U.S.

CBC News spoke with dozens of paper mill operators in Muzaffarnagar. They said the plastic waste in Canadian imports often exceeds the two percent contamination limit permitted by Indian regulations, with some bales stuffed with huge quantities of hard-to-recycle plastic items like water bottles, packaging containers, and courier packaging.

In April, CBC News visited two Muzaffarnagar mills, where huge piles of waste paper were visible. In those piles were identifiable Canadian name brands, including Tim Hortons cups, President’s Choice packaging, Natrel milk cartons, Oasis juice boxes, McDonald’s cups, Metro packaging, Kirkland containers, and Royale toilet paper boxes.

Padam Bansal, general manager of Bindlas Duplux Ltd., said the company imports up to 500 tonnes of Canadian waste paper every month.

“They should clean the plastic and retain it in Canada before sending it to India. Segregate before sending,” said Bansal, 55.

“To remove plastic, we have to put our labor in.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada told CBC News it is aware exporters are sending mixed residential paper to India for recycling that contains non-paper materials from households, such as plastic waste, metal, textiles, and glass.

“There have been instances where Canadian exporters have not applied to the department for an export permit, or disclosed that their waste was contaminated with non-paper materials,” the department said in a written statement Friday.

Between January and April, Canada exported 83,748 tonnes of waste paper worth more than $19 million to India. In 2022, Canada exported 255,327 tonnes of waste paper worth more than $57 million to India, according to Statistics Canada.

The statistics also show that after the U.S., India is Canada’s top trade partner for exporting waste paper.

ECCC said since January, they have managed return requests for 11 containers of waste paper shipped to India for recycling as the waste paper in these containers was contaminated with plastic waste above the level allowed by Indian authorities.

By law, the imported bales can include junk mail, office paper, and paperboard packaging, but the mill owners CBC News spoke with said that lax inspection at Indian ports, laissez-faire enforcement, and a huge appetite for paper fiber means Canadian waste paper mixed with plastic often travels approximately 11,000 kilometers to Indian ports.

The plastic problem

A previous CBC investigation found that, from April 2019 to 2021, India received roughly 500,000 tonnes of mixed paper bales from Canada for recycling.

The amount of recycled paper exported to India is higher now that China — once a competing importer — has banned mixed paper from entering the country. ECCC noted that India has replaced China as the main overseas export market for mixed papers, although the demand from India is less than what China used to require.

Canadians also toss over three million tonnes of plastic waste every year.

Three small mill operators said they have been reducing their Canadian supply due to plastic waste increasing their operational costs.

Landfills along the outskirts of Muzaffarnagar are piling up with plastic. Children can be seen picking plastic items like water bottles and food containers out of them to sell to the recycling units. Both landfill dumping and incineration of plastic generate greenhouse gas emissions.

In the mills, hard plastic items like bottles, food containers, and other packages are manually separated from the paper waste. The work is mostly done by low-caste female workers for $3 to $4 a day, with no safety gear or gloves.

CBC News spoke to some of these workers outside a paper mill who said they feared speaking out would cost them their jobs. CBC News agreed not to identify them. They all expressed concerns about their deteriorating health.

“If not this, then what? Every day is a struggle for survival for us. My nails are often broken and hands cracked,” said one of the workers who has been working at a small paper mill for a decade.

Plastic waste disposal and recycling continue to be a struggle for India. According to a 2023 report from the Marico Innovation Foundation, India produces 3.4 million tonnes of plastic waste in a year, and 30 percent of it is recycled. The rest is sent to landfills or aquatic dumps. India’s plastic waste output is doubling, the report says.

From the Bindlas Duplux mill, plastic removed from waste paper imports is taken by tractors to cement factories, where it ends up incinerated for energy or used as a mixing ingredient.

10 per cent plastic

One large mill is trying to automate the segregation process.

Sky-high mounds of Canadian paper waste, weighing upward of 500 tonnes, filled the waste paper collection yard of Agarwal Duplex Board Mills Ltd.

Abhishek Agarwal, the managing director of the mill, said the mill easily processes 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes of Canadian paper waste per month since they started importing in 2008. Their mill produces 5,000 tonnes of recycled paper every month.

“Usually, 10 percent of what we get is plastic and the rest is paper and fiber,” Agarwal said in Hindi.

“Lamination on the packets adds to the soft plastic and is inevitable, but many times we receive hard-to-recycle items like plastic bottles and other plastic containers that are collected via road sweep collection in Canada.”

The plant would prefer to buy better quality Canadian waste paper, Agarwal said, which is sold at $500 per tonne and has less plastic in it. However, he said it is not always in steady supply.

The waste paper with the plastic waste in it is mixed with water to form a pulp. In the mill, the screening process jets out the plastic, which floats on top of the pulp and pushes the paper pulp for further processing into recycled paper.

A considerable amount of energy is spent in the process to remove the plastic waste.

‘We already have our own waste to worry about’

Agarwal said his mill is among the largest players in the city and employs about 450 staff and 500 contractors. He added he understands that not all mills have the manpower and resources to remove plastic waste like his.

For Canadian companies, it is easier and cheaper to send trash to developing countries than recycling paper and plastics at home, he noted. ECCC said there’s more of an international market for mixed papers as many facilities within Canada cannot process large volumes domestically.

“It costs $120 per tonne for us to buy mixed paper waste, $225 per tonne for tetra cartons, and the tissue waste paper comes in at $550 per tonne,” Agarwal said.

But the plastic remains a problem.

In recent years, some paper mills in the city have been found guilty of burning soft plastic secretly at night along with the plants that make jaggery, a form of sugar. In 2020, the regional pollution control board fined 24 paper mills in the city for incinerating plastic and flouting norms around waste disposal and ash management, according to The Times of India.

Paper mill operators say the microplastic ash usually lingers over the city, as most mills are not equipped with appropriate and expensive filtration infrastructure to eliminate toxic emissions.

In 2021, India’s air quality monitoring system reported that Muzaffarnagar had an Air Quality Index of 423, categorized as “very poor,” with high concentrations of Fine particulate matter or PM2.5 particles.

According to IQAir Foundation, a non-profit that provides global air quality data, on Friday the city had a PM2.5 concentration 8.8 times higher than the WHO annual air quality guideline value.

Paper mill operators say much of this pollution comes from burning Canadian plastics.

“I would urge Canadians to segregate their waste thoroughly and properly before dumping it in the bins. We already have our own waste to worry about,” Agarwal said.

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