There are certain collective delusions all societies rely on to survive — little lies we all quietly agree to look past to make it through our everyday. In Ontario, for decades, one of those lies was this: that most of the plastic packaging you clean and separate every week, that travels from your blue box to your curb and into a waste collection truck, eventually gets turned into something new.
It’s the kind of fib John Mullinder, who spent 30 years in the paper recycling industry in Canada, calls a “little green lie,” (which also happens to be the title of his book), a nice little fiction that makes us all feel better about our lives. The truth, of course, is a lot less pretty. The vast majority of plastic packaging produced and sold not just in Ontario, but across Canada, never gets recycled. Instead, most of it ends up in landfills or in the environment or burned for fuel. “It’s just a one-way ticket to garbage,” said Karen Wirsig, the plastics program manager at Environmental Defence, an NGO.
In 2019, Canada produced about 1.9 million tonnes of plastic packaging, according to a recent report commissioned by the Canada Plastics Pact. Of that, the authors estimate, just 12 per cent was sent for recycling and an even smaller portion was turned into something new.
The numbers are significantly better for some categories, like plastic bottles and rigid plastics. But for others they are worse, much worse, in some cases.
“Things like film bags, plastics that are used for packaged meat, anything that’s flexible … the recycling rate for that’s like one or two per cent,” said a recycling industry insider, who was granted anonymity in order to speak frankly. “The bottom line is that, overall, the national recycling rate on packaging is s—t.”
What that means is that every year more plastic is entering the market in Ontario, wrapped around more items in more ways, and every year more of it is getting thrown away, either by consumers directly or by processers somewhere in the recycling chain. All that plastic is now jamming Ontario’s already overflowing landfills or leaking into the environment, clogging up waterways and tangling in trees. “Plastics,” said Mullinder, “are the problem child of the Ontario blue box.”
Of course, none of those problems are new. Reports on abysmal plastics recycling rates have circled the public consciousness for years. But what is different now, perhaps for the first time ever, is that they don’t look necessarily impossible to solve. There are cracks now in the collective delusion, signs the lie might not hold and that something might actually get done.
Some major manufacturers have committed themselves to simplified and streamlined (although entirely voluntary) packaging principles. The federal government is promising aggressive new plastics regulation by the end of the year, and provincially the Ford government recently approved, after a contentious process and a series of late amendments, a complete overhaul of Ontario’s curbside recycling regime.
Taken together, some believe, those moves could lead to a sea change in plastics recycling in Ontario. By 2030, they argue, there should be fewer single-use plastics on the market, more high-quality plastics in the average blue bin, and an unprecedented surge in plastics recycling rates.
“In the not too distant future, we collectively will be looking at this time where we would use something (made) from scratch, put a lot of energy into it … and just throw it away, as something of a … heresy,” said Steven Guilbeault, the federal environment minister, in an interview with the Star. “I think we are moving into a world where this idea of ‘waste’ will be something of the past.”
But others are far more skeptical. They see industry moves toward “sustainable” plastics as the latest in a long series of cons meant to trick consumers into believing plastic products are far greener than they are. They’re also not confident that governments have picked the right tools to get the job done or that they will be tough enough to withstand the inevitable industry backlash.
“Politicians are so terrified to do anything contrary to business interests,” said Rod Muir, a former waste campaigner for Sierra Club Canada and the founder of Waste Diversion Toronto. “Business gets a pretty free hand to do what they want. … And (that’s why) we’ve gotten to the sh—show that we’re in now.”
At the heart of the dispute is a fundamental disagreement about the role of plastics in Ontario society. Some — environmentalists and activists primarily — see them as a harm that needs to be limited. Others, largely, but not exclusively, in the plastics and manufacturing industries view them as a crucial tool with a post-use problem, one that can and is being addressed by better technology and co-operation.
The stakes for Ontario in that fight are high. The province is set to run out of landfill space by 2032, and other countries, like China, are now increasingly unwilling to take our plastic trash. There’s money at stake, too, as well as something deeper, more elemental, and harder to pin down.
Recycling is part of a contract we make with government. It’s a deal that says we do our part for the environment because we assume, that on the other side, they’re doing theirs. The fact that so little plastic gets recycled today, after decades in the blue bin, undermines the public faith in that deal; it risks the integrity of the system as a whole.
The delusion isn’t there anymore, in other words. The question now is, what are we going to see on the other side?