By Philippe Edde
Canada produces a whopping 31 million tonnes of garbage a year! That's more per capita than any other country on earth. Because of this, you probably think that Canada has great infrastructure for taking care of this trash. But, unfortunately, this is not the case.
Instead of managing and recycling all the waste Canadians create, Canadian governments and companies take the easy way out and dump much of this trash onto other countries. Unfortunately, the incentive for this has nothing to do with sustainability. Instead, it is done simply because it is cheaper to export waste than to develop local infrastructure to deal with it sustainably.
To make matters worse, the countries that are receiving our trash are often developing countries like China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. These countries tend to have even worse waste management infrastructure than Canada, so the trash we send to them often gets incinerated, releasing dangerous pollutants into the atmosphere, or dumped into unregulated landfills, eventually making its way back into our oceans.
Sometimes, the waste Canada exports is deemed contaminated by international recipients and is subsequently sent back, leaving us with both poor waste management infrastructure and a whole load of waste that will be dumped into local landfills. Of course, that’s on top of the extremely high carbon emissions that go into shipping tonnes of waste halfway across the world and back.
Waste export bans
Thankfully, some countries have begun to take a stand against this. Since 2018, China has banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, greatly reducing the amount of garbage imported into the country. A handful of other Asian countries have followed suit due to the increasing environmental cost this practice has for their nations.
The Canadian government has also seemingly taken a stand against this, having issued no new overseas trash-export permits since 2017. In 2021, Canada also signed the United Nations Basel Convention on hazardous waste, which aims to reduce the harm of transporting and exporting waste by ensuring that such materials are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.
Waste export ban loopholes
While committing to the Basel Convention, Canada also signed an agreement with the USA that allows our nation to send its waste to this southern neighbor. This means that while it is illegal to send trash overseas, we can still send it to recycling brokers in the USA.
Once it is sent to America, the Canadian government can no longer track or regulate it. The Americans then send it straight to our east Asian friends in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Another loophole is found in the practice of simply not listening to the government and illegally shipping waste anyways. While it is difficult to find stats regarding illegal activities, we know that in the past five years, over 120 shipping containers full of waste have been returned to Canada due to the materials being contaminated.
This reveals the unfortunate truth that Canadian companies continue to ship their waste to developing countries with poor infrastructure. What is especially surprising and distressing is that the Canadian government has chosen to keep the names of these companies anonymous, and most of them have simply been let off with a warning.
Since 2017, nine warning letters and six fines have been sent to these companies, with the fines totalling less than $9,000. This lack of transparency helps protect those companies from real repercussions that consumers can face.
What can we do?
Perhaps all this talk about illegal dumping and government complacency has left you feeling powerless in the face of these systemic issues. But worry not: there are initiatives you can support that can make a difference.
For example, Nina Azzahra is a 14-year-old Indonesian environmentalist who has raised awareness about this issue on social media and who has even been able to get representatives from Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands to promise to change their export policies. She has also reached out to Trudeau--twice—but has yet to receive any meaningful response.
To get involved, you can petition your city councilors to push Canada to make a meaningful commitment to this cause, or follow Nina online and spread her message to raise awareness about this issue.
You can also work on reducing waste on an individual and community level by limiting your plastic consumption, promoting upcycling, and encouraging the use of reusable materials. Aditionally, you can support local recycling initiatives. Check out this blog for a great list of recycling initiatives.
Canada's plastic waste exportation underscores the need for immediate and collective action to address the global plastic pollution crisis. Canada must take on this challenge and invest in domestic recycling capabilities while reducing plastic consumption and promoting eco-friendly alternatives.
By taking a proactive approach and working together on a global scale, we can create a future where plastic waste exportation is an outdated practice and the well-being of the planet takes precedence over short-term convenience.
This post was edited by Lumida Editing & Proofreading
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