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BC's recycling industry is crashing

[Note: story updated at 12:49 p.m., Nov. 20, 2008.]

The global economic downshift could potentially be hitting home in an unexpected place: your blue box.

"Recycling companies are saying we can't take metal or plastics anymore," says Mairi Welman, Director of Communications for the Recycling Council of British Columbia. "They don't have any space to put it, and they can't sell it."

The problem originates with the hundreds of mills in India and China that normally accept corrugated cardboard, glass, mixed papers and plastic, but that have closed their doors to new materials, Welman explains. She also has heard that there are issues among the container shipping industry with letters of credit.

"The whole market has crashed on everything across the board," confirms Mike Sullivan, general manager of Metro Waste Paper Recovery, one of several materials-processing firms in the British Columbia. "We are still taking mixed paper, but nobody can move glass. For mixed plastic, everyone that has it is just stockpiling the stuff."

So far, most blue box curb side pickup programs are not affected; municipalities and processors are simply stockpiling recyclables. But in some communities, it's a different story. Bowen Island's volunteer-run drop-off recycling depot is asking the community to hold onto all mixed plastics except those with a #2 symbol, which still have resale value.

The situation is complicated by an apparent unfortunate timing with International Paper Industries, which processes much of the glass collected in the Lower Mainland, explains Bill Carr, who oversees the Bowen Island recycling depot.

"A condition has arisen with glass in which International Paper ... needed to expand their processing facility. During this expansion they have stop accepting glass," Carr wrote on the community's online forum.

Carr's facility is no longer accepting glass until the company is again up and running, which is expected to be by the end of the year.

But the bigger problems aren't going away, notes Sullivan. "It's not just across B.C., it's across Canada and the States. Material that was going for $100 a tonne last month is selling at minus six right now." Sullivan says that he has to pay companies to take this so-called negative priced material off his hands.

Ken Rasmussen, who manages Metro Waste's material marketing group, says that dramatically reduced demand for all consumer good is behind the collapse.

"In China they are not producing finished goods, so they are not buying the corrugated boxes to pack them in, and then the box mills are not in turn buying the waste corrugated material from Britain or North America."

"I don't think we are going to see any improvement in the next month; I haven't seen anything like it in 25 years. It is not just a few mills closing down in the Northwest. It is not just a few on the east coast shutting down for a few weeks. We are talking about every mill."

The Recycling Council will meet on Thursday with Metro Vancouver officials, processors like Metro Waste, and other regional districts to plan a response to the crisis. The regional government has assured Sullivan that it has no intention of reversing its ban on landfill materials. Presently it is illegal to trash corrugated cardboard, paper and mixed plastics.

The situation is very fluid, and varies wildly by region, Welman said.

"Up north in Whitehorse, they are stockpiling recyclables because of the transportation costs," she said. "But people who have contracts to supply paper to mills in California are doing okay."

"In the longer term, we need to ask ourselves, 'Should we be looking at processing our own commodiites here at home?' It would create jobs. We should also push design for environment into consumer goods, more extended producer responsibility programs."

For now, Metro Vancouver is advising its citizens to keep putting their recycables into blue boxes.

"We want to make sure people stay committed to recycling programs, and we have no intention of changing our approach," says Metro Vancouver spokesman Bill Morrell.

Morrell would not speculate on where the regional government would store the non-marketable portion of the 1.5 million tonnes of materials that currently move through its system each year.

"All I can do is reaffirm our commitment; the inability to move some of this material will present challeges. we are working with our partners and member governments to find the best way to deal with this material."

"We are doing our best to manage it," he says.

In 2004, Metro Vancouver processed 137,415 tonnes of cardboard, 154,622 tonnes of mixed paper, and 127,613 tonnes of glass.

James Glave is author of Almost Green and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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