Canada! We need to talk about our garbage

Canadians claim to value a healthy environment, so why is our garbage being found across the developing world?

ILLUSTRATION: Raissa Sourabh / The Peak

By: Victor Tran, SFU Student

In 2019, Canadians produced more garbage per capita than any other country. What’s worse is that we’re sending that waste to developing countries. Between 2017–22, Canadians shipped more than 2,300 metric tons of garbage overseas. It’s high time Canada stopped dumping its trash on others and solved this problem domestically. 

Exporting waste to developing countries is appealing for many reasons, ranging from being cheaper, to helping meet recycling goals, to freeing up space in domestic landfills. Despite there being an international agreement that’s meant to prevent the exporting of plastic trash to developing countries, the non-profit Basel Action Network reported that multiple countries, including Canada, violated the treaty in 2021. The result of these violations is Canadian trash being found strewn across the Global South. 

Illegal trash dumping in developing countries with inadequate waste management infrastructure can harm people and the environment for a long time. The charity Tearfund estimated in 2019 that “between 400,000 and one million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases related to mismanaged waste.” Plastic that is not recycled is sometimes burnt in those countries, releasing toxic chemicals that contaminate communities and the food chain. Countries that receive exported garbage are at risk of that waste leaking out to the sea, resulting in contaminated water sources and impaired ecosystems. The influx of plastic waste in the Philippines, a major plastic importer, has sickened residents of Manila and clogged the island nation’s coastlines. We as a nation are creating horrible conditions for developing countries and their citizens. 

So, how do we solve the problem?

The easiest answer is to build more landfills in Canada. We produce more waste than we can store, so why not just build more storage? Because that doesn’t tackle the root cause of the problem.

Canadians produce a great deal more waste than peer nations. In 2019, Canada approximately produced 36.1 metric tons of waste. US, the world’s poster child for consumerism, produced 25.9 metric tons. We should be ashamed. 

We need to take that shame and direct it upwards toward producers. 

In Canada, only 9% of 3 million tonnes of annual plastic waste are recycled. This number is a far cry from Germany, which, in 2020, had a 67% recycling rate. Canada lacks what Germany has been focusing on for the last two decades; namely, strong government policies that motivate consumers and businesses to reduce and recycle.

The German government motivates recycling with two strategies: a deposit refund scheme and mandatory waste sorting policies. The deposit refund scheme charges consumers between $0.12 and $0.37 for purchased glass bottles — which is refunded if the bottles are returned to the retail stores. The program results in an outstanding 98.4% return rate, which not only accelerates the recycling process but also helps customers develop a more sustainable mindset. 

The mandatory waste sorting strategy consists of three major policies. The first is the 1991 Packaging Ordinance, which forces manufacturers to recycle and recover sales packaging. The next is The Green Dot System, a nearly EU-wide program that forces manufacturers to pay waste management companies a fee based on the number of packages on the market and the weight of the packaging. Lastly, there’s the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act, which hold businesses accountable for avoidance, reuse, recycling, and environmentally compatible disposal of waste that arises from manufacturing. Together, these programs incentivize businesses to rethink their production system and adopt recyclable materials in manufacturing.

Canada has a garbage problem. The solution can’t be to just build more landfills; we need to force producers to think about the ways they package their products and the degree to which they’re liable for disposal.