Canadian companies illegally shipped at least 2,300 metric tons of waste overseas, documents show

“It shows a lackadaisical attitude on the part of the government,” said Kathleen Ruff, founder of environmental advocacy group RightOnCanada. “They’re sending a message to the world that trivializes the seriousness of the issue.”

Canada has come under fire in recent years for sending waste overseas, often misidentified as recyclable material. A years-long dispute with the Philippines over dozens of cargo containers of Canadian garbage embarrassed the government, which eventually paid more than C$1 million to ship the unwanted trash back to Vancouver.

That fiasco led to regulatory changes in 2016 that Ottawa said would prevent the export of such material without a permit.

But since then, the government has issued 21 warning letters and 23 fines to companies for shipping waste overseas without permits, according to a document tabled in the House of Commons last week. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) isn’t releasing the names of the companies because they haven’t been convicted in court.

“Out of respect for the presumption of innocence… ECCC’s policy is not to release identifying information with respect to enforcement measures applied where no conviction is recorded,” the department says in the document.

The individual fines are for either C$400 or C$2,000 — a “laughable” amount, according to Ruff. “That would make no difference to the people receiving those warning notices and those fines,” she said in an interview. “It sends a message that the government will not take serious action against you. There will not be serious consequences if you violate this law.”

The department did not explain why it issued warning letters in some cases and fines in others, but said warning letters “will be taken into account in future responses to alleged violations, and may influence the frequency of inspections.”

Sabaa Khan, director of the climate portfolio at the David Suzuki Foundation, said the shipments were likely intentionally mislabeled as clean, recyclable material, which doesn’t require the same insurance and documentation as contaminated scrap. She said they were probably only found during random inspections. “False labeling is a huge problem in the waste trade,” she said. “It’s a huge malpractice in the industry.”

Khan also said there’s a “major lack of transparency” around who’s breaking the rules and how enforcement officers decide when to issue warning letters versus fines, and how much to fine.

Waste disposal and recycling — of plastics in particular — is an increasingly pressing problem for many wealthy nations, especially since China banned most imports of plastic scrap in 2018.

The Liberals are aiming for Canada to reach zero plastic waste by 2030, in part by banning certain single-use items, requiring plastic packaging to contain 50 percent recycled content by 2030, and making plastic producers responsible for recycling. But Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault this week said only eight percent of the plastic produced in Canada each year is recycled.

Conservative MP Scot Davidson, who is trying to pass a bill that would ban the export of plastic waste, said the government’s enforcement efforts are a “joke.” The small fines are just “the cost of doing business” for recycling companies, he said. “You get more for a speeding ticket on the 417.”

Davidson introduced a private member’s bill in 2020 to halt the export of plastic waste for final disposal. He had the support of all parties except the governing Liberals, but the proposed legislation died on the order paper. He’s now trying to shepherd a similar bill through the Senate.

However, environmental advocates have said Davidson’s initiative won’t get at the heart of the problem, since it only targets waste labeled for final disposal, not material that’s misidentified as recyclable.

Ruff said the government should ratify an amendment to the Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce the flow of waste from wealthy nations to poorer countries, which would prevent Canada from shipping hazardous waste, including plastic scrap, to the developing world.

Canada is a signatory to the Basel Convention, but has thus far refused to adopt the ban amendment, which has been ratified by roughly 100 countries.

“Canada has been totally out of sync with the message of the Basel Convention,” Ruff said. “The number one problem is we should stop using developing countries as our dump sites.”

Ruff also pointed out that Canada sends the vast majority of its plastic waste to the United States, which is not a signatory to the Basel Convention, and can therefore export waste more freely to the developing world.

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