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Illegal Canadian trash keeps ending up overseas. And the federal government won’t say who’s shipping it

Illegal Canadian trash keeps ending up overseas. And the federal government won’t say who’s shipping it

The federal government has privately sanctioned several Canadian recycling companies for shipping illegal, unsorted household trash to developing countries, but is keeping the list of names of those caught violating environmental and international laws secret from the public, a Fifth Estate/Enquête investigation has found.

Nina Azzahra, left, and her father, Prigi Arisandi, are environmentalists in Indonesia and are pictured in a tunnel of plastic water bottles built from those collected in their community. Nina, 14, has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking that Canada stop shipping waste to Indonesia. (WatchDoc/CBC)

The federal government has privately sanctioned several Canadian recycling companies for shipping illegal, unsorted household trash to developing countries, but is keeping the list of names of those caught violating environmental and international laws secret from the public.

A Fifth Estate/Enquête investigation has found that at least 123 shipping containers have been returned to Canada in the past five years after foreign authorities discovered numerous violations of international waste export regulations aimed at stopping Western countries from dumping their trash in developing countries.

“We can’t make those names public,” Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said in an interview with The Fifth Estate.

Guilbeault said the only time names would be made public is when a company or executive was charged under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

  • WATCH | “Bait and switch: Recycling’s dirty secrets,” a special edition of The Fifth Estate, on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV or CBC Gem

Environment Canada told The Fifth Estate/Enquête that in the past five years it issued nine warning letters against companies involved in the shipping of the illegal waste.

In that time, there have also been six fines totalling less than $9,000 against four companies and two individuals. 

According to the regulations, environmental officers may avoid laying charges if they decide a fine or a warning is “sufficient and appropriate” to address a company that has violated the law.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault says he cannot release the names of the companies that his department sanctioned for illegal waste exports. (CBC)

Guilbeault said that because his officials only laid fines, he agrees with Environment Canada’s decision not to release the names. 

“We can issue fines, but in terms of communicating this information publicly, there is still in our legal system this provision that you’re innocent until proven guilty by a court of law,” Guilbeault said.

Illegal waste ‘will continue’ without policy change: inspector

Marc De Strooper, a Belgian port inspector, told Enquête and The Fifth Estate that throughout his 25-year career, he has repeatedly caught recycling shipments containing illegal trash from Canada. De Strooper inspects shipping containers passing through the port of Antwerp on the way to their final destinations in India and other countries in Asia. 

European port inspector Marc De Strooper digs through a container of what was supposed to be paper recycling but was actually mixed with plastic and metal waste. De Strooper inspects many Canadian waste shipments that pass through Belgium and alerts Canadian authorities when he finds violations. (Mathieu Marck)

As recently as January, he caught five illegal recycling shipments coming from Canada that were destined for developing countries.

De Strooper said he believes Canadian companies send their trash to developing countries because it can be cheaper to send it overseas rather than process recycled paper and plastics back home.

For that reason, De Strooper said governments should be more vigilant in preventing the exports of contaminated recycling products.

In Belgium, inspectors test bales of recycling to measure the amount of non-recyclable waste they contain. This one had far more than the allowable amount, according to the inspector. (Mathieu Marck)

“I don’t know how [Canadian authorities] do these inspections, or how much inspection they do on these items. I still see this waste coming to the port of Antwerp,” De Strooper said. 

“If Canada does not change this policy or its habits around this, it will continue.”

No accountability without names, lawyer says

Environmental lawyer Sabaa Khan said that Canadians have a right to know the names of the companies sanctioned by the federal government — and that lifting the secrecy around illegal shipments could help prevent future violations.

“If there’s no transparency, there can’t be any accountability either. That’s the most frustrating part,” said Khan, who works on these issues with the David Suzuki Foundation.

“The Canadian government has decided that it won’t monitor plastic waste very closely.”

Sabaa Khan is a environmental lawyer with the David Suzuki Foundation who specializes in international waste supply chains. (CBC)

Under Canadian law, companies are allowed to export some recycling materials like paper or metals for processing. But DeStrooper and others have found that too often shipments for paper recycling, for example, are mixed with household trash or unrecyclable plastic.

As for those illegal shipments from Canada caught recently in Belgium, De Strooper said that the manifests stated that the trash came from companies operating out of Montreal, Toronto and Calgary.

‘I just feel kind of lied to’

For young environmentalists and recyclers like sisters Sadie and Willa Vipond in Calgary, the lack of transparency helps protect companies — and prevents Canadians from addressing the issue in public.

“If people knew this was happening and there was more transparency … then I think real change can happen,” Sadie, 16, said.

“I just feel kind of lied to, personally,” Willa, 14, said. “So why are they showing us these videos in school about what is supposed to happen after you recycle something, and it just being a myth?”

Willa Vipond, left, and Sadie Vipond, right, are sisters and environmentalists. The teens have long recycled their household waste as a way to reduce their environmental footprint. (Jamie Ross/WestRock Images/CBC)


Through confidential sources, Enquête was able to identify the source of some of the containers that Belgian authorities say were being illegally shipped abroad. The paper waste came from one of the City of Montreal’s recycling centres, operated by the company Ricova International. According to the inspectors, the paper recycling shipment destined for India contained far too much additional plastic and other waste.

Ricova disputes the findings of the Belgian inspector and said that the non-paper waste in the shipment was not out of the ordinary.

‘Stop exporting your plastic waste’

Young activists and governments around the world have been pushing for a blanket ban on Western waste exports to developing countries.

In Indonesia, 14-year-old environmentalist Nina Azzahra has developed a large following on social media after her push to try to convince to Western countries to stop shipping waste to her country. 

Representatives from several countries, including Germany, Australia and the Netherlands, met with her and promised to change their export policies.

Since 2020, Nina has sent two letters to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Why do you send your trash to our country? You should take care of your own trash in your own country,” she wrote.

Nina Azzara reads her letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The 14-year-old activist wants Canada to stop all waste exports to Indonesia. (WatchDoc/CBC)

Trudeau’s office responded to Nina in January, nearly two years after her first letter, and said they forwarded her letter to the environment minister. 

However, Guilbeault has yet to respond.

“They know that recycling is hard, it’s difficult and expensive. Maybe they still don’t want to leave Indonesia. They still want Indonesia to be a dump site for their waste,” Nina said in an interview with The Fifth Estate.

“I really want you to stop — stop exporting your plastic waste to Indonesia. Just stop.”

Politicians supported a ban

Scot Davidson, a Conservative member of Parliament for York-Simcoe, north of Toronto, has been pushing to ban the export of Canadian non-recyclable plastic waste. 

“Canada has to take responsibility,” Davidson said. “We just can’t lob our garbage over the fence to our neighbours and say, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.'”

Last year, his bill to ban the export of non-recyclable plastic waste got widespread support from opposition parties. But the Liberals wouldn’t back it. 

“I hate to be partisan, but sometimes, you have to be. This is all talk, no action. The Liberals proclaim to be the party of the environment,” Davidson said.

“It was almost like they didn’t want the Conservatives to have a win on the environment, so we’re not going to vote for this bill.”

Scot Davidson is the Conservative member of Parliament for York-Simcoe, an Ontario riding. He proposed Bill C-204 to prevent the export of non-recyclable plastic waste. (CBC)

Guilbeault told The Fifth Estate he disagrees with Davidson’s characterization of why the Liberals voted against his bill. He said the government is focused on banning some types of single-use plastic substances to cut down on the amount of plastic Canada is producing overall. 

“We’re banning plastic substances in Canada,” Guilbeault said. “This idea that because we didn’t vote in favour of that bill, we’re not – we don’t want to tackle the problem is simply not true.”

WATCH | MP Scot Davidson pitches his plastic bill to Parliament from Lake Simcoe:

Conservative MP addresses the House of Commons while standing in a lake

York-Simcoe MP Scot Davidson gave his 60 second members’ statement before QP while standing in Lake Simcoe. Davidson called on the Liberal government to protect the lake. 1:24

Despite Liberal opposition, Bill C-204 passed in the House of Commons. However, it died in the Senate along with other proposed legislation because the 2021 election was called.

“Unfortunately I think the world’s oceans are going to suffer because of that delay now,” Davidson said.

He has reintroduced his bill for this sitting of Parliament and hopes this time it will pass both houses.

Canada avoids international pledge to stop exports

Khan, the environmental lawyer, said that Canada has faced repeated requests from other countries to end waste shipments and join international agreements, but has delayed doing so.

“We live in one of the most technologically advanced, richest societies,” she said. “There’s no reason that we should be exporting our wastes.”

In recent years, countries in Asia in particular have been pushing back against waste coming from the West.

In 2019, 187 countries signed onto an amendment to an international treaty known as the Basel Convention. The amendment applied new regulations for the shipment of plastic waste. Canada eventually signed on, but only after two years of delays.

To this day, Canada has not signed onto another Basel amendment, one that would answer the demands of environmentalists like Nina in Indonesia.

More than 100 countries have signed onto the new amendment that would ban many waste exports to the developing world completely.

“At the end of the day, this is simply a lack of political will on Canada’s part,” Khan said.

“The European Union, for instance, has adopted the Basel ban…. Canada has adamantly refused to do so.”

Willa Vipond, left, and her sister Sadie Vipond, right, say that a lot of what Canadians can buy in grocery stores is covered in plastic, leaving few options for environmentally conscious shoppers on a budget. (Jamie Ross/WestRock Images/CBC)

Guilbeault said there are “a number of reasons” why Canada has not yet signed. He said one of the reasons was that his government is assessing Canadian laws and enforcement tools and is considering tougher penalties for illegal exports.

He also said the Liberals’ plan to ban some types of single-use plastics, which is set to come into effect at the end of 2022, will cut down on the amount of plastic produced in this country.

“We need to do better,” Guilbeault said. “We’re banning a certain number of plastic substances in Canada. It’s about managing waste in Canada.”

Nina Azzahra holds a bag of President’s Choice praline nut mix from Canada that she found in her neighbourhood in Indonesia. The young activist wants Canada to stop waste shipments to her country. (WatchDoc/CBC)

As for Nina, she is still waiting for a promise from Canada to stop exporting non-recyclable waste to Indonesia. She continues to educate people around the world, recently travelling to the Netherlands to give a speech to environmentalists there.

“As children, we have the right to live in a safe, clean and healthy environment,” Nina told the crowd.

“The present generation should not steal our basic rights and endanger the lives of the next generation.”

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