Sometime in the 1980s, the three Rs taught in schools changed from “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic” to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” The environmentally conscious carefully sort their plastic, glass, cardboard and cans into blue bins and carry them to the curb every week.
What happens next is sometimes less than environmentally friendly. Some items are recycled more successfully than others; the current recovery rate for paper-based packaging is 58 per cent and 56 per cent for steel packaging, compared to just 22 per cent for plastic packaging.
Some municipalities, looking to save a few dollars, sell their plastic material to brokers who ship it overseas to countries like China and Vietnam where there are few environmental or labour regulations. Items are sorted by hand, and the material that can’t be recycled is dumped.
For Martin Vogt, it doesn’t make sense to ship plastic back and forth across the ocean. Vogt is president of EFS Plastics, an Elmira company that recycles mixed post-consumer plastic into pellets that are used to manufacture plastic bags, tool boxes, piping and other products.
Vogt explained that recycling plastic requires less energy than making virgin plastic and prevents wasting both the raw material and the energy that went into making it when the item is thrown in a landfill.
Vogt moved to Canada from Germany in 2006, and discovered that Canada was almost 20 years behind when it came to recycling post-consumer plastic. Post-industrial plastic, like waste from manufacturing cars, is much simpler to recycle; it’s clean and already sorted by type. Post-consumer plastic, on the other hand, is mixed and contaminated by colouring, labels, glue and residue.
In Germany, Vogt’s father had an injection moulding and extrusion business and turned to recycled plastic as a new source of raw material. Vogt started as a tool and die maker and then went back to school and studied mechanical engineering, specializing in plastics engineering.
Vogt settled on Elmira to start his business because of the number of manufacturing shops that could produce the equipment he designed. His timing was unlucky; just when things were up and running, the recession sent oil prices down, making his product less competitive and hurting the manufacturers who were his customers.
Business finally rebounded in February of this year, and things are looking up. EFS received funding from Stewardship Ontario and Waste Diversion Ontario to develop new processing capacity for mixed plastics, and got a contract to produce pellets used in the new “Tote for Life” in Sobeys stores that is made from 100 per cent recycled materials. In June, Vogt received the ‘newcomer of the year’ award from the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.
Currently EFS recycles more than 7,500 tonnes of plastic a year, and Vogt wants to double that number by the end of 2011. That will mean moving to a new location and adding another production line.
As promising as the picture looks, there is still a ways to go. Some municipalities, like Waterloo Region, are willing to support local recyclers by offering long-term contracts that guarantee there will be the raw material available to start a business. In other cases, there needs to be more political pressure brought to bear in municipalities that are just looking for the highest price or are unwilling to change what they’ve always done. Vogt notes that it’s also important that people see the benefit of their recycling efforts.
“Plastics recycling makes a lot of sense,” he said. “It helps the environment on one side, but it also creates a lot of jobs and ensures manufacturing can stay in Canada. You have your raw material in front of your door.”