Canada’s International Waste Shipment: A Call to Action
Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Opinion by Georgia Evans and Toni Steele
Canada’s International Shipment of Waste
Canadians produce more waste per capita than any other country in the world (1). Canada has a long way to go if it wants to become a low-waste, sustainable society. Like greenhouse gases pollute the sky, garbage pollutes our land and oceans. Canadians, however, often do not witness the final result of their inefficient and wasteful consumption habits. The burden of managing waste from the Great White North has been both legally and illegally passed on to other countries.
Canada shipped approximately half of its recycling exports to China until the country banned imports on 24 types of waste in 2018, leaving Canada with less options about what to do with its waste (2). Canada, among other countries, began shipping its waste to other Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. In early 2020, Malaysia shipped back 11 containers of plastic garbage to Canada (3). This repatriation of Canadian garbage is a pattern of Canadian waste management, where ‘recyclables’ are often too contaminated to be valuable.
A notable example of Canada’s waste difficulties overseas is the Canada-Philippines waste dispute. In 2013 and 2014, 69 shipping containers that were declared as recyclable plastic were transported from Vancouver to Manila, despite holding household waste, such as adult diapers (4). In 2016, a Philippine court ruled the garbage be returned to Canada, however, it took years of negotiations and legal workarounds for Canada to finally claim responsibility for the rotting garbage and return it to Canada in 2019 (5). Throughout the dispute, the Canadian government tried to shift the responsibility for the trash to the shipping company and the Filipino government (6). Filipino President Duterte even threatened a declaration of war on Canada if it did not deal with its waste (7). It cost the Canadian government over $1 million to repatriate the garbage (8).
Canada’s Waste Regulations
Canada is party to three international agreements related to the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and recyclable material (9). This includes the United Nations Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Decision of the Council Concerning the Transboundary Movements of Wastes Destined for Recovery Operations, and the Canada-USA Agreement Concerning the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes (10). These international obligations are implemented in Canada through national regulation.
Canada has four sets of national laws and regulations related to hazardous waste and recyclable materials: The Export and Import of Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Recyclable Material Regulations, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Regulations, Interprovincial Movement of Hazardous Waste Regulations, and the 1996 PCB Waste Export Regulations (11). Essentially, these guidelines outline the definition of hazardous waste and stipulate how waste is to be handled and transported both nationally and internationally. The Export and Import of Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Recyclable Material Regulations is Canada’s primary national regulation that overlooks the export of waste. Specifically, it sets out conditions for the export and import of hazardous materials to ensure that Environment and Climate Change Canada can track and control all waste movements (12). It also requires that import and transit countries consent to receiving waste from Canada, and further, that the international transfer of waste is conducted in accordance with the national laws of import countries (13).
In December of 2019, an amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal came into force (14). This amendment, named the Ban Amendment, prohibits the shipment of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries (15). The purpose of this amendment is to limit the import of waste to countries that do not have the capacity to safely manage it and ensure that countries take responsibility for their own waste (16). However, Canada has not ratified this amendment and is therefore not subject to the ban (17). This reflects Canada’s desire to continue to ship waste to developing countries despite its harmful impacts.
International Waste Shipment as By-Product of Inefficient Policies
Canada’s international shipment of waste is a symptom of its inefficient recycling policies. In 2016, three million tonnes of plastic waste were discarded in Canada, and only nine per cent of this was recycled (18). The Canadian government has recognized the inefficiencies within its system and has introduced a variety of initiatives to help strengthen its recycling policies. This includes the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment’s Canada-Wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste, for which two action plans have now been released (19). Canada has also adopted the Ocean Plastics Charter, which commits itself to the resource-efficient and sustainable management of plastics (20). Most recently, Environment and Climate Change Canada released concrete steps towards achieving greater sustainability through its discussion paper, A Proposed Integrated Management Approach to Plastic Products to Prevent Waste and Pollution (21).
By improving its own recycling efficiency, Canada will be able to reduce the waste it ships abroad. If its current goals are met, Canada will eliminate certain sources of plastic pollution, strengthen domestic end-markets for recycled plastics, improve plastic value recovery, and support new recycling technologies (22). This, in effect, would reduce the amount of plastic waste in the Canadian economy and hopefully translate into the reduction in the shipment of international waste. Canada has made bold commitments to establishing a more efficient recycling system, and they need to be realized in order to help stop the shipment of international waste and mitigate its harmful effects. Canada’s shipment of waste internationally is a symptom of its own inefficient recycling scheme.
Canada Isn’t the Climate Leader It Claims to Be
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made waves for his efforts to combat climate change. He marched next to Greta Thunberg, implemented a federal carbon tax, promised to plant two billion trees (23), committed Canada to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, leveraged coronavirus stimulus spending for green initiatives (24), and even won the National Geographic “Planetary Leadership Award (25)." The list goes on and on. Pundits have claimed that the carbon tax and climate change are his “true religion (26).” But Trudeau’s efforts are not enough to propel Canada to true leadership in the fight against the climate crisis. True leadership begins with the actions taken at home. As individuals, Canadians need to take responsibility for what and how they consume goods. Producing more waste per capita than any other country in the world is not something to be proud of. The Federal Government needs better legislation with improved accountability mechanisms to get a handle on Canada’s waste problem (27). Shipping garbage across the world and burdening developing countries with hot piles of garbage is no way to be an environmental leader. Canada has a long way to go if it wants to make actual positive contributions to the fight against climate change and pollution.
1 Ann Dale, “Waste,” Community Research Connections, Date Accessed December 29, 2020,
2 Kerry Banks, “Where Canada Sends its Garbage,” 10000 Changes, March 03, 2020, https://10000changes.ca/en/news/where%20canada-sends-its-garbage/
4 Jason Gutierrez, “Canada Agrees to Take Back Trash Sent to Philippines Years Ago,” New York Times, May 23, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/world/asia/philippines-canada-trash.html
6 Mia Rabson, “The great big Canada-Philippines garbage dispute could be over – Canada will take its trash back to Vancouver,” National Post, May 02, 2019, https://nationalpost.com/news/world/the-great-canada-philippines-diplomatic-garbage-dispute-of-2019-seems-almost-over
8 Jason Gutierrez, “Canada Agrees,”
9 Environment and Climate Change Canada, “Export and Import of Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Recyclable Material Regulations – User Guide,” Last modified June 5, 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate change/services/managing-reducing-waste/publications/export-import-hazardous-waste-guide.html
11 Environment and Climate Change Canada, “Hazardous Waste and Recyclable Material,” Last modified January 3, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-reducing-waste/permit-hazardous-wastes recyclables.html
12 Environment and Climate Change Canada, “Export and Import of Hazardous Waste - User Guide”, chapter 2.
14 Basel Convention, “Entry Into Force of Amendment to UN Treaty Boost Efforts to Prevent Waste Dumping,” September 13, 2019, http://www.basel.int/Default.aspx?tabid=8120
17 Basel Convention, “Amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal,” Accessed December 26, 2020,
18 Environment and Climate Change Canada, A Proposed Integrated Management Approach to Plastic Products to Prevent Waste and Pollution: Discussion Paper (Government of Canada: Ottawa, 2020), 1, Accessed December 17, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/canadian-environmental-protection-act-registry/plastics proposed-integrated-management-approach.html
19 Ibid, 2.
20 Environment and Climate Change Canada, “Ocean Plastics Charter,” Last modified December 10, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/managing-reducing-waste/international-commitments/ocean plastics-charter.html
21 Environment and Climate Change Canada, A Proposed Integrated Management Approach to Plastic Products to Prevent Waste and Pollution.
22 Ibid, 4.
23 Kathleen Harris, “Greta Thunberg meets Trudeau, tells him he’s not doing enough to fight climate change,” CBC News, September 27, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-greta-thunberg-climate-change-action-1.5299674
24 National Post Staff, “Trudeau to unveil new green measures aimed at meeting goal of net-zero emissions by 2050,” National Post, December 11, 2020, https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/trudeau-to-unveil-new-green-measures-aimed-at-meeting-goal-of-net-zero-greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-2050
25 National Geographic, “Awards: Planetary Leadership Award,” National Geographic, Date Accessed December 29, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/events/awards/planetary-leadership-award/
26 Brian Lilley, “LILLEY: Trudeau’s carbon tax and climate change are his true religion,” Toronto Sun, December 12, 2020, https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/lilley-trudeaus-carbon-tax-and-climate-change-are-his-true-religion
27 Dr. Calvin Lakhan (co-investigator of “Waste Wiki'' at York University), in discussion with Georgia Evans, December 2020.