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Canada Reduce, reuse, recycle, rejected: Why Canada’s recycling industry is in crisis mode

Recycling is more than just tossing plastics or paper into the right bin — some items need to be cleaned out and others are simply unwanted. Here’s what to be aware of when sifting through your recycling.

Desperation had set in. For more than a year, officials in Calgary’s department of waste and recycling services had been unable to find a buyer for truckloads of used plastic.

Recyclers in Canada had balked. And shipping the unwanted material overseas was no longer an option. By March, the officials appealed to Sims Municipal Recycling in Brooklyn, N.Y. – a last-ditch bid to clear a backlog of hard-to-recycle packaging that had swelled to 1,400 tonnes, the equivalent of seven blue whales, stranded, in this case, in trailers at a local landfill.

China’s crackdown on importing used plastics is creating limits on everyday household recycling a half world away, and highlights North America’s addiction to cheap plastics.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

But even that Hail Mary pass proved futile. “Frankly, even if they deliver it to me for [free], which is a very expensive route for them, given all the freight costs, we would not take it today,” says Sims General Manager Tom Outerbridge, who’s had to recycle a similar version of this bad news more than a few times over the past while.

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The extended holding pattern the scrap was forced to endure is a symptom of a much wider emergency engulfing the global recycling industry. It followed on China’s decision, one year ago, to ban the import of 24 types of recyclable commodities. The hard-line new policy, dubbed National Sword, was a response to environmental and health concerns, and also to the “contaminated” state in which recyclables arrived: often in filthy condition, and with random materials lumped into single bales.

Almost overnight, a thriving global trade in recyclable scrap dried up.

A Globe and Mail analysis of international trade data shows that Canadian exports of scrap plastic dropped by one-fifth last year, with especially steep reductions in the amounts sent to Hong Kong and China – 72 per cent and 96 per cent, respectively. (Chinese imports of Canadian used paper also plunged, by 65 per cent; that drop poses less of a challenge – paper is a homogeneous commodity and generally easier to recycle).

The data analysis, together with dozens of interviews with city officials across Canada, as well as landfill operators, private waste haulers and processors, brokers and others, paints a portrait of an industry in full-scale crisis, stung by rising costs – and inundated by a mountain of trash no one wants to buy, or even, in many cases, take for free.

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How the top 5 importers of Canadian

plastics changed after China’s ban

Tonnes of imported plastic waste,

by province of origin

Origin of imported plastics

Ont.

Que.

B.C.

Alta.

N.S.

Man.

Sask.

N.B.

2017

2018

Each cube represents 100 tonnes of plastics

UNITED STATES

114,400

tonnes

113,500

CHINA

In 2018, China prohibited the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including eight types of plastic.

25,800

1,000

HONG KONG

22,900

6,600

MALAYSIA

10,300

11,200

INDIA

6,400

7,700

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

STATISTICS CANADA; GREENPEACE

How the top 5 importers of Canadian plastics

changed after China’s ban

Tonnes of imported plastic waste, by province of origin

Origin of imported plastics

Ont.

Que.

B.C.

Alta.

N.S.

Man.

Sask.

N.B.

2017

2018

Each cube represents 100 tonnes of plastics

UNITED STATES

114,400

tonnes

113,500

CHINA

In 2018, China prohibited the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including eight types of plastic.

25,800

1,000

HONG KONG

22,900

6,600

MALAYSIA

10,300

11,200

INDIA

6,400

7,700

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

STATISTICS CANADA; GREENPEACE

How the top 5 importers of Canadian plastics changed after China’s ban

Tonnes of imported plastic waste, by province of origin

Origin of imported plastics

Ont.

Que.

B.C.

Alta.

N.S.

Man.

Sask.

N.B.

2017

2018

Each cube represents 100 tonnes of plastics

UNITED STATES

114,400

tonnes

113,500

CHINA

In 2018, China prohibited the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including eight types of plastic.

25,800

1,000

HONG KONG

6,600

22,900

MALAYSIA

10,300

11,200

INDIA

6,400

7,700

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA; GREENPEACE

China’s crackdown, in turn, is creating new limits on everyday household recycling a half a world away, while casting into relief our addiction to cheap plastics and other consumer packaging.

“We are in a crisis,” says Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta, “that could really undermine the success of our industry.”

China’s refusal to continue its role as the world’s biggest recycling bin has pushed up recycling costs by as much as 40 per cent, pulling back the curtain on the shaky economics that underpin curbside recycling.

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To cope, cities and companies have been scrambling to upgrade equipment and add labour to sort, handle and prepare paper and plastic cast-offs. There is also a movement to transfer more recycling costs onto the mostly multinational companies that sell packaged consumer goods.

A recent study by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada shows there is much room for improvement: Only 9 per cent of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste generated each year in Canada is recycled. As much as 2.8-million tonnes – the weight of 24 CN Towers – ends up in Canadian landfills.

This is a “come-to-Jesus moment,” says Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario. “We’re going to have to shine a light on those materials that we’ve been sort of hoping would get recycled but, really, at the end of the day, aren’t.”


HOW THIS IS HANDLED: Though some communities, including Toronto, do accept plastic bags, many other communities no longer do. The market for this film plastic is oversaturated.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Ever since Canada’s first curbside program launched in Kitchener, Ont., in 1981, spreading the new gospel of recycling hinged in large measure on making the process convenient. And so, over time, more stuff got the green light to go into the same blue bin, yielding a jumble of waste called “single-stream.” Participation rates soared. But so did contamination.

It was a side effect that mattered less and less as China opened its doors to the world’s recyclables. Although a small Canadian recycling sector emerged, exports to China surged, from Canada and elsewhere. In turn, ships returned from China laden with the consumer goods by which the country was also making its name, many of those cocooned in layers of new packaging.

“All mixed paper – all of it – went to China,” says Al Metauro, executive vice-president at Ontario-based Cascades Recovery, which processes and markets materials on behalf of major Canadian cities.

And so did a lot of plastic. In 2016, around half of all plastic waste intended for recycling was traded internationally, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Science Advances. China and Hong Kong alone imported US$81-billion worth of scrap plastic between 1988 and 2016, the authors said.

But there was a hitch. Bales of used cardboard were frequently so soiled with grease and food waste that they were effectively garbage. And not all plastic was equally recyclable, either, owing to its complex chemistry and other factors. For instance, labels and adhesives used on certain plastics – clamshells that hold berries are a prime offender – can yield a lower-quality resin that makes them harder to convert into new products.

China was “importing all this material, hand-sorting it, and then just burning what wasn’t valuable to them,” says Lorenzo Donini, a senior executive at waste hauler GFL Environmental Services in Edmonton. “It was a charade.”

A labourer loads plastic bottles ready to be recycled in Beijing.

Getty Images

In 2016, 36 per cent of all plastic waste collected for recycling in Canada was exported. That fell to 29 per cent last year, after China’s restrictions took effect. Exports of low-grade paper also dropped.

A recent paper in the journal Science Advances predicted that China’s hardened policy could displace more than 100 million tonnes of plastic waste by 2030. Some Canadian exports have merely shifted to other countries, including Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan, The Globe’s analysis shows. Even those countries, however, are clamping down. In March, India, another large market, signalled that it would tighten plastic scrap imports.

Those restrictions come at a time when Canada is being caught out for shipping junk under the guise of recyclables. This spring, Ottawa agreed to take back dozens of shipping containers that have languished in two Philippine ports for nearly six years. The cargo arrived in 2013 and 2014 labelled as plastics, but the containers actually held trash.

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HOW THIS IS HANDLED: Like plastic bags, chip bags are items that vary from town to town. Check your municipality’s list.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

For two consecutive winters now, Gerry Moore and his staff at Island Waste Management Corp. (IWMC) on Prince Edward Island have resorted to burning plastic bags. “We had no other option,” he says.

Come July, the bags will be banned entirely in PEI – a first for a Canadian province, although some towns and cities have imposed similar restrictions. Mr. Moore, IWMC’s chief executive, says the cost of collecting recyclables has jumped by 40 per cent in the last year because the province’s contractor is having a harder time finding a home for some of the material.

Some Alberta municipalities have nixed select plastic packaging from blue-bag collection, opting to send it to landfills. In Fort Saskatchewan, just outside Edmonton, fees paid for dropping recyclables at a sorting centre have tripled in the last year. Now, the company that sorts the city’s recyclables wants only those plastics that it can easily sell, such as clear pop bottles and laundry-detergent jugs.

In North Glengarry, Ont., meanwhile, residents have been given a new rule: If it “crinkles,” it’s not recyclable. In other words, no chip bags, multilayer pouches or candy wrappers. “Stretchy” items such as grocery or sandwich bags are out, too.

HOW THIS IS HANDLED: Though two years ago this might have been fine, food waste is now a major problem and can contaminate otherwise perfectly good recyclables. Wash out your jars and bottles before recycling.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Once a source of revenue for the community, the municipally owned and operated local material-recovery facility – known as a MRF (and pronounced “murf’’) – lost money last year. In order to further minimize contamination, officials had to cut processing speeds in half, driving up costs for an already expensive service.

In January, the town moved to a dual-stream system (meaning that paper and plastic collection has been staggered, to keep the materials separate) in a further attempt to keep contamination rates down. So far, they say, it’s working. But it’s less convenient for residents. “It’s a Canada-wide problem. There’s no place in Canada that’s not feeling the effects of the China ban,” says Linda Andrushkoff, general manager of the town’s MRF.

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In Winnipeg, Mark Kinsley, supervisor of waste diversion, says the city was safely locked into a domestic contract for plastics when the restrictions in China hit. But when it comes to paper – which they still largely ship overseas – they have lost a lot of money.

He says part of the problem is that many Canadians think there’s no shortage of room in this country to simply dump what other countries now don’t want. “Sometimes it’s hard to convince people when you’ve got so much space.”

That attitude has led to another problem. Canada does not regulate the distance waste can travel, notes Cassandra Kuyvenhoven, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University who is studying the transportation of waste: “We haven’t had that kind of catalyst moment of saying, ‘We can’t do this any more, because we’re running out of space.’”


HOW THIS IS HANDLED: Greasy pizza boxes can cause problems at recycling plants, like delays in processing and thus higher costs.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Baling recyclables is dirty work. As Mark Badger stood on a catwalk of the Canada Fibers materials-recovery facility in Vaughan, just north of Toronto, in March, an alarm sounded and the maze of conveyor belts below him ground to a halt.

“Uh oh, somebody’s committed a blue-box sin,” the company’s executive vice-president says, smirking. Usually, Mr. Badger explains, the offending item is a hose or electrical cord that gets wrapped around the machinery.

It takes staff only a few minutes to get everything back up and running, and soon water bottles, newspapers, detergent jugs and cat-food cans continue their journey through the system, to be sorted and compacted into bales.

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Blue-box sins are frequent, and often glaring. In this day’s pile alone, Mr. Badger points out a giant teddy bear, a broken playpen, a pair of gloves, a briefcase.

And then there are the less flagrant offenders, many of which have only recently joined the ranks of the unrecyclable: oil-soaked pizza boxes and food-caked plastics.

HOW THIS IS HANDLED: Black food containers are not recyclable because there is no market for black plastic, and also because the optical sorters do not recognize it on the conveyor belt.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

That has driven up costs, as processors try to reduce the offending items, although dollar figures are difficult to pin down; recycling in Canada is highly fragmented, and plagued by spotty data. Much also depends on a municipality’s size and whether it sorts and markets its own rubbish, or pays a private company to do so.

Canada Fibers, which processes recycling at its Vaughan facility, just north of Toronto, says its investments in technology – such as optical sorters – have put it in a better position to churn out high-quality bales of used paper and plastic for further processing. As a result, the company has been able to find buyers.

But it is still costing Toronto millions more dollars to process. And revenues generated by selling recyclables last year were half what the city had been expecting. “It’s a buyer’s market now,” says Nadine Kerr, the manager of processing operations for Toronto’s solid-waste-management services program. “The people buying can demand a higher quality [product], and pay less for it.”

Take plastic film, for example, used to make grocery, bread and dry-cleaning bags. It’s long been a difficult material to offload. “If you got one bidder,” Ms. Kerr says, “you were happy.” In fact, Toronto’s most recent call for plastic-film bids garnered a final price of negative-$40 a tonne: Canada’s largest city has to effectively pay someone to cart away what it once charged good money for.

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A loading area for materials at a London, Ont. recycling facility. Both the costs and the number of restrictions related to recycling have risen sharply since last year.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Such lopsided math threatens to undermine global efforts – led in part by Canada – to reduce plastic pollution.

Last week, 187 countries reached a deal to make the global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, while ensuring its management is safer for human health and the environment.

Canada and others agreed to amend the Basel Convention controlling the international trade and disposal of hazardous goods, with the aim of reducing the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans and forcing developed countries to deal with their own waste, rather than simply exporting it.

In June, the federal government will unveil the first phase of a zero-plastics-waste strategy, and has also touted an accord among Group of Seven countries to reduce plastics in the world’s oceans. But neither the United States nor Japan have signed on, and many of the strategy’s targets – including a goal to recycle and reuse at least 55 per cent of plastic packaging by 2030, and 100 per cent of all plastics by 2040 – are voluntary.

Globally, some 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste have been generated since the 1950s, most of it in the past two decades, reflecting the widespread adoption of single-use plastic packaging, according to a recent academic paper in the journal Science Advances.

One way to reverse current trends, those in the industry say, is to make large consumer-packaged-goods companies pay for and manage recycling. Packaging, after all, accounts for one-third of the Canadian plastics market, and the theory is that Unilever (which manufactures a broad range of food and personal-care products), Walmart and others are more likely to design recyclable products when they are the ones on the hook for disposal costs.

Plastics discarded in Canada (2016)

One bin represents about

32,500 tonnes of discarded plastics

In 2016, 3.3 million tonnes of plastics were discarded in Canada

305,000 tonnes of it was recycled

RECYCLING

PLANT

137,000 tonnes

were incinerated with energy recovery

WASTE-TO-

ENERGY PLANT

29,000 tonnes went to unmanaged dumps or were leaked

2.8 million tonnes of the discarded plastics went to landfills

LANDFILL

That is roughly 24 times the weight of the CN Tower

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: DELOITTE, CNTOWER.CA

Plastics discarded in Canada (2016)

One bin represents about

32,500 tonnes of discarded plastics

In 2016, 3.3 million tonnes of plastics were discarded in Canada

305,000 tonnes of it was recycled

RECYCLING

PLANT

137,000 tonnes

were incinerated with energy recovery

WASTE-TO-

ENERGY PLANT

29,000 tonnes went to unmanaged dumps or were leaked

2.8 million tonnes of the discarded plastics went to landfills

LANDFILL

That is roughly 24 times the weight of the CN Tower

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: DELOITTE, CNTOWER.CA

Plastics discarded in Canada (2016)

One bin represents about 32,500 tonnes of discarded plastics

2

1

3

4

305,000 tonnes of it was recycled

137,000 tonnes

were incinerated with energy recovery

29,000 tonnes went to unmanaged dumps or were leaked

In 2016, 3.3 million tonnes of plastics were discarded in Canada

RECYCLING

PLANT

WASTE-TO-

ENERGY PLANT

LANDFILL

5

That is roughly 24 times the weight of the CN Tower

2.8 million tonnes of the discarded plastics went to landfills

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: DELOITTE, CNTOWER.CA

“There’s some basic business logic to this, quite frankly,” says John Coyne, vice-president, legal and external affairs at Unilever Canada. Shifting more of the onus to large companies would help fund the overhaul he says is needed to improve recycling rates. “We need brand-new infrastructure that is going to process this material on a local basis, because it’s not going away,” he adds.

B.C. has already adopted such a system, known as extended-producer responsibility (EPR). That means recycling costs are borne by multinational packaged-goods companies and food retailers, rather than municipalities. The share of plastic in Metro Vancouver’s waste stream actually decreased in the past two years.

The region has also been less affected by import bans by the likes of China, owing to a more developed local market for used plastics, officials say. B.C.-based Merlin Plastics is the largest plastic-bottle recycler in Canada and is fed by a steady supply harvested from depots across the West.

Conveyor belts move materials that will be sorted manually at the Canada Fibers facility in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Calgary and Edmonton, keen to unburden strained municipal-tax bases at an economically rocky time for Alberta, are now pushing the province to adopt an EPR system.

The amount that producers pitch in for recycling varies by province. In Saskatchewan, it’s 80 per cent of the municipal bill; in Manitoba, 75 per cent; in Ontario, half.

Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips says the province is now looking at “how, not if” to implement a full EPR program, meaning companies would pay full freight. The idea is to create financial incentives to make easier-to-recycle packaging. “It just makes sense [for] the people producing the waste to be accountable for it,” Mr. Phillips says.

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In theory, everyone agrees. But there are concerns that costs could simply be downloaded onto consumers. And a yet bigger stumbling block looms: Even if large companies foot the bill, it’s not clear where packaging might go. Canada’s plastics-recycling industry is dwarfed in size by a petrochemical sector that churned out $10-billion worth of virgin resin in 2016, according to Deloitte figures.

That mismatch has given rise a hodgepodge of policies and approaches aimed at reducing plastic pollution.

HOW THIS IS HANDLED: Though these are great for many reasons, including because they are lightweight and extend a product’s shelf life, there is no current market for them.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Plastic still accounts for a large share of garbage incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility in Burnaby, B.C. Concrete-manufacturing giant LafargeHolcim also plans to burn more of the region’s plastic waste to fuel its cement plant and kiln in Richmond.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have called for outright bans on single-use plastics while pushing for national standards around packaging and recycling.

Lawmakers in the European Union voted in March to ban single-use plastic items such as straws, cutlery, cotton swabs and Styrofoam containers by 2021.

Canada has so far been reluctant to adopt such measures at the federal level. In fact, Ottawa has joined the United States, Japan and others in opposing China’s National Sword import restrictions at the World Trade Organization.

In an interview, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said that Ottawa is studying possible targets – and bans – to reduce single-use products in government operations. Last year, the Liberals also prohibited the manufacture, import and sale of toiletries that contain plastic microbeads.

Still, Ms. McKenna called China’s crackdown a wake-up call that points to a need for better waste-management systems. “We can’t just be shipping our recycling to other countries,” she says.


Even plastics recyclers are grappling with the trade-offs inherent in modern packaging.

Both consumer demand and technology are accelerating a shift toward smaller, lighter products and packaging. That’s good for consumers who prize convenience. Lighter packaging also lowers transport-related greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet, such packaging is not always recyclable.

Consider those multilayer stand-up pouches used to package an array of goods, from croutons to baby food.

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“They’re kind of an amazing product. They increase shelf life. They’re extremely lightweight, so they have a low carbon footprint,” says Eadaoin Quinn, director of business development and procurement at EFS-plastics Inc., which operates plants in Listowel, Ont. and Hazleton, Penn., that convert used plastic into mouldable pellets for resale. “But right now,” she says, “there’s no large-scale, industrial way of recycling them.”

Plastics in products staying in Canada,

per end-use market (2016)

One cube represents about

47,000 tonnes of plastics

OTHER

PLASTICS

694,000 t

PACKAGING

1,553,000 t

CONSTRUCTION

1,204,000 t

AUTOMOTIVE

476,000 t

ELECTRIC AND

ELECTRONIC

EQUIPMENT

291,000 t

WHITE

GOODS

137,000 t

TEXTILE

267,000 t

AGRICULTURE

46,000 t

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: DELOITTE

Plastics in products staying in Canada,

per end-use market (2016)

One cube represents about

47,000 tonnes of plastics

OTHER

PLASTICS

694,000 t

PACKAGING

1,553,000 t

CONSTRUCTION

1,204,000 t

AUTOMOTIVE

476,000 t

ELECTRIC AND

ELECTRONIC

EQUIPMENT

291,000 t

WHITE GOODS

137,000 t

TEXTILE

267,000 t

AGRICULTURE

46,000 t

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: DELOITTE

Plastics in products staying in Canada, per end-use market (2016)

One cube represents

about 47,000 tonnes

of plastics

OTHER PLASTICS

694,000 t

CONSTRUCTION

1,204,000 t

AUTOMOTIVE

476,000 t

PACKAGING

1,553,000 t

WHITE GOODS

137,000 t

ELECTRIC AND

ELECTRONIC

EQUIPMENT

291,000 t

AGRICULTURE

46,000 t

TEXTILE

267,000 t

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: DELOITTE

EFS and other companies are urging Ontario and other jurisdictions to adopt a standard by which plastic bags would contain 15-per-cent recycled content by 2020.

Ms. Quinn and others say there is a strong market for certain kinds of plastic waste, provided incentives are in place. Roughly 70 per cent of EFS’s customers for plastic film are selling into the California market, for example, where, by law, trash bags must contain 10-per-cent recycled content.

Advocates say measures such as that could help support Canada’s small plastics-recycling sector, which operates in the shadow of a much larger petrochemical industry.

Alberta has in recent years showered the industry with subsidies, highlighting what critics say is a fundamental problem in waste management: the taxpayer-funded underwriting of new plastic creation in an era when governments are scrambling to find ways to recycle plastic.

The real challenge, says Usman Valiante, who helped design B.C.’s recycling system and is a director with Alberta’s Beverage Container Management Board, is to move away from a linear economy that endlessly consumes resources, toward a circular system that reuses them.

HOW THIS IS HANDLED: Though (non-black) plastic lids and paper sleeves are recyclable, the waxy paper cups themselves are not.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Most recycling involves “downcycling”: Plastics degrade over time, and end up in lower-quality products, and eventually cannot be recycled at all. But the creation of new plastic is energy-intensive and a growing source of carbon pollution.

“Every time we recycle a kilogram of plastics to displace virgin materials, there’s a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases and energy use,” Mr. Valiante says. “This is a climate-change agenda just like any other policy.”

In Calgary, officials say they are shipping the last of the city’s plastic stockpile to Merlin’s facility near Vancouver. And its paper and cardboard have found a home in other markets.

But for any city, completely weeding out dirty recyclables is a job that borders on Sisyphean. “It’s impossible,” says Sharon Howland, program lead with Calgary’s waste and recycling department.

Still, she believes that a harmonized approach and common standards between provinces would help. The past year, she notes, has been "very challenging in the sense that we’re on our own.”

With data analysis by Chen Wang

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Editor’s note: (May 15, 2019) An earlier version of this article referred to LafargeHolcim's concrete kiln in Richmond, B.C. In fact, it is a cement plant and kiln.
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