Last week, government representatives from the departments of Environment, Industry, and Natural Resources faced questions from members of the Standing Committee on Industry and Technology (INDU), regarding the electronics, metals and plastic recycling industry in Canada, following a motion adopted in November last year.
The government officials detailed the government of Canada’s recycling efforts to bolster a circular economy.
“The circular economy provides an alternative and more sustainable framework for the design, production and consumption of products and materials to keep them in the economy and out of landfills for as long as possible,” said Sheryl Groeneweg, director general, Advanced Manufacturing and Industrial Strategy branch, “all in support of the Government of Canada’s efforts to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, while creating opportunities for clean growth and job creation.”
Some of the sustainability initiatives touted by the witnesses include:
- Canada-wide goal of zero plastic waste by 2030, backed by a C$275 million commitment
- The Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance announced at COP 15 in December 2022 to embed circular economy principles into local mining practices.
- Banning single-use plastic items and enforcing labeling of recyclable and compostable plastics
- Critical minerals research and development (R&D) to de-risk technology adoption
The government of Canada made sustainability its key objective in its 2023 budget announcement, supporting initiatives such as clean technology projects, zero-emission technology manufacturers, and clean hydrogen through investment tax credits.
It also announced that it will invest in battery manufacturing as the automotive industry pivots to electric-vehicle (EV) based platforms.
Nonetheless, tensions mounted when the government’s relations with Volkswagen were raised by a committee member, who contended that the automaker had a very poor environmental record.
In March, Volkswagen announced that its subsidiary PowerCo will establish an electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturing facility in St. Thomas, Ontario.
The committee member questioned how much money was paid to Volkswagen to build that battery plant, information that the government official said she could not disclose.
“I know that the government of Germany offered Volkswagen over $10 billion to have a lithium battery processing plant in that country. We’re talking a lot of money here. It’s a very straightforward question,” said committee member Brad Vis. “We all support the development of battery technology. But if there’s taxpayer dollars at hand, that is completely relevant to the study and the operations of this government, and in the realm of what we’re discussing here today.”
The motion to obtain that information was thereafter dismissed as “irrelevant” and as “a fishing expedition for talking points and for possible question period fodder.”
That did not distract the Committee from questioning Canada’s role in the mining of lithium, a key component in current battery technologies and EVs. Most questions, however, remained unanswered, notably the number of applications to mine lithium currently with the government of Canada; the government official promised to get back to the committee member.
Committee members also questioned the initiatives that Canada put in place to reuse critical minerals and high value materials such as iron, copper and gold found in e-waste in order to alleviate the pressure on critical mineral extraction.
Businesses specializing in the safe disposal of electronics have a big role to play in ensuring that valuable materials get reabsorbed into the manufacturing sectors, to be part of the circular economy, Kimberly Lavoie, associate assistant deputy minister, Mining Policy and Critical Minerals, explained.
But she also addressed the grave environmental impacts of Glencore Canada’s copper processing facility, Horne Smelter, which recently committed $500 million to cleanup measures to reduce its emissions.
“The particular situation in the Horne Smelter is one that is incredibly unfortunate. It’s an old smelter. It’s one that has been around for a long time. But it is the only one in North America that is currently recycling copper. And it’s recycling e-waste as well. And so the objective that we are looking towards is how we can allow that smelter to continue to do its important work while still protecting human health.”
In March, the Quebec government announced spending of C$86 million to move 200 households away from the Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, due to its high arsenic emissions.
Furthermore, Groeneweg said that e-waste is both an environmental waste management issue and an economic opportunity. ISED, for example, ensures that old electronic devices are diverted away from landfills to a second life, often given to lower income people and schools.
Export of e-waste was also a key subject during the meeting.
Dany Drouin, director general, Plastics and Waste Management Directorate, revealed that plastic waste export has officially been controlled only since Jan.1 2021 and that the vast majority goes to the U.S..
In general, the categorizations of different types of waste and its movement are covered under an international environmental treaty, the Basel Convention, which, in turn, triggers the government’s regulations.
Drouin also added that “the cornerstone store for the trade is prior informed consent. So not anyone can send any waste to a country that has not provided its consent first. And in doing so, the principle behind it is that the country can assert that it can manage the waste in an environmentally sound manner.”
Additionally, the government officials detailed some barriers to recycling:
- Transportation considerations and global constraints in acquiring, for instance, steel scrap.
- Countries placing export barriers on scrap from their waste streams and plastics
- High energy costs to process plastics for recycling
- Technology barriers to the reuse of plastics for food packaging, which has its own standards
- Market failures, cost considerations and low competitiveness in the recycling sector