Every year, Winnipeg exports almost 5,000 tonnes of plastic, most often to China, where it is transformed, according to a recent CBC report, into consumer products like carpets and polar fleeces. To some environmental theorists, this process is best described not as recycling, but as “downcycling”. Downcycling describes how post-consumer goods get turned into goods or materials of lesser value or functionality.

In the process, Manitoba maintains its role historical role as a hewer and drawer of resources (in this case plastic waste) while sending the economic benefits of production overseas. Why does this happen, and what are the environmental and social costs of this relationship?

At one level, the export of plastics overseas is a result of a lack of local industrial markets willing to buy up the resource. We need to do more to promote local markets for recycled materials. Options exist for handling the materials here and developing industries, but governments must play a role. Where private enterprise is unwilling to take initiative, the City and Province could step in to help develop local industries that promote sustainability. Often in the drive to cut back, privatize and downsize, governments miss opportunities to develop economic and environmental synergies.

We need to make sure that our recycling facilities and the contracts in place for recyclers do not have perverse incentives to encourage downcycling. At present, Winnipeg’s contract with the Emterra Materials Recovery Facility may be encouraging low-quality recovery by signing away authority to market the materials to the private recycler, while the City of Winnipeg retains the right to the proceeds of their sale. As Mayor Sam Katz said in another context, they have no “skin in the game.” By divorcing the two, it does not give an incentive to the company to find highest quality use markets for the materials, since their contract only stipulates the recovery rate, not the quality of the materials they recover.

From a physical point of view, the second law of thermodynamics tells us that every closed system is fundamentally unsustainable. Energy always dissipates through entropy during any transformative process and must be replaced by outside inputs. At best, this unsustainability can be reduced by keeping entropy to a minimum. Downcycling is our industrial system’s way of putting the second law of thermodynamics into overdrive. Although the energy and matter the material contains is maintained, its useful properties are degraded. To the extent that our recycling system promotes downcycling and sends the materials overseas at enormous environmental cost, recycling actually undermines the sustainability it is meant to enhance.