New study looks into waste disposal by 24,000 facilities in Canada, Mexico and the United States
Industries in North America disposed of over five billion kilogrammes of waste in 2018, an increase of about three per cent from 2014, a new report has found. Close to half of it — 41 per cent or over 2 billion kgs — was discarded in landfills.
Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), which implements the environmental side of the accord to the North American Free Trade Agreement, looked into data for 2014-2018. It evaluated the national pollutant release and transfer registers for approximately 24,000 industrial facilities in Canada, Mexico and the United States.
CEC released the 16th edition of Taking Stock May 2, 2023.
The report reveals important gaps in the reporting and tracking of transfers to disposal across the region due to different reporting requirements and shared responsibilities across agencies and jurisdictions.
It also pointed out the lack of information about the fate of waste pollutants when they are transferred to third parties or across national borders.
The amount of waste that is treated or cleaned up off-site, also known as off-site stabilisation prior to disposal, saw a 30 per cent increase over five years, going up to a total of 12 per cent in 2018.
The US was the biggest polluter in North America and accounted for about 63 per cent of the total waste reported each year. Canadian facilities accounted for about 36 per cent of the total, the CEC paper said.
Mexico represented less than a per cent of the North American total. However, the amount of industrial waste generated went up by almost 74 per cent between 2014 and 2018 due to changes in reporting norms, the report found.
Together, two categories — on-site disposal or releases to land and off-site transfers to recycling, accounted for approximately two-thirds of total releases and transfers reported in North America. Releases to air and water accounted for approximately 7 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively, it added.
About 80 per cent of the waste generated came from just 15 industry sectors — with the metal ore mining sector alone making up about one-third, the CEC found. Other high waste generators were the iron and steel mills/ferroalloy manufacturing, basic chemicals manufacturing, oil and gas extraction and waste management sectors.
North American industries reported a total of 538 pollutant groups in the 2014-2018 period. But just 20 accounted for approximately 88 per cent of total releases and transfers each year. Zinc, manganese, lead, copper and nitric acid/nitrate compounds accounted for about 45 per cent of the annual totals, the report said.
Many pollutants were also transferred across national borders. At least 75 per cent of the approximately 200 million kg each year of sulphuric acid from Canadian petroleum and coal products manufacturing facilities were transferred to the United States for recycling.
North American facilities transferred approximately 335 million kg of pollutants off-site for disposal each year, accounting for about six per cent of total annual releases and transfers.
Transfers to disposal in Mexico represented a larger proportion of the total, accounting for 12 per cent in 2014 and increasing to 34 per cent in 2018, even as the number of reporting facilities stayed consistent at around 11,000.
About 155 million kg of waste, or 46 per cent of the total in 2018, is handled under the off-site transfers to disposal category, the report found.
The analysis highlighted both the importance and difficulty of tracking pollutants from their point of origin to their ultimate disposition.
Challenges relate to key differences among the three programmes in disposal terminology and definitions, as well as gaps in the details provided by facilities, particularly relative to the “other disposal” category and cross-border transfers of pollutants.
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