Ontario’s Blue Box program was one of the first of its kind. It sent a message to the world that we as Canadians are painfully aware of our addiction to waste, and we are doing something about it.
But over time, systems get antiquated and break down. The amount of plastic that is manufactured now, versus when Ontario’s blue box program went into effect (1981 in the town of Kitchener) is staggering. This makes for a significant challenge; not only for how to process all of this material, but also how to determine demand for the materials that are more complicated to repurpose.
Add to that the global markets that are now not accepting recycling. As you may know, in 2018 China officially stopped accepting recycling from North American countries. This has sent much of the industry for a tailspin. In order for the recycling export system to work properly, there needs to be a market for it. And if recycling is going to continue to be an export, the best case scenario for the recycling industry is to manufacture products that are inherently “easy” to recycle, or that at least pose an interest to potential buyers.
The problem now is that we rely on plastic for so much of what we consume, and so much of it is never intended to be recycled. How backwards is that? Deliberately manufacturing something that has no hope of being repurposed? I have a feeling that years from now, we’ll look back on this practice as completely asinine.
There is always hope, however. Ontario is putting a lot of effort and money behind determining a more effective means to recycle. They’ve been considering a model of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), much like the system that has been in place in British Columbia for a number of years. This would make Ontario less dependent on downstream markets overseas to purchase our recycling, and also make producers more accountable for the types of products they produce.
But, Rome was not built in a day. And with the system in its current state, the problems run the risk of getting worse before they get better.
What’s wrong with the current system?
Unfortunately, a fair amount. The system is currently the epitome of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The intention to recycle is certainly good. And we who live in our suburban houses can discard all of the plastic we like, and it all gets reused and diverted from landfill.
And that is a fantasy.
Fact is, up to 25% or more of our recycling ends up in landfill. There are many reasons for this.
Wrong materials making it into the blue box.
In my community, curbside recycling is removed weekly. And they take mostly everything. Rarely will they leave something on the curb because it is not recyclable. So consumers will continue to place incorrect things into the recycling bin, because they don’t know any better.
Here’s an example: chip bags. These items are made from plastic, but not the type that can “easily” be recycled. They are commonly made from LDPE (Low-Density-Polyethylene), or the number 4 classification, and unfortunately these are not accepted in some municipalities, mine included. The reason we are given is that this type of plastic is too light to travel properly through the conveyors at the waste processing plant. Because of this, the bags end up getting caught in the sorting equipment, and it can shut down the machinery.
However, curbside workers will take bags made from LDPE, especially if they’ve been stuffed into a blue box with a collection of other, more applicably recyclable plastics. Once they get to the sorting facility, they will likely be separated and tossed in a landfill, if they don’t cause a larger issue in the meantime.
Another example: styrofoam. This video from York Region makes reference to styrofoam (or Polystyrene – Number 6) not being recyclable. So in York Region, it is thrown into the trash. But in other municipalities, some types of styrofoam are accepted.
To exemplify some of the confusion, just look at the summary Google result with the query: “where to recycle polystyrene in ontario”
On the top, we have a manufacturer that tells us the material is “being recycled in Canada” very easily, but I’m not sure which part of Canada. The next result, a report by the CBC, paints a completely different picture. Toronto sends their polystyrene to a third party, so they accept it. But not takeout containers.
The fact that Google is suggesting multiple related questions to my query tells me that there is a lot of demand for information on how we should be recycling certain materials in Ontario. But instead of having one central place to find definitive information, we are left to make myriad “micro-decisions” about whether something is recyclable or not.
So I’ve had to enlist my own general recycling rules of thumb:
- If it is plastic packaging and it contains any remnant food, it’s not recyclable
- If it’s a bag made from Low-Density-Polyethylene, I make sure it’s clean, and then shove a whole bunch of them together with any errant plastic grocery bags we may still have, and take it to a drop-in center
- If it’s a styrofoam takeout container (such as the ones from our beloved sushi place) then it goes into the garbage, regretfully.
- If it’s styrofoam mold packaging to hold appliances, it is in fact recyclable. It can’t go in the blue box, though. It needs to be taken to a specific waste processing center [newmarket.ca/wasteandrecycling]
- Plastic sandwich bags, chip bags, kids snack bags, I make sure these are all clean and dry and shove them together to take back to the drop-off location. They are not accepted in our blue boxes. But I’m pretty sure these are all supposed to go in the trash.
You can see where this can get daunting. I’m not the only one who’s confused.
Now, think of all the effort we put into separating our household recyclables. The box put out by my next door neighbor may be full of the wrong stuff. And that will get placed in the truck with my meticulously sorted materials, spoiling the lot. Infuriating.
Couple that with the confusion of every municipality having different rules and regulations about what they can and cannot accept. And the fact that it is the consumer’s responsibility to know about all the different rules and regulations. What a burn. [guardian article about we’ve been fooled]
Not all plastics are recyclable at the curb
Another layer of complexity: not all plastics are the same. We generally know what to do with paper. Unless it’s covered in food or some other contaminant, it’s safe to assume that it’s recyclable. Same with aluminum cans, cardboard, and glass. But plastic is its own animal.
For reference, here’s a still image from National Geographic’s very informative video about Canada’s single-use plastic ban.
See, many people think that these little triangles mean that the product is inherently recyclable. But that’s not what these triangles mean. They are “Resin Identification Codes”, which describe the type of plastic used to make the item. Now, it’s possible that the item has been made from recycled materials, sure. But that does not necessarily mean that the item is recyclable again.
There’s also the problem of many plastics not being identified with their resin identification codes. So I would need to be inherently familiar with plastic consistency to properly determine its type and what to do with it.
There is no centralization of recycling information in Ontario
There really is no one source to rule them all when it comes to recycling practices. The fact that some companies refer to their products as being inherently recyclable “in Canada” is farcical. There isn’t even an overarching provincial regulation, much less federal.
So again, it’s up to us as consumers to educate ourselves about all of the nuances involved with properly sorting, parsing, washing, separating and placing our items at curbside. Generally, all that work leads to some people feeling like this:
Even so, there are several organizations aiming to centralize information (myself included) so that we don’t have to spend even more time rooting around in order to find what we need.
On that note, here are some resources you can access to determine whether something is recyclable, if you live in the Greater Toronto Area:
- Recycle Coach app: https://solutions.recyclecoach.com
- Toronto Waste Wizard: https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/recycling-organics-garbage/waste-wizard/
- York Region Bindicator: https://www.york.ca/wps/portal/yorkhome/environment/bindicator/
Outside of Ontario, there are other very useful initiatives to help us make the right decisions:
- BC Recycles hashtag #canIrecycleit https://twitter.com/hashtag/CanIRecycleIt
I’m certain there are several more. If you know of some, please message me and I’ll keep adding to the above list.
Technical advancements are not properly conveyed
Same as recycling technology allowed us to go from a user-sorting model to single-stream, it has also advanced so that we don’t have to spend as much time painstakingly removing labels from bottles, crushing our cans or washing food out of certain plastic containers.
I wish someone had told me.
But that’s just the thing. When recycling technology advances, it doesn’t make mainstream news. But really, it should, because it affects all of us as consumers. We should be as interested in recycling developments as we are about smartphone launches. (cough).
The market will not bear our current system
Any viable market needs a few key elements to succeed. Arguably the most important, is demand. When there is no demand for a type of recycled product, then there’s a backlog; just as there would be if you ordered too much sea bass for your restaurant and no one wanted it.
Because of backlog for these recycled materials, some facilities are now paying for it to be taken away. That is obviously an unsustainable model, and no some facilities are even going out of business because of it.
When China stopped accepting Canada’s recycling in 2018 (an initiative rather ominously dubbed ““National Sword”) it gave the recycling industry pause around the world. Where China had been significantly raising the standards by which it would accept contaminated recycled materials this was a full-out ban on accepting materials completely. After all, why would we try to sell something that no one wants? And honestly, what country in their right mind would want to buy our contaminated, unuseable trash?
So, as a result of these major shifts in the industry, we have been forced to reconsider how we deal with our recycling practices in Ontario. It is certainly time for some real change.
What’s involved in the overhaul?
We will be posting more in-depth information about the intended overhaul in future articles. For now, check this link as a point of reference to get a sense of what is currently being proposed.
We’re still a ways off from Ontario shifting to an EPR model. In the meantime, I still maintain that the best way to minimize the confusion about recycling waste, is to make decisions about what you purchase at the outset that don’t involve diverting items to landfill. After all, if you don’t buy the thing in the first place, you won’t have to worry about how to discard it.
Also, educate yourself about the common items in your household that either are difficult or impossible to recycle. Are these items necessary, or are they for convenience? What items can we possibly live without, so the earth doesn’t have to be the one left dealing with the mess?
We really need to adopt an attitude of referencing packaging the same way as we read the nutritional facts about the food we consume. Because after all, the Earth is by all rights a living organism. Why would we want to feed it something it can’t possibly digest?
Phenomenal breakdown of where Ontario stands. I cant even hazard a guess as to the situation in Quebec.
VERY interested in hearing about where the industry is going and who are the major players in meeting the demand; private companies? Government entities?
Thanks for your comment Stephen! We will certainly be keeping an eye on this for follow up articles on the progression of recycling regulations. Honestly, in many ways I think British Columbia has it right. We’ll see what the future holds! In the meantime, I’ll endeavour to keep the big picture in mind with everything we consume, and everything we throw away.
You make some good points but here are some clarifications.
1. Some would argue that Ontario has had an EPR program for its Blue Box program since 2003 when brand owners started paying up to 50% of its net cost. But in fact industry has little control over what or how stuff has been collected. In BC it does have that control and pays 100% of the cost. A common province-wide list of materials is in force.
2. Almost three-quarters of the Blue Box is paper of one kind or another and there are markets (although not in great shape at the moment) for it. Most of the paper packaging made by Canadian mills is 100% recycled content so the Blue Box is an important part of the industry’s feedstock.
A very well written article, highlighting the confusion faced by the home owner.
The idea of introducing the EPR model is opening the door to more discussion on who will ultimately be responsible for recycling. The idea that the producer of the item/packaging will share in the cost of recycling is quite relevant, but will be very difficult to implement. Costs would probably be downloaded on the consumer.
Complicating such a program is the trade agreements with the United States. Producers may feel that imposition of additional costs would contrivine various clauses in the “free trade” agreements. Given that many products are made in other than the three partners in the trade agreement, such as China, I cannot see those producers
paying for recycling. Rather the importer would have to absorb the cost.
A provincial wide program, mandated by legislation and regulation may be necessary to reduce the amount of packaging in the first place, thereby reducing the amounts to be recycled. Unfortunately, given the current political climate in Ontario, I doubt such legislation will be enacted.