Many urban-dwelling Canadians are confused and at times, downright lazy, when it comes to what gets tossed in blue bins, according to a civil servant who oversees recycling in the nation’s largest city.
It’s a problem that threatens to cost municipalities millions of dollars as more garbage gets mixed in with what is meant to be salvaged.
In Toronto, about 25 per cent of all material placed in blue boxes in 2017 was non-recyclable, according to a report submitted to city council’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. That number is projected to rise to 27 per cent in 2018.
“Some of that could be blatantly obvious stuff. We’ll get garden hoses. We’ll even get dead animals sometimes in the recycling bin,” City of Toronto General Manager of Solid Waste Management Services Jim McKay told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. “We are (also) seeing new products coming into the market right now. Things like coffee pods are a big one.”
More online shopping, delivered meals, even the rise of digital news is changing the mainstays of what makes up recycling, he said. Today’s bins are full of black plastic food containers, cardboard, coffee cups and pods, and stand-up re-sealable freezer bags. Newspaper, glass, tin and aluminum used to be the norm.
McKay said new problem items are finding their way into blue bins when they shouldn’t.
“People think they are doing the right thing by putting it in the bin, and it’s actually contamination,” he said.
THE GREEN BEHIND THE BLUE BINS
While most people pay little mind to what happens after the truck picks up their recyclables. In Toronto, the reality is big business and revenues are increasingly in jeopardy.
The report to Toronto’s public works comittee notes an additional $4 million in processing fees will be paid to Canada Fibers Ltd. under the current agreement, should the contamination rate surpass 27 per cent in 2018.
China is the world’s largest market for recycled material. In July 2017, Beijing’s Ministry of Environmental Protection told the World Trade Organization that it intends to ban 24 types of waste and impose strict contamination limits on other materials. Under the proposed rules, contaminated recyclables can only account for 0.5 per cent.
That spells trouble for jurisdictions were too many black plastic take-out trays are turning up in blue bins. The City of Toronto knows it.
“A standard of 0.5 per cent contamination for recovered materials is not an economically feasible threshold without significant process and infrastructure changes, thereby resulting in both increased processing costs and a reduction in revenues from processed material,” the report states.
McKay said Toronto is already struggling to keep up with sheer volume of new and problematic materials entering the flow of recycled goods.
“There is a lot of money being invested in research and development at the front end of these big companies creating new packaging for all the new products that go into the market place,” he said. “In the end, it’s the municipalities who are responsible for managing all the material. We don’t have the financial resources . . . that big companies do.”
The 2016 Waste-Free Ontario Act shifts the onus from government to industry to collect and recycle paper products and plastic packaging. Last December, a non-profit called Stewardship Ontario released a draft plan for stronger producer responsibility in Ontario.
“This concept of extended producer responsibility is becoming very important,” McKay said, pointing to urban centres throughout British Columbia. Contamination rates are as low as 3.6 per cent in West Vancouver, for example.
“B.C. has extended producer responsibility, so the companies that put these products in the market are responsible for the cost, and are accountable for the material as part of their recycling program,” McKay said. “They actually run the recycling program.”