Our changing lifestyles over the past few decades have dramatically altered the types of materials we put in blue bins. And that’s led to flatlining recycling rates and ballooning costs for municipalities across Canada that are struggling to cope with the changes.
“It’s a really a perfect storm of crazy stuff going on that means that the blue box has huge challenges that it did not have 10 years ago,” says Maria Kelleher, principal of Toronto-based Kelleher Environmental, a consulting firm specializing in waste reduction and recycling research, strategy and program design.
The problem is that we’re now throwing out a huge variety of new types of packaging — mostly plastics, sometimes glued to other materials like metals- that recycling programs were never meant to deal with. Meanwhile, the materials that they were designed to collect, sort and resell make up a shrinking proportion of what comes in.
Newspaper, for example, used to be the backbone of the recycling program, Kelleher says, “because it’s easy to recycle and it’s worth a good bit of money.”
Now, it’s being replaced with plastics, which are typically more difficult and expensive to collect, sort and recycle, and worth less money when they can actually be resold.
This problem, dubbed “the evolving ton,” threatens to make many blue box programs unsustainable.
Making things even more challenging, China, the world’s biggest importer of recyclables, closed its doors in January to all but the cleanest and purest recyclable materials from places like Canada. Some municipalities like Halifax are resorting to burning their recyclable plastics or burying them in landfills. Toronto’s recycling contamination rate has soared to an average of about 25 per cent in recent years.
Jim McKay, the city’s general manager of solid waste management services, says every percentage point increase in contamination costs an extra $600,000 to $1 million a year. That’s largely because it requires extra time and labour to collect contaminated material and dispose of it in the landfill.