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Behavior Change
Canadian Municipalities Struggling with Costs of Contamination, Markets for Recyclables

The world’s first curbside recycling program started where I live. Ontario, Canada’s Blue Box program made its official debut in the City of Kitchener in 1981 and became a blueprint for recycling programs in more than 150 countries around the world. Many Canadians don’t realize recycling “started” here in the Great White North, and unfortunately, many also don’t know what can go in their blue boxes these days.

Put simply, we are recycling wrong and it’s costing our municipalities millions. And now that China has restricted its intake of foreign waste, our municipalities are also struggling to find markets for our recyclables.

Non-recyclable content that makes its way to recycling centers is called contamination, and as more packaging and products are made with mixed materials, confusion among consumers and costs for municipalities are growing. What can be processed by recycling facilities also varies by municipality. Black plastic, for example, cannot be properly identified and sorted at many local plants.

“[A black plastic coffee cup lid] looks like recycling, feels like recycling, it’s actually marked as recycling,” Jim McKay, general manager of waste management services for the City of Toronto, told CBC News. “[In Toronto,] It’s not.”

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As a result, contamination rates vary widely across the country. The eastern-most provincial capital of St. John’s, NL has an admirably low rate of 3%, in part aided by its relatively small population (just over 200,000 people live in its greater metropolitan area). St. John’s does not accept common contaminants such as glass, Styrofoam, and plastic bags, and requires its residents to separate paper, cardboard and containers in their curbside recycling. While these restrictions contribute to its low contamination rate, they also mean that only about 60 percent of households participate, apartment dwellers must request to participate, and about a third of households still put out five bags of garbage every week.

On the opposite coast, Vancouver, BC, where Sustainable Brands will host a conference in June, also boasts a low contamination rate of 4.6%. As in St. John’s, residents must sort paper, cardboard, and containers in their curbside bins, but Vancouver also accepts glass if in its own bin, and plastic bags and Styrofoam if they are returned to a depot for recycling.

Unfortunately, other large cities are performing much more poorly. Toronto, ON and Edmonton, AB, the country’s 1st and 5th most populous cities respectively, have contamination rates around 25%. These cities – and many others across the country – collect all recyclables together in the same bin or bag. Such “single-stream” programs amplify the problem by allowing contaminants to damage other materials as they move through the system. The nation’s capital of Ottawa, ON is an exception, where despite a single-stream program, its contamination rate is only 5%.

Lower contamination rates help keep costs down and allow municipalities to sell their recyclables for higher prices. Some municipalities also have to pay additional fees under their contracts with waste management companies if their contamination rates get too high. Under Toronto’s contract with Canada Fibers, for example, the city will need to pay an extra $5 million charge if its average contamination rate reaches 27%. McKay estimated that each percentage point decrease in contamination could lower recycling costs in Toronto by $600,000 to $1 million per year.

Some North American material is still being sent to emerging markets in Asia, but the prices are lower than they were with Chinese facilities.

Other municipalities are struggling to find markets at all. Tonnes of plastics have been accumulating in stockpiles across the country since Chinese companies stopped accepting foreign recycling materials last year. In some cases, material has degraded and has had to be sent to landfills since it could no longer be recycled. In the province of Nova Scotia, where it is illegal to dump plastics in a landfill, counties must obtain special permits for this, or ship them to landfills elsewhere. Cities which have secured deals with processing facilities are keeping their markets a secret for fear that they will be outbid and once again stuck with recyclables that cannot be processed in most facilities in Canada, such as film plastics.

Municipalities are anticipating investments in recycling infrastructure to increase their own capacity for processing materials, in addition to consumer education campaigns. Many already have online resources that allow residents to look up how to dispose of specific materials at the local level. Various levels of government are also working with companies and NGOs to reduce waste through initiatives such as the Circular Economy Innovation Lab (CEIL) and National Zero Waste Council (NZWC).

Canadians are invited to join the conversation through the CBC’s Reduce, Reuse and Rethink Facebook group.