Chances are, you’ve sabotaged your recycling. Probably without even knowing it.
That’s because a few drops of spaghetti sauce are all it takes to contaminate the contents of your recycling bin. If that sauce, or any kind of damp or wet food, gets onto newspaper and cardboard—things that soak it up—then they can’t be recycled anymore. They turn into trash.
Specific recycling rules vary from municipality to municipality, but regardless of where you live in North America, food doesn’t belong in your household recycling bin. That includes bits of food, like greasy cheese on the lid of your pizza box, which can no longer be recycled because of that contact (you can separate it from the bottom of the box if it’s cheese-free and recycle that).
According to Grace Maione who is the City of Toronto’s Director of Processing and Resource Management, organics are an increasing source of contamination. From a recycling standpoint, they’ve been Public Enemy Number One for the last couple of years in cities across the continent. That’s because messy organics get into other things.
Maione said all kinds of things turn up in curbside recycling pick-ups, including dead animals, which are a type of organic. “One of the worst cases was a deer carcass. I guess somebody went hunting and they decided to get rid of what they didn’t need, right into their blue bin.”
According to Maione, keeping contamination to a minimum has never been more important. China, which was a major market for waste from North America, found that contamination rates were too high—material arriving at its ports contained a lot of non-recyclables and useless junk.
So China imposed a ban on foreign waste last year, and other Asian countries including the Philippines and Malaysia are now refusing to take trash from Canada, the U.S. and other countries. This means that prospective buyers of recyclable material are now mostly in North America and this is a big change.
After recycling is picked up from your home, it’s taken to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where contents from household bins are sorted and prepared for sale. Buyers are end-user manufacturers who can take that material and repurpose it.
Right now, it’s a buyer’s market because there are a lot of recyclables for sale and significantly less buyers who are interested and they can be very picky about what they’ll take and are only choosing goods with the lowest contamination rates. Recycling sabotage—regardless of whether it’s done on purpose or not—costs Canadians millions in extra processing fees and lost revenue.
There’s a lot of confusion around what can and can’t be recycled, and it varies depending on where you live. But there are some hard-and-fast-rules that nearly everyone in North America should follow. Here are the top things you need to stop tossing into your bin so you don’t screw up recycling for everyone else:
1) Organics and food
As mentioned, this type of blunder is the worst because it turns other, perfectly recyclable items into trash. If the dredges from your tuna can spill onto newspaper or cardboard, they’re contaminated and no longer recyclable.
They belong in a composter, organics bin (if that’s available where you live) or even the garbage. “We don’t want people to think they should give up on recycling,” cautioned Maione, “But this is such a waste when a can of tuna that hasn’t been washed out, or a peach pit can spoil a whole container of recyclables.”
2) Random and disgusting things
“We get all kinds of things: chains, animal parts, pots and pans, entire bicycles, a whole mattress stuffed into an apartment [complex] blue bin,” said Maione. People seem to get confused about what exactly can be recycled. She suggests doing a few minutes of research, rather than guessing.
3) Toxic items
If it’s hazardous, it shouldn’t be in your recycling bin and that includes single-use batteries, antifreeze, medication, syringes and paint. Things that are corrosive, flammable, explosive or poisonous need to be discarded carefully and your recycling container is not the way to go.
“Aerosol cans with some liquid inside, or pesticides, anything that causes ill effects to the employees working at the [sorting facility] or the machinery, leave those out,” said Maione.
4) Clothing and textiles
Shirts, dirty laundry, bed sheets—all of those belong in a donation bin, not a recycling bin. Not only can they be reused or repurposed through specific programs, but that means they’re not damaging recycling machinery either.
“They can wrap around some of the belts and chains so textiles do cause problems at the Material Recycling Facilities (MRF),” explained Maione.
There’s a market for electronic waste, but it’s not through your household recycling program. If you want to make some extra cash, you can try selling it locally (you might be surprised at what people are willing to pay for your clunky old phone or busted stereo). There are also depots and private companies that can take e-waste off your hands.
6) Mixed plastics
You have to do some legwork for this category. First, you need to find out what kind of plastic your municipality accepts (they’re assigned a single digit, depending on what they are made of). The City of Toronto, for example, accepts plastic types 1 through 5, whereas some areas only accept one kind of plastic. You can usually find out what type of plastic you’re dealing with by looking on the bottom of a container and finding the number(s) beside the triangle or recycling symbol.
“In Toronto, we use an optical sorter that’s like a laser that shoots through the plastic and identifies the different types of plastic. We get different prices depending on what type it is,” Maione explained.
Because of the way plastic is sorted, black plastic can’t properly be classified. “Those lasers can’t see through the black plastic they can’t identify in an automated system, if it’s recyclable or not,” said Maione. The only sorting facilities where black plastic gets recycled are ones with humans doing the sorting.
Don’t let corporations off the hook
The problem, according to plastics and recycling expert Vito Buonsante is that the system is too complicated. The plastics program manager with advocacy organization Environmental Defence Canada said he studies this for a living and he still can’t keep up with what can and can’t be recycled.
Buonsante blames the companies that produce all the single-use items that are increasingly being made with mixed plastics. “According to the plastic industry, all plastic is recyclable. In reality, almost all of it doesn’t get recycled.” He wants legislation to force the companies that make disposable packaging, to take responsibility for it after consumers are done with it.
It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mentioned it would be part of his plan to ban single-use plastic across Canada by 2021. Without getting into detail, he said the responsibility for plastic waste would be transferred from towns and cities to the companies that make the products.
Currently, B.C. is the only province in Canada where the entire system is run and paid for by the producers. EPR is gaining traction in America, and has been signed into law in a handful of U.S. states
“These producers and retailers are making it pretty much a nightmare and making Canadians frustrated,” Buonsante said. “Consumers should cut back on consumption, but they shouldn’t be pointed out as the culprits. Somehow, they are the victims.”
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