Your lifestyle is making blue box recycling unsustainable

Do you read your news online? Enjoy takeout? Live in an apartment building? Canadians’ changing lifestyles have transformed what we put in the blue bin. And that’s led to big challenges — and ballooning costs — for municipal recycling programs.

Recycling costs are rising as communities struggle to adapt to more plastics, fewer newspapers

Bruce Lai and his son, Chester, take out a recycling bin for their three-storey apartment building in Toronto's west end. (David Donnelly/CBC)

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Do you read your news online? Enjoy takeout? Live in an apartment?

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 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."

Newspaper, formerly the backbone of recycling programs, has been replaced by plastics, which are more difficult for recycling plants to handle. (David Donnelly/CBC)

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.

Plastic revolution

Canada's first blue box programs launched in Ontario a little over three decades ago, so many younger Canadian adults like Bruce Lai, who is 30, have been recycling their whole lives. The benefits of the blue bin have been ingrained in Lai since childhood.

"If you care about sustainability," he says, "why wouldn't you just reuse a resource that otherwise is just going to go in the landfill somewhere?"

Growing up, Lai lived with five other family members in a house in Toronto's east end and ate almost exclusively home-cooked meals. Their blue box was filled with bottles, cans and mountains of newspapers — his father had multiple subscriptions.

Three decades later, Lai shares a two-bedroom apartment with his wife Katrina Lagacé and three-year-old son Chester in a three-storey walk-up in the city's west end. They're expecting another child in May.

The dishpan-sized blue bin in the cupboard under the kitchen sink contains no newspapers; Lai gets his news online. The most common items inside are Chester's small plastic yogurt drink bottles. The fridge is also full of plastic, including containers of yogurt and cream cheese, and squeeze bottles of ketchup and hot sauce.

Convenience foods and takeout have become increasingly popular for busy Canadians. The trouble for recycling programs is these foods tend to be packaged in plastic. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Lai's family tries to cook as often as they can, but both Lai and Lagacé work, and lately Lai has been working six days a week, so the family is relying a lot on takeout.

They're not a alone. Kelleher says consumers' busy lifestyles have fuelled a growing appetite for takeout, ready-to-eat food, and small, individualized packages like coffee pods — typically packaged in plastic.

Because of the way recycling plants are designed, many small items are harder to sort than fewer large items. Lighter materials, like plastic, are also less efficient to process because materials are sold by the tonne but the capacity of trucks and processing plants is limited by volume. And recyclables can't be compacted like garbage because that makes sorting too challenging.

The consequences of all these changes are ballooning costs and flatlining or even declining recycling rates in many cities. In Ontario, the cost of recycling has more than doubled since 2002, while recycling rates have barely budged, says Calvin Lakhan, a post-doctoral researcher in waste management at York University in Toronto. He says jurisdictions across Canada, Europe and the U.S. have the same problems.

A further complication is that many newer types of plastic packaging, such as the resealable flexible pouches used to package frozen vegetables and baby food, for example, aren't recyclable in conventional plants but often find their way into blue bins.

Increasing contamination

That's contributed to another big problem: Growing levels of contamination. Non-recyclable materials ranging from some types of plastic packaging to globs of peanut butter are finding their way into blue bins, further hiking costs, complicating logistics and making it harder to sell the material so it can be turned into new products and offset the cost of recycling.

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 decrease in contamination could save $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.

A look inside a paper products recycling station in Shanghai. In January, China, the world' biggest importer of recyclable materials, implemented new rules to try to avoid accepting contaminated materials from places such as Canada. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Part of the problem is that household sizes are shrinking and more and more people are living in apartment and condo buildings in cities like Toronto.

Many buildings require residents to go all the way downstairs and outside to empty and sort their recycling into common bins. That discourages recycling and increases the likelihood that a bin will be contaminated.

"Participation is low and then for people who participate, they don't always get it right," Kelleher says.

But the biggest factor might be that most people aren't clear on what's recyclable — something that varies from community to community and is constantly changing.

"My belief is that there's some genuine confusion," says Mark Badger, executive vice-president of Canada Fibers, a company that sorts and processes recyclables for 14 communities across Ontario, amounting to roughly 60 per cent of the province's blue box waste.

Solutions to the 'evolving ton'

So what to do?

Obviously, the onus can't be on the public to adapt their lifestyles to suit the recycling system. So it's governments and recycling systems that are going to have to adapt.

The most obvious solution is technology.

Badger says deploying new technology at plants that process recycling can both:

  • Clean up contamination so the recovered materials are pure enough to sell to both domestic markets and importers like China that have raised their standards.
  • Adapt to new kinds of packaging.

Of course, cutting-edge recycling technology doesn't come cheap, especially at a time when recycling costs per tonne are rising.

That means municipalities need to look for creative solutions for funding recycling programs.

Workers sort blue box contents at a material recovery facility in Winnipeg run by Emterra Group. Adding extra technology to such facilities could make them more adaptable to new kinds of packaging and reduce contamination in the recyclables that are recovered. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

One solution is what's known as extended producer responsibility, where the manufacturers that produce the packaging are also responsible for recycling it. Producers share the cost of recycling with municipalities in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, P.E.I. and Quebec.

In B.C., the first province where producers are fully responsible for recycling costs, they're also responsible for every other aspect of recycling, from collection to processing to finding markets for the recycled materials, through an organization called Recycle BC.

Allen Langdon, Recycle BC's managing director, says managing the entire province's recycling on a system-wide basis — instead of via individual municipalities — and working directly with packaging producers is the only practical way to deal with the speed at which packaging and the markets for recyclables are changing.

"The current system of managing recycling is not working," Langdon says, "and anyone that thinks it's going to continue to work that way is not keeping up with where the trends are going."

About the Author

Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.

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