The Region of Waterloo sold your recycled milk cartons and tuna cans for $2.2M

The Region of Waterloo was paid $2.2 million for 35 million kilograms of plastic, steel cans, cardboard and other items in 2019.

More than 500K kg of household milk and juice containers sold to the highest bidder

$2.2 million may sound like a lot of money, but revenue is down nearly 50 per cent from the $4.3 million collected in 2017. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The Region of Waterloo waste management division generates millions of dollars each year selling what people put in their recycling bins. 

After recyclables are collected and sorted, they get bundled up and offered for sale on the open market explained Mike Ursu, operations manager for the region's waste management division.

In 2019 the region was paid $2.2 million for 35 million kilograms of its plastic, cans, cardboard and other items. 

The largest revenue generator was polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles — beverage containers, for the most part.  The region sold 2.5 million kilograms of PET bottles for $999,191.

PET bottles are sent to a processor in Ohio and Teviotdale, a town on the border of Perth and Wellington County. Milk and juice cartons are sent to Michigan and Wisconsin; aluminum cans are sent to Kentucky.

Aluminum recyclables were the second most profitable material for the region, 543,000 kilograms were sold for $785,202.

Profits generated by the sales go to offset the cost of all the waste programs in the region. Last year each property owner paid $155 for those services, according to waste management's latest annual report.

Some prices dropping

While $2.2 million may sound like a lot of money, revenue is down nearly 50 per cent from the $4.3 million collected in 2017. 

Up until 2017, China was a major buyer of recyclables from North America. When they stopped buying, prices dropped significantly.

Waterloo Region made $1.2 million dollars selling its mixed fibres, including cardboard and newspapers, in 2016. It made another $1.9 million in 2017. In 2018 revenues dropped to $309,919, despite overall volumes remaining around 25 million kilograms. 

Due to shipping contracts, price agreements and contamination, the region lost $355,403 on its mixed fibre program last year.

Beyond simply putting items in the recycling bin, peoples' everyday actions have a significant impact on the profitability of the region's recycling program, Ursu said. 

Prior to the start of biweekly pickup in 2017, Region of Waterloo residents were throwing close to 40 per cent of their aluminum cans in the garbage, Ursu said. That means millions of dollars in aluminum could be sitting in the region's landfills.

Add to that, is an estimated 80 per cent of plastics that still end up in landfills each year, according to Isabelle Deschenes of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. 

Recyclables a buyer's market

When someone leaves too much ketchup in a bottle they've recycled, the company buying the bottle has to do it, which translates into a higher cost on their end, Ursu said. 

And with so much recyclable material available for sale, it's a buyers market. They can easily stop dealing with one municipality if it becomes too much hassle, and start buying from another 

"They have the information live and per load on what our contamination levels were, so if it's costing them too much they will just say 'We'll buy from somebody else.'"

Contamination doesn't only come from unclean bottles, it can also come from incorrect sorting or the addition of non-recyclable materials into the load. 

One major source of contamination is "wish-cycling," Ursu said. Some products that are labelled as recyclable are not included in Region of Waterloo's program.

"Yes, it's recyclable, but it might be recyclable in Europe or California," or another location with significantly more funding in their program, he said. 

Despite sorting done at both curbside pickup and a regional sorting centre, contaminated product accounted for an 8 per cent reduction in sellable material last year. 

A full list of what can and can't be recycled by the region is available on the Region of Waterloo's website


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