Winnipeg's recycling needs to get cleaner; instead, people are putting dirty diapers in the blue bin
New online shopping packaging also part of increasing recycling contamination problem, city official says
Dirty diapers and online shopping packaging are part of the reason Winnipeg recycling contamination has seen a 38 per cent jump in the last two years, the city says.
The way municipalities handle recycling changed when China started restricting contaminated materials last year, but people — and local systems — are slower to catch up. City of Winnipeg waste diversion supervisor Mark Kinsley says people need to change the way they think about recycling.
"They're standing there in front of the garbage and the recycling, and they are putting more good stuff in the recycling. But with that comes the old 'well, I'm not sure so I'll just put it in recycling and they'll sort it out,'" Kinsley said.
That approach isn't good enough anymore, he says.
"If you're not sure, find out."
In 2016, 13 per cent of the city's recycling was contaminated with non-recyclable garbage. By 2018, it was 18 per cent.
Another possible explanation for that is Winnipeggers seeing what's accepted in other towns or cities, and assuming those materials can be here. Diapers, for example, can be taken by cities with composting programs — and Kinsley wonders if that's the reason people put dirty diapers in their Winnipeg blue bins.
But unlike some other contamination that can be sorted out, "there's no wiggle room" on diapers, he said.
Contamination hurts the recycling program's ability to pay for itself, because the city is paid less for loads with dirty or inappropriate materials.
Across Canada, cities have struggled recently with increased costs and more stringent requirements for what can be sent to China or other places for recycling. Emterra, the company that handles the processing of Winnipeg's recycling, told Winnipeg officials last year it will cost $1.5 million more for two years to keep sending materials to be recycled in China, in the wake of the changes.
"There are some places that are having a really, really tough time moving their material," Kinsley said.
New types of containers
He says new types of shipping containers are being developed as the popularity of online shopping soars. But it takes time to add new items to a recycling program — including figuring out how to sort them, and what the materials can be recycled into — and they can't keep up with how quickly new containers are being developed.
Pouch containers — often used for shipping, laundry, baby food and drinks — are replacing hard-walled containers but aren't easily recycled because they're not 100 per cent plastic, he says.
Bags are also a problem. Plastic grocery bags, clothing bags, Ziplocs, bread bags and even potato chip bags get tossed into recycling bins, but have to be manually sorted out, Kinsley says.
"People are having to reach onto conveyor belts and pull these off. So you can imagine, it only takes a few seconds but that adds up over a shift and over a day, a week, a month."
Cords and wires tossed into recycling can even damage the sorting equipment, he said.
"Clothing can get wrapped in the equipment, pieces of clothing can jam," he said. "Honestly, you could name pretty much everything, and we've seen it come through the [Materials Recovery Facility].
"My theory over the years has just been somebody has either seen it acceptable in some kind of waste diversion program, or sometimes I feel like some folks treat it like a Goodwill," he said.
But anything that's not on the acceptable list just causes problems, he says.
Definitely not recyclable:
- Household hazardous waste, such as oil containers.
- Plastic bags.
- Material in bags (opaque and transparent bags).
- Residual food, such as pizza crusts.
- Wires, string, and hoses.
Despite the increased contamination, Kinsley is hopeful and says people are getting better at recycling.
Between 2007 and 2018, there was a 20 per cent increase in the weight of recycled items in Winnipeg; at the same time, garbage was down 24 per cent.
"People are trying to do the right thing," he said.
"Keep recycling. Just get yourself more educated and knowledgeable of what's acceptable in Winnipeg or wherever … because that gives this stuff the best chance to become new products."