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Winnipeg, you're recycling wrong: Common misconceptions about what can go in blue bins

If a container comes with one of those little triangle recycling symbols, it stands to reason it can be recycled. But thanks to changing market forces, it turns out that stamp of approval is misleading many Manitobans and turning whole loads of recycled materials into trash.

Disposable coffee cup lids, black plastic takeout containers don't get recycled in Winnipeg

Many consumers are still confused about what goes in their blue bins and what doesn't. The CBC's Holly Caruk spoke with a city official about common misconceptions. 2:05

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink is a CBC News series about recycling. We're looking at why our communities are at a turning point and exploring ways to recycle better. You can be part of the conversation by joining our Facebook group.


If it comes with one of those little triangle recycling symbols, it stands to reason it can be recycled. But thanks to changing market forces, it turns out that stamp of approval is misleading many Manitobans and turning whole loads of recycled materials into trash.

Newspapers, plastic bottles, soda cans, cardboard boxes and milk cartons can be recycled if they're clean. But some of the common items getting wrongly tossed in recycling bins in Winnipeg include Styrofoam, foil, plastic bags and black or dark-coloured plastics.

Some of the confusion stems from changes to recycling contamination standards in China that are forcing many municipalities to adapt their own sorting and processing programs.

China has traditionally been one of the largest markets for Canadian recyclables, but late last year, it rolled out more stringent rules on what it will or won't buy. The country will no longer accept some forms of common materials, or loads that aren't clean and free of non-recyclable contaminants.

"All of us have to be more aware and put more effort into producing clean and pure items that are part of the acceptable list," said Mark Kinsley, supervisor of waste diversion for the City of Winnipeg.

"We realize these changes to the recycling industry and some of our acceptable items list is confusing and can be difficult, but like any change we're just trying to help people make the change in their habits, as far as what they recycle."

All of these items — newspaper, plastic bottles, milk cartons, soda cans, plastic cream containers, glass jars and metal cans — are recyclable in Winnipeg. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Winnipeg is in the process of choosing a new company to handle the processing and sorting of its recycling. Emterra has done that for more than 15 years, but in January the company said it would need an extra $1.5 million to hire more staff and increase equipment maintenance frequency to keep up with China's demands.

On Tuesday, the city's executive policy committee voted in support of contracting Ontario-based Canada Fibers to take over for the next decade, to the tune of $112 million. The hope is that the company will be able to bring Winnipeg's recycling program in line with China's specifications.

Technological barriers

What is or isn't accepted has a lot to do with the technology used to sort recycling. 

Black plastics, like this takeout container, are not recyclable in Winnipeg. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Dark plastics — like those used for takeout containers and disposable coffee cup lids — cannot be recycled in Winnipeg.

"The machines can't recognize the black because it actually mixes in, or is the same colour as the belts that move all this stuff around in the facility," Kinsley said.

Many single-use coffee cups such as this are not recyclable in Manitoba. The plastic lid, although it has the distinct recycling symbol on it, is also not recyclable in Winnipeg. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

So even if it has that recognizable recycling symbol, it may not be recyclable in Winnipeg.

"A great example of that is Styrofoam. We get that question all the time — it's got the triangle with the 'No. 6,' and yet we don't accept Styrofoam," Kinsley said.

Scrub, soak, rinse

If you throw out your recycling in a plastic bag, chances are it's headed to the landfill.

As for cleaning out that old peanut butter jar or yogurt container, Kinsley says to scrub and rinse away.

"The cleaner the recycling comes into our program the better it is for the efficiency and sorting of any material, and the better chance it has to be remade," he said.

More details about what's accepted and what's not are available on the City of Winnipeg's website. Those who live outside the city can check with their municipality about any updated rules for what can or can't be put in the blue bin.

Teresa Looy with the Green Action Centre explains some of the common mistakes people make recycling. 1:46

Corrections

  • We initially reported that dark plastics can be recycled in Toronto. In fact, black plastics cannot be recycled in Toronto.
    Apr 24, 2018 9:45 AM CT

With files from Holly Caruk