We may not have noticed, but the recycling bin has completely evolved.
Decades ago, recycling was somewhat easy — people would generally separate items like newspapers, jars and bottles from their trash. But experts say today, recycling has completely changed, and with so many new types of plastics and materials entering the market, it is getting harder for the average consumer to sort through their bins.
“Shopping habits are changing and we have more prepared foods in things like black plastic, says Harvinder Aujala of the Recycling Council of British Columbia, adding the rise of different materials in the market means more confusion for consumers to figure out what is recyclable and what is not.
A recent CBC series looking at recycling habits in Canada found recycling mistakes were costing recycling programs in the country millions of dollars per year.
Jim McKay, who is the general manager of waste management services for the City of Toronto, tells Global News there are two types of people who make recycling mistakes.
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He adds the rules of what can and can’t be recycled also change depending on where you live. In the city of Toronto, for example, one of the biggest confusions is around black plastic. “People throw black plastic or different types of plastic thinking it’s recyclable and they are doing the right thing, but it’s hard to know whether it is recyclable or not.”
For black plastic in particular, which are super common in the takeout industry, McKay adds there is no stable market for all the black plastic collected in the city, and black plastic cannot be sorted mechanically in facilities.
Aujala notes in Vancouver, however, black plastic is accepted but right now, she sees more people recycling multi-material packaging, when in fact, it can’t be recycled.
“Padded envelopes that have bubble wrap on the inside or foam chips from packaging or dog food bags… anything multi-material.”
She adds there is also this assumption among people that when they throw something in a recycling bin, it will get sorted out by someone later. This, however, is not the case, and when you make mistakes recycling, McKay adds contamination can happen and ruin pounds of otherwise recyclable material.
For example, if you throw out a container that still has yogurt in it and that yogurt gets on paper fibres or other recyclable items in your bin, that whole bin would now be considered contaminated, he adds.
And while there is no one way to recycle, both experts stress to check with your city to see what can and can’t be tossed in the blue bin. Below, they go through some of the more common recycling mistakes they see people make all the time.
Both experts agree the biggest mistakes people still make when it comes to recycling is not washing out their jars, bottles or containers before putting them in the blue bin.
Not only is there a risk of contamination, but McKay says it increases the cost of processing.
Aujala suggests rinsing or washing out recycling material before putting it into the bin or if it is really dirty (like an old jar of peanut butter), put it in the dishwasher.
McKay says the city of Toronto sees everything from shoes to rags to clothes in the recycling bin.
“People think if they throw something in the recycling bin, at some point someone will pull it out and do something of value with it,” he says, calling it “wishcycling.”
He says not only do textiles have to be sorted, but some of them can get caught in the machinery.
He also adds the city has seen everything from dead animals to diapers to just bags of garbage in recycling plants.
Garden hoses are also popular, he adds, which could even shut down a plant if it gets caught in machinery.
Not all lids are the same
Aujala says before you recycle bottles or any containers with a lid, make sure you separate them if they are different types of plastic.
Both materials are recyclable, just not together, she adds. This is something Vancouver can improve on, she adds, and for other small cities, please check with your local recycling plant to see the exact rules around lids.
This can include everything from household medical waste (syringes) to propane cylinders in the summertime which can be potentially flammable, McKay says.
He will also see jugs of chemical waste like pool cleaners or other household cleaners.
READ MORE: Toronto targeting recycling contamination with bin inspections
Not all glass is the same
Aujala says jam or pickle jars are not the same as ceramic plates of broken mirrors. “All glass melts at a different temperature,” she adds.
Vancouver also has a policy on glass and not all types are accepted through the recycling program. People who want to know where their specific glass should go can use the Waste Wizard tool.
McKay adds he also sees a lot of renovation waste, wiring or even sinks and faucets in recycling plants.
Aujala says while breaking down cardboard boxes or pizza boxes is perfectly fine, do not wrap them around with string or twine — it could get caught in machinery.
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Many people also throw out their old electronics in the blue bin (all cities have drop-offs for electronic waste), and McKay says he also sees a lot of appliances like toasters and blenders or others made of steel.
While newspapers, magazines or other types of paper are fine, chemically-treated paper isn’t recyclable, Aujala says.
This can include everything from photographs to carbon papers or even paper that has been covered with grease or other stains.
For more information on what you can and can’t recycle, check out your city’s recycling program.