Toronto recycling: Why so much material still goes to landfill

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Toronto recycling: Packaging problems
WATCH ABOVE: It's been 30 years since Toronto introduced the blue box. The City of Toronto says people for the most part are finally "getting it," but as packaging products continue to change what residents hope will be recycled, in many cases, will end up in landfill. Melanie Zettler reports – Mar 26, 2019

Each day after school, Toronto resident Patricia Keays asks her two children to help deal with the contents of their lunch boxes.

Her children, five and 10 years old, immediately put the plastic, yogurt-drink containers in the blue bin and the food scraps into their green bin — that was the easy part. As the trio begin to sort through some other packaging slated for the blue bin, things go from blue to murky grey.

“I’m not even sure where this tells me whether it’s recyclable or not,” said Keays while holding a laundry detergent stand up pouch.

But even if some packaging has the recycle symbol, it doesn’t mean it will actually be recycled.

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In the City of Toronto, those standup pouches we see on store shelves containing everything from laundry pods and flax seed to frozen blueberries or green beans in the freezer can’t be recycled. Placing things like standup pouches in the blue bin is not only wrong, but it’s considered contamination and it can really mess things up.

“This is a problem because what they’ve done here is they’ve mixed a whole bunch of different plastic resins… this here then gets mixed up either with the newspaper because it comes out flat like this,” said City of Toronto director of processing and resource management Grace Maione.

“The automated sorters would pick that up as newspapers and probably put it into the newspaper bale and now you’ve contaminated that bale with this, so the more of these you have in that newspaper bale the less quality that bale becomes.”

The downgrading of materials means the City of Toronto is not getting the top price for the bales it’s trying to sell. But even worse than getting less money is when recyclable materials end up in landfill. This can happen when residents contaminate recyclable materials with food waste.

When people assume their take-away, single-use coffee cup is recyclable (it’s usually not) and they deposit that wax-lined coffee cup with some unfinished liquid into the recycling bin, that whole bag is now considered contaminated and will go straight to landfill.

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Each year, Toronto manages approximately 180,000 tonnes of recyclables through its blue bin program. Of that, about 30 per cent (representing 54,000 tonnes) goes to landfill due to contamination. The three main causes of contamination in the blue bin are food waste, clothing or textiles, and non-recyclable materials.

Another common mistake has to do with pizza boxes. You know how the cheese and pepperoni always ends up leaving grease stains on the cardboard box? Well, that’s considered contamination. If the top of the pizza box is grease-free, you can cut that part off and place it in your blue bin but the greasy part of the box will go to landfill.

Peanut butter and jam jars are other usual suspects. The City of Toronto said it’s best to eat up and use as much of the food as you can and after that, give the jars a good rinse in hot water and put the lids back on before placing in your blue bin.

Black plastic, still commonly used in take out containers, can’t be recycled in Toronto. But officials said simply banning black plastic is not as simple as it sounds.

“The City of Toronto is working with stakeholders in the industry to look at options of banning it or changing the colour perhaps or the composition of it,” said Maione.

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But if the idea of Toronto’s black plastic ending up in the landfill isn’t enough to concern you, the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances published staggering numbers. They estimated of the 8300 million metric tons of plastic ever made, only nine per cent had been recycled. That means 91 per cent of plastic ends up as trash in landfills and in our oceans.

While there is a lot more for the various levels of government to sort through with respect to packaging bans and industry rules, experts said the easiest thing residents can do right now is to use reusable coffee and water cups and to skip plastic shopping bags in favour of reusable bags.

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