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Toronto recycling: Contamination in blue bins on the rise

Toronto recycling: Contamination in blue bins on the rise
WATCH ABOVE: It's where all of Toronto's blue bin material ends up for sorting and processing, but 30 per cent of what we put into the blue bin heads to landfill because of contamination. Melanie Zettler tours a material recovery facility to see firsthand what we are still doing wrong.

It’s a 160,000-square-foot material recovery facility in north Toronto. It’s the largest of it’s kind in Canada and it’s responsible for processing all of Toronto’s 180,000 tonnes of recyclables per year.

But on approach to one of the main processing warehouses, you notice a stench in the air — that’s the scent of contamination.

Mark Badger, executive vice president of Canada Fibers, said there are three main drivers for rising contamination rates in the blue bin. The first issue is confusion over what can or cannot go into the blue bin, especially since rules change from municipality to municipality. Black plastic can be recycled in Brampton, but in Toronto it’s garbage.

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“You have to imagine, somebody who lives on the border of Halton and Toronto who have different things that go in the blue box … so there is genuine confusion and a real need for more communication,” said Badger.

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On this visit, Badger pulled a lampshade, winter parka, and a piece of a wooden chair from the sorting line. Another worker opened a plastic bag to reveal a coffee maker. None of these items are recyclable in Toronto’s blue bin program and all can cause problems at the plant.

The second driver is what Badger described as a “mushrooming” of packaging items consumers are faced with differentiating. Packaging like the standup pouches containing things like laundry pods or chia seeds or popular freezer items like frozen fruits and vegetables are made with a mix of plastics and materials that make the items unrecyclable.

READ MORE: The biggest recycling mistakes Canadians continue to make

When these items are mixed in with other recyclable blue box materials like newspaper, these stand up pouches can ruin the bale of newspaper slated for market. If the packaging product can’t be recycled, it goes to landfill.

The third driver is all about organics — that smell in the air at the Canada Fibers facility was due to organic waste being mixed into the blue bin. Some of the main culprits include jars of peanut butter, jam and yogurt containers that have not been rinsed.

“That residue can contaminate a whole tonne of paper,” said Badger.

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READ MORE: Toronto targeting recycling contamination with bin inspections

To help residents properly sort their blue bin materials, the City of Toronto offers the Waste Wizard online alongside the Waste Wizard app which residents can download.

In the meantime, Badger said we need to keep the conversations going at all levels.

“It’s going to take the producers, the packaged goods manufacturers, working with municipalities working with folks like us in the industry and the province to really realize our full potential in terms of diversion from landfill and recycling that creates jobs and does good for the environment,” said Badger.