Recycling wrong in Calgary carries big cost

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WATCH ABOVE: Community reporter Deb Matejicka takes a look at the items that arrive daily in Calgary’s recycling facility that can cause both serious danger and catastrophic damage.

Calgarians are great at recycling, they’re just not great at recycling the right things.

“So we have over 95 per cent participation,” Sharon Howland, the leader of program management for waste and recycling with the City of Calgary, said of the number of residents utilizing the city’s blue cart program.

Howland said Calgarians “love the program” and are happy with it.

“Their carts [are] almost always full, but it’s that dialing in, that recycle right behaviour, so we’re still putting in a few things that we shouldn’t,” she said.

Howland pointed to a bin filled with items that had been pulled off the line in just the first few minutes of the facility opening.

“So this is a snow shovel handle, Christmas decorations, somebody’s jack from their car,” she said as she lifted random and numerous items out of the bin. “We’ve got pots and pans, bicycle wheels, all sorts of things.”

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READ MORE: Is Canada’s recycling industry broken?

They may seem harmless, but Howland said any of those items can pose serious dangers and have the potential to cause catastrophic damage.

“You can imagine if this got wedged up in the line,” Howland said as she held up a metal pipe that had just been pulled off the line and was then handed to her. “It could just tear the conveyor belt, cause one of the rotating pieces to break and then they’re shut down for hours while they have to fix that.”

The cost of a major repair can run into the tens of thousands of dollars while the loss of productivity can be demoralizing for workers.

But there is a bigger concern for employees who are pulling those potentially dangerous items off the conveyor belt.

At a rate of 98 revolutions per minute, the conveyor belt moves material very quickly.

“That conveyor belt snaps and material goes flying up, the pipe comes flying out and some worker is just standing there doing their job and, ‘Bam,’ they get hit by something,” Howland said.

Scrap metal is the biggest culprit when it comes to causing both damage and injury, according to Bill Stitt, general manager of operations at Cascades Recovery.

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“We’re not supposed to be getting scrap metal. We fill those bins up three times per week,” Stitt said as he pointed to a an industrial-sized bin on the facility floor.

“They can recycle it (scrap metal),” Stitt said. “They can take it to a scrap metal dealer. Please don’t put it in your blue cart.”

Other materials, like propane and helium tanks, also show up in the hundreds every month at the plant.

Howland said there is always a bit of residue left in canisters and it must be taken to a professional so it can be properly emptied and disposed of. She said tanks get compressed in trucks and at the facility and have the potential to explode and to catch fire.

The biggest cause of fires at the facility, however, are electronics that should never be there in the first place.

“Almost every electronic has some sort of battery in it,” Howland explained. “So little lithium ion batteries in cellphones.

“The last really big fire we had was [when] someone put a small guitar amplifier in and that got crushed in the truck and then got crushed by the loader. A little bit of moisture gets in there and poof, the building is on fire.”

Howland said there are a lot of reasons residents aren’t always using their bins properly, but points to a lack of convenient options for disposing various items and a lack of education of what should go where.

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She said the rule for recycling in Calgary, however, is easy.

“This facility is for household paper and packaging only. That’s it,” she said.

The City of Calgary also offers a comprehensive “what goes where” tool on its website.

“I think a lot of citizens are trying to do the right thing, but they’re just making the wrong decisions,” Stitt said.