Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Recycling Secrets

Apparently I missed the memo that yesterday was Earth Day, so I thought I would make it up to you by sharing some "insider secrets" about what happens to your recycling once it leaves your curb. How do I know these secrets? Well, believe it or not, I spent a summer working at a municipal recycling centre and split my time between the office and the plant so I learned a LOT about the recycling business (and got to wear snazzy outfits).

Me at Work!
1. Why different municipalities have different lists for what you can recycle
Recycling is NOT a charity! Basically the city collects your recyclable goods and sells them to businesses who make things from these materials. The city needs a buyer for the goods or else they just send those goods to the dump! So some cities, for example, will collect Styrofoam, but other cities just can't get a buyer for it so they won't collect it. It takes a long time to train a community on what they can recycle, so a municipality will be cautious and think long-term before adding something new to the list. Sometimes they will go through phases where they can't find a buyer for something they used to collect, but they keep collecting it because it would be too confusing to reteach the residents. When I worked at the plant they actually were throwing out all glass because there were no buyers!

2. It is mostly sorted by hand
While there was a machine that smashed glass to separate it (it fell through the bottom) and a machine that used magnets to separate metal from aluminum (it was neato), most of the stuff you put in the blue bin is sorted by hand! There are many amazing people who spend the day going through your trash, so please be careful not to put anything dangerous in there- if a needle shows up in a lot they throw the WHOLE lot out to protect the workers.

3. Not all plastics are created equal
Thinner plastics are not as valuable as thicker ones (think water bottle vs. laundry detergent bottle). Basically the thinner the plastic, the less "recyclable" it is. Plastic water bottles can basically only be turned into polyester to make carpets and some materials. Therefore it is not as valuable as thicker plastics, which can be melted down and reformed. The very thin plastic that berries come in, as well as plastic bags, are often not accepted by municipalities because they are too weak to be effectively melted down and rebuilt- there are few buyers. Also, there is a lot of talk about biodegradable plastics now, but these are actually worrisome for the plant. For one thing, these bio-plastics often need a special industrial compost facility to be broken down and people will still put them in the recycling! Also, they are indistinguishable from regular plastic and therefore they can get mixed in the loads and contaminate the real plastics that a buyer is purchasing! It is possible that cities might have to stop taking ANY plastic bottles. There needs to be a lot of work done on the city's (and resident's!) end before biodegradable plastics can be effectively used.

4. Some recyclables are more valuable!
I know I already talked about plastics, but other recyclables are quite valuable- like aluminum and metals! The plant will bale all the materials once sorted and part of my job was counting them and arranging for companies to come pick them up. We would get pretty excited if there was one of aluminum or metal going out because that was big money! I also learned there are two classes of newspaper, and one is more valuable than the other. Who knew? Because of this, it is actually illegal to pick through recycling at the curb in some municipalities. Technically, those materials belong to the city once put out for pick up. However, I don't think it is actually enforced (I did get complaints from residents about this and I sometimes had to tell the Bylaw officer at our office if there was a recurring problem).

5. Contaminated goods are no good
There is no point putting that half-filled lotion bottle in the recycling- they do not have the facility to clean out every bottle and jar that is thrown out. They don't expect you to sit there and wash every item until it shines, but it at least has to be empty for it to be recycled- and the cleaner the better. Also, making sure there is not food with your recyclables will help cut down the ROUS population (rodents of unusual size)- and therefore cut down on the high pitched screams of people like me. For a few weeks that summer, I was helping on a waste audit- where they take a neighbourhood's entire recycling and it is all sorted by hand. They do this too see what percentage of goods put to the curb for recycling are actually recyclable. Anyway, we spent the week wading waist deep in the pile of bags (this city used blue plastic bags for recyclables) so that we could pull out all the recyclables. One day a HUGE rat came running out of the pile. Like, this thing was the size of a small dog. I never went into the pile again.

You know how they say Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? Well that is actually in proper order. Reducing your use of disposable items should be your first action if you want to help the environment. Then try reusing things as long as possible to cut down on production of new goods. Finally, recycle whatever you can.

I hope this helps you see that you still have a big responsibility before you even put your recycling out! You can't just throw it on the curb and expect it to be taken care of. It is the citizen's responsibility to properly sort and clean their recyclables and keep any dangerous materials out of it. For further information on what the rules are in Toronto, please click here.

I also found a great video on Toronto's recycling plant here. I didn't work in Toronto, but this plant is very similar to the one I did work in!


  1. This is a great reminder to rinse out plastics and that not everything is making it not to the dump--yikes! I will give my stuff an extra rinse from now on!

    1. im not the best rinser either, but just make sure you scoop out as much as possible! :)

  2. I never rinse out our recycling, but I will now! :)

  3. Thanks for all these tips! It's a good reminder. :)

  4. Thanks for the tips, Casey! I'll be much more conscientious of my recycling (and reducing and reusing) habits now! :)


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