In the bat­tle to re­cy­cle, cities are strug­gling the world over

But the com­plex men­tal bal­let re­quired to sort our per­sonal waste con­tin­ues to grow

Richmond Hill Post - - News - By Karen St­intz

Here is a quick re­cy­cling quiz for our read­ers. Into which re­cy­cling ves­sel does a greasy pizza box get thrown? What about a plas­tic pro­duce bag?

Full dis­clo­sure, I flunked that first ques­tion, the an­swer is the green bin. Plas­tic pro­duce bags go in the blue bin. Luck­ily I haven’t re­ceived a garbage ci­ta­tion as of yet, but I am sure one is com­ing. The re­cy­cling rules keep chang­ing, and it is be­com­ing harder to keep the blue bin po­lice happy.

The re­cy­cling in­dus­try is un­der­go­ing a mas­sive shift and the im­pacts are be­ing felt in the city. The big­gest buyer of re­cy­cled goods is China, and that mar­ket is cut­ting back and be­com­ing much more par­tic­u­lar about what it will ac­cept.

Cof­fee cups still go in the garbage bin, while the lids go in the blue bin. Jars of peanut but­ter need to be cleaned be­fore they can be ac­cepted into the blue bin or risk con­tam­i­nat­ing all of the other re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als.

Some of the in­struc­tions have be­come so coun­ter­in­tu­itive, such as the greasy pizza box in the green bin, that many are in­no­cently run­ning afoul of the re­cy­cling laws.

Cur­rently the city’s curb­side pickup re­cy­cling con­tam­i­na­tion rate is more than 25 per cent. Peo­ple leav­ing too much food in jars, or try­ing to re­cy­cle black plas­tic or other un­wanted ma­te­ri­als makes a mess of things. So, the city has to wrestle with whether to clean re­cy­clables or send them to the land­fill, which drives up costs.

In some Amer­i­can ju­ris­dic­tions, res­i­dents are still asked to sort garbage, but it all goes to the land­fill or a waste-to-en­ergy fa­cil­ity. The ap­plied logic is that peo­ple feel good about re­cy­cling but don’t re­ally know, or care, what hap­pens once the garbage truck drives away.

On­tario is go­ing the op­po­site di­rec­tion in its re­cy­cling mis­sion.

The cur­rent plan is to re­cy­cle more prod­ucts, ban oth­ers from pro­duc­tion and even­tu­ally get to a zero-waste so­lu­tion that does not in­clude in­cin­er­a­tion.

Al­though most of us con­sider garbage a nui­sance to be taken to the curb once a week, the re­al­ity is that garbage is very po­lit­i­cal.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists rightly be­lieve that garbage and over­con­sump­tion rep­re­sent a se­ri­ous threat to the planet and the only so­lu­tion is a zero-waste, sus­tain­able sys­tem. Oth­ers be­lieve that garbage is a re­source that can be used to gen­er­ate power and relieve some of the pressures on the cur­rent grid. For oth­ers, it is a profit-mak­ing busi­ness.

The next few years will be very in­ter­est­ing as the city tries to fig­ure out how to de­liver one of the most ba­sic mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices, which is to pick up the trash.

The de­bate about whether to out­source the col­lec­tion of garbage is be­ing re­placed by what we are go­ing to do with it.

Al­though a waste-to-en­ergy so­lu­tion may be the most prag­matic, it is a po­lit­i­cal non­starter be­cause there is, so far, no com­mu­nity will­ing to host such a fa­cil­ity in Toronto.

Mean­while, the mar­ket con­tin­ues to be flooded with re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als at the same time that there is less de­mand for those ma­te­ri­als.

In ad­di­tion, many goods have more and more pack­ag­ing to meet food safety stan­dards, anti-theft mea­sures or to sim­ply pro­tect the prod­uct dur­ing ship­ping. Al­though peo­ple feel strongly about re­cy­cling, there are lim­its to how much time they can rea­son­ably spend clean­ing and sort­ing their garbage be­fore throw­ing it away.

There are also lim­its to how much peo­ple are will­ing to spend on find­ing cre­ative garbage so­lu­tions.

As part of its zero-waste strat­egy, the City of Van­cou­ver has banned straws, foam take­out con­tain­ers and sin­gle-use plas­tic bags. The by­law also re­stricts dis­pos­able cups.

As the costs of waste man­age­ment con­tinue to rise, the City of Toronto will likely try sim­i­lar tac­tics.

Toronto is aim­ing to re­cy­cle even more prod­ucts

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