Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Blue Box Blues, Part I

Living in an urban setting in Hamilton, Ontario, the availability of curbside collection of recycling goods has been quite commonplace for over 20 years. The "Blue Box" was introduced in Ontario by the industry which creates the recyclable material as a means of recovering said material in order to continue the true cycle of recycling in the early '80s. Today, more than 95% of Ontarians have access to curbside recycling services…and now the issue is getting muddied with the introduction of a new report aimed at changing behaviours towards disposing and diverting our waste. (The report can be viewed at

Ontario's diversion rate for residential collection is around 39%, while private or commercial diversion rate sits at about 12%. Put that up against over 34,000 tonnes of waste generate each day in Ontario, with less than half that number coming from residential collection. Using "Rambo" math, means that roughly 25,000 tonnes of waste finds its way to a landfill…everyday. There exists a strong call from not only Municipalities, but also from producers of recyclable packaging/goods, that there be some form of consistent policies/practices on what and where recyclable goods can be collected. To illustrate this need, I will take a single item and identify where and how it is disposed of:

Most consumers have at one point in their life, purchased a coffee to drink on the go…where does one dispose of their coffee cup when they are done? Well, depending on where you live, the results vary:

  • Windsor…while it's not clear in their literature, & based on the absence of a 'compost/green cart' collection service, it would appear that cups are recycled
  • London…like Windsor, there remains no clear communication as to where to dispose, but based on descriptions provided, it would appear that the cups are recyclable.
  • Hamilton…(only because I live here, and I should know…) the cups go in the 'green cart', and the lids go into the blue box.
  • Toronto…according to their website (, and searching "coffee cup", the search returns either 'garbage' if it's plastic coated, or 'recycling' if it's Styrofoam. The lid goes into the garbage.
  • Ottawa…according to their website, paper coffee cups go into the 'green cart'.
  • St. Catharines…run by the Niagara Region; paper coffee cups go into the 'green cart'. The lids are to go in the garbage.
  • Simcoe…run by the Norfolk Region; it would appear that coffee cups go into the garbage, but there may be a window of argument that could put them in the recycling bins.
  • Thunder Bay…while not overly clear, it would appear that coffee cups go into the garbage.
  • Sarnia…paper coffee cups are clearly identified as non-recyclable, and therefore are to go in the garbage.
  • Kitchener…operated by the Waterloo Region, paper coffee cups go in the green bin.

To summarize, of the 10 municipalities chosen at random, 3 offer recycling (I am including Toronto in this group), 4 go into the 'green cart' composting program, and the remaining 3 municipalities would prefer to see the cups in their respective landfills. (I've made some assumptions on where the cups go when unclear of exactly the location based on the information available on the corresponding websites.) However, the end result clearly outlines how a single (popularly consumer purchased & subsequently disposed of) item can vary across the Province.

Without going to deep into the history behind the paper cup being the preferred choice for drinking on the go (1909…just in case you're curious), it is important to know that most coffee cups are made with high-quality fibre material, due to the heavy health and safety standards required for a hot drink on the go. As coffee cups evolve, as well as the methodology and execution of recycling/composting programs, there really is no reason for these cups to end up in a landfill. The question though is how do we get a consistent program across the Province which will ensure that 100% of the coffee cups sold are diverted into the recycling stream in order to be captured back into the fibre production line?

Now take the above example and times it by the number of items which could be available for blue box collection. You quickly get a sense of the enormity of the problem. The goal is simple: if it is recyclable, then it shouldn't end up in the landfill. The obstacles however are enormous, as the solution isn't going to be an easy one to find. If the report is to go forward without sound input from the public, residents face a real risk of losing curbside recycling collection in favour of 'recycling depots' or 'bring it back campaigns'. And, while that may be okay for new items not currently offered or available in the existing blue box curbside collection program, new unintended consequences will certainly surface with some of the proposed measures.

In Part II of this piece I will go beyond the collection component of our diversion process, and look at gaps in the processes in existence today which allow garbage to be disguised at recycling.

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