Sunday, January 3, 2010

Blue Box Blues, Part Two: Garbage Disguised As Recycling

The Blue Box has become the household symbol of something good: the presence of a Blue Box in the home of business sends a message that the homeowner or business owner is doing their part to divert waste from a landfill. As a consumer, we feel a sense of worthiness as we deposit our empty bottle or can into a blue box or another receptacle that is labeled accordingly.

Despite the Blue Box format being around for roughly 30 years in Ontario, not all items are recycled, nor do all Municipalities operate a fully comprehensive recycling program. As a matter of fact, not all Municipalities collect blue boxes in the same manner…some have two-stream (fibres such as newspapers and cardboard in one; and containers like cans and bottles in another) blue box system; some have single-stream (everything in one box or more…no separation required) collection; while others have variations of a two-stream system. But how do you know that everything you're putting into the blue box is actually being recycled into something else? After all, that is the true meaning of recycling…having an item (plastic bottle) be transformed into something else (bag) which prevents it from ending up in a landfill.

A statistical term rarely shared in public domains is 'contamination'. In a report published in December 2009 by the Container Recycling Institute, residents who place all of their recyclables in one 'blue box' or single-stream, see the highest portion of their recyclables end up in a landfill versus their two-stream counterpart Municipalities. As an example, on average 40% of glass collected from single-stream collection Municipalities ends up in landfill, compared to nearly none from Municipalities that offer two-stream recycling. Another variance is the contamination of collected fibres, which hit about 15% from single-stream collected Municipalities, versus virtually no contamination from two-stream Municipalities. The statistics are overwhelming…if you're putting out 10 newspapers and 10 glass bottles/jars a week, 1 ½ newspapers and 6 bottles/jars are ending up in a landfill; maybe not your Municipally owned/operated landfill…but a landfill nonetheless.

So why do Municipalities choose single-stream over two-stream collection? Simply put…cost. Less blue boxes to purchase. And, because they don't see all of the wasted recyclables, they don't factor end-user contamination experienced by the factories that process recycling materials. Communities like Hamilton which currently offers two-stream curbside collection will review single-stream collection as an alternative because of the costs…not necessarily because of the efficacy of the collection options and the life-cycle of the collected item.

While the Municipalities sort out the hows and what's of curbside collection, the IC&I sector (Industrial, Commercial & Institutional) continue to be the worst offenders in terms of offering recycling options to their patrons, partners and users. Currently the lowest diverters of waste, sitting somewhere around a paltry 16 – 20% diversion rate, they have the least incentive to provide diversion options. It's more costly to offer a diversion waste stream; collection is performed by an outside company, and sent to a private landfill; waste doesn't ordinarily contribute to the revenue line; and, no one is actually monitoring their disposal practices. Consequently, retail businesses that 'pose' offerings of multi-stream waste collection containers may not actually be recycling…yes, this does happen. And, because the IC&I sector deal with similar companies as the Municipalities, there stands a good chance that items being placed in the recycling bin are ending up in the landfill.

So while you take your time to sort through your garbage, or deposit your waste in the appropriate bin at the Mall, know that while progress has been made to divert waste from landfills, we still have a long way to go to get it right. And don't automatically assume that just because it's in a blue bin or a container marked with the recycling symbol, that your item you're disposing of will be recycled. Studies show that the best measure to ensure complete 'cycling' of recycling is to utilize deposit fees on all bottles and cans. Removing these from the collection streams will go a long way to reducing the contamination of collected fibres.

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