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Is recycling worth the hassle?

Are you really making a difference with recycling locally?
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Have you seen pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? The thing is three times the size of France. There is so much plastic in the ocean that has got into the food chain we are now finding microplastics in 80% of people tested. That can't be good.

It's only about 40 years since blue box programs came into existence. Along with green cart composting, they have made a huge difference to how much garbage our growing population puts in our local landfill.

When it opened in 1992, it was expected to last 20 years. Diverting recyclables and organics has extended that by an estimated additional 50 years - so from 2012 to 2062. 

As you can imagine, that means a lot less land taken up by garbage, and that has to save money, especially since the recycled goods have value. So unless you were hoping for a new ski hill in the area (like the Centennial garbage dump in Etobicoke), you have to be happy about this.

It's a remarkable achievement. Regional government, staff and residents have shown what can be done when a plan is followed.

But that plastic that winds up in the ocean is coming from somewhere. If you wonder if the things you put in the blue box are really recycled, you are not alone.

There have been lots of reports of waste material being sold to jurisdictions with little or no control on what ultimately happens: what can be recycled is, but lots of stuff has no value, depending on how much is on the market at any given time, or whether the cost of recycling exceeds making products from virgin material. 

So, what does happen to the stuff that can't be economically recycled?

I've been at more than one social event where someone challenges the whole recycling concept, saying much of it winds up bought by companies in Asia who are not regulated and put everything they can't use into the nearest river...where it is taken out to the ocean.  

Recycling blue box | Wordpress
Recycling blue box | Wordpress

If that were the case, most of us I think would rather it went into our local landfill, even if it meant we needed a new one much sooner. As bad as landfill waste management can be, putting plastics into the ocean has too many risks, known and unknown.

Microplastics in our blood is only the most obviously awful consequence, the closest to home. Putting the habitat of thousands of species at risk in a world losing them at an ever-increasing rate, and potentially further disrupting the food chain, is easily as worrying. 

Here is Halton's response to my enquiries: 

"Halton Region does not procure end-market buyers or have contractual authority over how buyers manage non-useable recyclable materials after purchase."

"The Region’s contractor for processing and marketing of recyclable material is selected based on their proven ability to process and market materials domestically and ensure diversion from the landfill. The Region’s agreement with the contractor further ensures that Halton is informed of the volume of material recycled, revenue received, and to what organization materials are sold to be recycled."

  • The contractor has long-term business relationships with reputable end-market companies that ensure a level of material quality is maintained so manufacturers can create new recycled products. 
  • Halton audits and monitors operations to ensure material is being handled accordingly, and follows up with companies buying materials to confirm they are being recycled." (Region of Halton)

The key word here is "domestically". Drilling down, that means:

"Halton’s Blue Box program ensures that quality recyclable materials are collected from our community, processed and sold to responsible North American end markets with proven sustainable practices. The Region contracts companies that have a proven performance with processing and selling usable recyclable material to markets with secure agreements to turn the materials into new goods and products.

  • While there is no interest for these companies to purchase material that cannot be recycled into new goods and products, end markets are required to dispose of any non-useable waste material in accordance with the laws, regulations and legislation of the province or state. The Region does not have a mandate or the legislative ability to enforce how an end market manages non-useable recyclable materials after they are purchased." (Region of Halton)

So, it is not completely impossible that purchasers of our blue box material resell some of it to overseas jurisdictions without regulations, but they would be breaking the law to do so. We can't expect the Region to enforce laws in other jurisdictions, but its contracts require compliance. 

It may not provide the complete comfort some of us would like, but it means we can have as much confidence as possible that our recycling efforts are not being negated. We can all help by keeping up to date on what needs to go where, whether your paper coffee cup can be recycled or only its lid!

Yes, it is complicated and being sure you get it right takes some effort. But our individual contribution to making sure what is in the blue box is marketably recyclable is one way to reduce the likelihood a contractor is tempted to sell it on to less well-regulated jurisdictions. Your efforts to follow the guidelines properly do make a difference, if only saving regional staff time in sorting materials.

It's a truism to say that people don't pay much attention to local government "unless the garbage isn't picked up on time." Clearly, these days, it isn't as simple as that.

Our regional municipality is working hard and with considerable success to manage this important problem and the risks it presents to our environment: with the side benefit of keeping taxes down.

Local journalism holds local government to account. Remember, there is no "loyal opposition" to do that at the municipal level. If you are glad we are here to do that, maybe consider kicking in a couple of bucks to help. And supporting our local advertisers!