What really happens to the stuff you throw away?
You try to be good, I know. Trash in one place, recyclables in another, you dismantle your cardboard boxes and fold them flat in the other recycling container, you even compost. You’re doing your part, or so you think.
But what if you think wrong?
A pair of recent CBC News stories will make you pause before patting yourself on the back in self-congratulatory mirth.
First one: Tracking plastic recycling:
Journalists bought bales of film plastic ready for recycling, hid trackers inside them, and then re-inserted the plastic back into the recycling stream in British Columbia — the province known for having the most efficient recycling program in Canada.
Using an alias email, Marketplace reached out and commissioned three major waste collection businesses with ties to municipal programs in B.C. to process the material. The bales were picked up by Merlin Plastics, Waste Connections of Canada, and GFL Environmental Inc.
All three companies make green promises on their websites and in promotional videos, using buzzwords like "sustainability" and "environmental solutions." One Waste Connections video goes as far as to say, "sustainability and becoming more green … have been hallmarks and backbones of Waste Connections from the day we formed the company."
Marketplace put those promises to the test, acquiring about nine tonnes of film plastic, mostly shopping bags, that had already been sorted and crushed into square bales. Since the bales were already compressed and ready for processing, the trackers wouldn't get crushed or lost in the sorting process
You can feel the suspense building. I know I can. Here’s the rest:
The bales that were taken up by Merlin Plastics went to a recycling processing plant, and are assumed to have been properly recycled.
The bales that went to GFL were incinerated. The company said that while they agree recycling would have been better, nobody would buy the recycled stuff. “The current market conditions do not have many opportunities to recycle this kind of plastic,” the company said. “We found a viable and cost-effective solution in incineration.”
The third batch? The one sent to Waste Connections? It went to the dump. When asked why it claimed some form of miscommunication sent the driver to the wrong place.
You believe it if you like, but in the next paragraph CBC links to a federal government study showing 86 per cent of the plastic we put in our blue boxes ends up in landfill.
There are all kinds of reasons for this, including that not everything we chuck in the blue bin is actually recyclable. We have a tendency to think plastic is plastic, but we’re wrong. It doesn’t all go in the recycling. In Ottawa, you have to look at the little number on the container, the one usually inside a recycling triangle, to make sure it’s suitable for your blue bin (the complete list of rules is here; good luck memorizing it.
Most people don’t realize that a huge proportion of what they think is recycling winds up at the dump. I sure didn’t, and even after reading all these things I still don’t quite grasp just how big a problem this is. And that’s the worst part of it; we think we’re doing our part when in fact we’re contributing to the problem without meaning to. At the very least it should be made clear to us that only a small proportion of our recyclables are in fact recycled. So that we can decide whether we need to make an extra effort, for instance by avoiding buying goods that are packaged in plastic. Knowledge is power and if we care as much about the environment as we say we do, then having that knowledge would empower us to make changes to our daily routines that stand a chance to make a difference.
The other piece is about compost. What really happens to it? That piece is less demoralizing, but there are still problems, mostly to do with items that aren’t compostable that were thrown into the green bin anyway. Unfortunately, as with recycling, “the majority of Canadian organic waste still ends up in the landfill.”
That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep recycling and composting. We obviously should. But it’s clearly not enough. We also have to find ways to reduce how much stuff we bring home in the first place. If we buy less, and what we buy has less packaging, then maybe our efforts will make a bigger difference.