After five years spent stinking up relations between Canada and the Philippines, 69 shipping containers full of Canadian garbage have finally come home. Sent abroad by a Canadian waste company and labelled high-quality recyclables, Filipino authorities were understandably upset when the containers actually held pungent trash like dirty diapers. Many Canadians waxed self-righteous on social media about companies dumping our waste on others.
But on curbsides across the country, Canadians put out miniature versions of those garbage containers daily — blue bins full of sticky ice cream cartons and jam jars. And our bad habits are threatening the whole system. Recycling companies across the country are struggling, even going out of business.
Recycling is a social contract. And right now, we aren’t holding up our end of the bargain with our blue bins.
“People think, ‘I put my pop can into the blue box, so I am a recycler.’ But recycling isn’t just a single action,” says Tracy Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries.
Garbage pickup is a municipal government service. Recycling is different; it’s a for-profit industry that keeps waste out of landfills. To keep the system sustainable, those businesses must be profitable.
When you drop an unwashed plastic or glass jar in the blue bin, someone at the plant has to clean it. Dirty paper and cardboard can’t be reclaimed at all. Just one drop of grease from last night’s pizza carton can contaminate every piece of paper it touches, making it all trash. Broken glass is not only unrecyclable, it’s dangerous to workers and can damage machinery. That’s all taking a bite out of the industry’s bottom line.
Properly cleaning and sorting your empty bottles and cereal boxes helps. Even little acts like pulling the tabs from empty pop cans (they’re different grades of metal) saves time and money for processors.
But our worst recycling mistake happens when we shop.
“The biggest reason companies are having trouble is they don’t have a market for their collected materials,” Shaw says.
Blue bin collectors process materials and sell them to manufacturers that turn your pop cans into bicycles. If there’s no market demand for refurbished materials, recyclers go bankrupt and all those cans go to the dump. It’s up to consumers to create that demand.
Did you know, over half of your car parts are probably made of reclaimed plastic and metal? That should be a selling feature, yet car companies don’t advertise it, fearing consumers will avoid their vehicles because of an unfortunate stigma against recycled products.
Consumers are happy to buy items in recycled packaging, but are less enthusiastic when the product itself is made from reclaimed materials. We avoid things like backpacks made from recovered bottles because they’re perceived as lower in quality, Shaw says. That’s a myth. A good brand of recycled toilet paper is just as soft on your backside and, more importantly, softer on the environment.
So go out and buy that patio set made from old milk jugs and invite your friends over to relax on the deck while you brag about your environmental cred.
It’s time to think outside the blue box, Canada. Recycling is a partnership, and we all have to do our part.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of theWE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.