We need to rethink the way we recycle
Recycling. When I started researching for this article, the plan was to learn more about responsible recycling and share my findings with you so that we could all do a better job. I knew recycling wasn’t perfect, but as I read more and more, I learned that recycling really is just an excuse for our immense wastefulness. We tell ourselves that if I can recycle the packaging then it’s good for the environment. That I’m doing the right thing. But recycling is a business. It relies on the profit from turning our waste into something new. Recycling makes us feel better about the waste we produce. But when there’s no demand for purchasing those recyclables they just build up into mountains of trash – and that’s exactly what’s happening right now.
In the 1970s the first municipalities started offering curbside recycling. These massive recycling programs allowed giant soft drink companies to switch from the refillable glass bottles to less expensive disposable plastic ones. But recycling gave companies licence to create one time use packaging for everything because it could get recycled so “wasn’t impacting the planet”. Yogurt containers, cans, single serve snacks – you name it. And now we have a recycling crisis – there is currently a mountain of recycling that no one has use for or wants to buy. 2.8 million tonnes of plastic, or the weight of 24 CN Towers, end up in landfill in Canada instead of being recycled each year. Only 9% of the plastic actually gets recycled!
There isn’t enough demand for the vast amount of waste we produce. So what can we do about it? We need to rethink the way we recycle.
At a government level, banning packaging that cannot be recycled like black plastics could be a start. Black plastic often “contaminates” recycling bins when people think they can be recycled and once it’s contaminated, the entire load goes straight to the landfill. Additionally companies making a product need to be forced to pay for and manage the recycling of their packaging. When a company has to take care of their product from start to finish, they start thinking more about their raw materials. This is how they do it in BC and it’s working quite well. This doesn’t totally solve the problem that we have too much recycling that isn’t getting used though.
So what can we do as consumers?
Throughout March, I will be talking about recycling. But instead of just talking about how we can recycle better, I’m also going to talk about ways in which we can recycle less. Yup – I said it. Some recyclables are unavoidable, so recycling those properly is important. But by making some simple swaps, you will be left with less packaging that needs recycling. This will reduce the strain on the recycling industry, hopefully giving it a chance to actually use up our recyclables and turn them into something new.
We need to reframe our approach to recycling and here are some steps to start that.
Reduce is the first ‘R’ for a reason. It’s most important and is the one we should focus on first, well before recycling. Reduce the amount of stuff that comes into your house, the vast amount of cleaning and beauty supplies, the amount of toys and books you purchase. Make some of your buying decisions based on how much packaging something has. One place I’ve noticed this a lot is in home decor. Some places have Styrofoam filled cardboard boxes for breakable goods whereas others will come package free and will get wrapped up with recycled paper at checkout to keep from breaking.
Other ways to reduce – borrow books from the library instead of always buying new ones. Re-wear fancy dresses to other occasions and when you do purchase, get high quality clothing that will last a long time. Try a shopping free month where you only purchase groceries that month and see how much you really missed. Rent birthday party decorations instating of purchasing to reduce the amount you are purchasing each year when birthdays come about.
The second ‘R’ and another one that should happen before recycling. For the things you do purchase, find ways to reuse it over and over. Maybe that’s selling it or giving it away after to give it a second life. For items that do come in containers, keep those containers and fill them up at refill stores. Park Market & Refillery is an amazing mobile refill shop in the Hamilton, Burlington & Oakville area. They deliver and do pop up locations where you can bring your own containers and refill them with cleaning & body products. Many cities now offer refill stores for these kinds of products. Reuse any plastic bags food comes in again and again. I reuse my frozen berry bag to freeze other items in instead of purchasing Ziplocks. Reuse sauce jars, jam jars, olive oil bottles & more. I will be sharing my favourite zero-waste swaps later in the month that eliminate the need for single-use containers.
3) Be an advocate in your community
Ask the local businesses you frequent about ways they can reduce their waste. Does the cashier at your local coffee shop ask if you’d like your coffee “for here”? Does your local grocery store stock produce that is plastic free? (where it can) Does your gym have easily accessible water bottle refill stations or do they promote purchasing a single use water bottle? All of these things are questions you can pose to local businesses in your community. It’s up to us to start conversations and start telling these business owners what we care about. Maybe they won’t change right away – but they will know that at least some of their customers care about reducing waste.
Participate in a community cleanup! This is another way to be an advocate in your community. Many cities have organized cleanups including The Escarpment Project here in the Hamilton area. Their Annual Spring Clean-up is taking place on Sunday, April 19 – join me there! Many neighbourhood associations have community area clean-ups as well as waterfront cleanups.
4) Watch out for recycling contamination
Recycling is still important. We just need to have less items to recycle, so that recycling can actually do its job. Ensuring you are not contaminating your blue bin is very important in keeping your recyclables out of the landfill. Don’t just believe a package is compostable or recyclable because it says it is. Each city has it’s own rules for what’s recyclable and that’s why things get complicated and messy. I’m going to talk about the top items that get recycled incorrectly later in March but for now check out the app RecycleCoach – it allows you to put in your city or town and look up specific items. The app then tells you where it should be put on garbage day.
5) Buy recycled
For products that still require packaging, purchase items that are made from recycled materials. (100% recycled if possible) Doing this votes with your dollar and shows companies that products made in more eco-friendly ways matter to you. Stick to recycled metal & glass if possible. Plastic often must go through more processing in order to become a new product again and they often cannot become the same product again as the plastic is not longer strong enough after processing. So try to stick with easily recyclable materials.
This was a long one so if you are still here – thank you! I think it’s so important to understand more about recycling and to stop being fooled by companies who say their products are good for the environment or that single-use packaging is ok because it’s recyclable. We have a world-wide recycling crisis and we can’t just wait for governments and companies to fix the packaging – we have to reduce our waste output and force their hand to make a change.