Recycling in Toronto: How Does it Work & Why is it so Complicated?

This article will explore the challenges the City of Toronto, its workers, and residents face with the current Blue Bin Program and their transition to the updated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program model.

Background

The City of Toronto hosts one of the most comprehensive integrated waste management systems in North America, managing over 900,000 tonnes of waste per year. While Toronto’s residents are fairly good at using the City’s Blue Bin program, over 20% of a typical residential garbage bag is filled with recyclable materials, causing 84,000+ tonnes of recyclable materials to end up in our landfills annually. A significant portion of this waste is made up of single-use disposable products and packaging made of paper, plastic, metal, and glass that can be recycled. As well, the City manages about 180,000 tonnes of recyclables through the Blue Bin program, about 30% (or 54,000 tonnes) of which ends up in landfills due to contamination. The 3 main causes of contamination in the Blue Bin are:

  1. Food waste
  2. Clothing or textiles
  3. Non-recyclable materials

On June 10, 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans for a country-wide ban on single-use plastics like straws, cutlery, and other disposable items by 2021. At the time, the province of Ontario hired a special advisor on recycling and plastic waste, who recommended requiring producers to cover 100% of the costs of recycling the plastic waste they produce. Banning plastics that cannot be recycled will help, in addition to setting and enforcing more ambitious recycling standards. Local, provincial, and federal governments, major corporations, and consumers must be on the same page for this to succeed – which is easier said than done. The new rules aim to make all companies that import, produce or manufacture products and packaging in the province, responsible for the cost of recycling those products and packaging. This responsibility is called “extended producer responsibility,” and it provides companies with an incentive to reduce packaging and make their products more easily recyclable. The City of Toronto predicts this will save them up to $30M each year on the collection, sorting, and processing of these materials.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is the principle suggesting that companies that provide products to the market should be responsible for their full lifecycle, including their packaging. The idea is that if companies have more liability, they will have more incentive to produce less waste, recycle more, and begin designing products that are less toxic and more durable to avoid the waste costs they must pay. While the province of Ontario has had EPR policies and programs in place for over a decade, not all costs, waste or materials are covered. For instance, the Beer Store reduces waste by refilling beer bottled up to 18 times. They charge and refund a deposit on all beer bottles sold, keeping bottles out of City recycling systems, and collecting more than 99% of refillable bottles they sell per year.

Types of EPR

In August 2020, the City of Toronto published a report on the Transition of Toronto’s Blue Box Program to Extended Producer Responsibility. The purpose of this report is to provide an update on the transition of Toronto’s Blue Bin Recycling Program to EPR, and to seek authority to advise the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation & Parks of Toronto’s transition date of July 1, 2023. In November 2016, the Resource Recovery & Circular Economy Act, 2016 and the Waste Diversion Transition Act, 2016 were affirmed to facilitate the transition of the financial and operational responsibilities of managing packaging, paper, and packaging-like products from municipalities to producers initiated a significant shift from shared responsibility to full extended producer responsibility. Since 2002, the costs associated with the delivery of municipal residential blue box recycling services has been shared between municipalities and the companies that are responsible for primarily the conception, design, generation, and distribution of packaging, paper, and packaging-like products). While the funding model to date under the former Waste Diversion Act, 2002, was supposed to allow for the “total amount paid to all municipalities under the program being equal to 50% of the total net costs incurred by those municipalities as a result of the program.” However, the municipalities, including Toronto, have not historically received this 50%, resulting in increases in financial pressures. Alternatively, EPR ensures that producers are assigned full financial and operational responsibility for the end-of-life management of their materials sold to residential households in the province.

In June 2019, Mr. David Lindsay was hired by the province as a Special Recycling Advisor to mediate municipal and stakeholder consultations and provide advice on how to improve the Blue Box Recycling Program. The process identified several key topics for discussion, including transitions timeline, municipal assets, eligible sources and targets, helping in the establishment of a common collection system. On August 15, 2019, the Minister of the Environment, Conservation & Parks provided a direction letter to Stewardship Ontario and the Resource Productivity & Recovery Authority to begin the transition of the Blue Box Recycling Program from municipalities to producers and begin the completion of the current Blue Box Program Plan. This transition from the current program to EPR will result in a fundamental change in the way the Solid Waste Management Services Division operates its waste management system, including its user fee program. In order to guide the City through this transition, the Division has established a dedicated EPR transition team, which is supported by a management staff-led internal working group and has retained an EPR strategist to assist in the development of policy position and an advocacy strategy. As well, professional services are being retained to assess the financial impacts of EPR.

The transition of the municipal program is expected to commence as early as January 1, 2023, and be completed by December 31, 2025. It has been proposed that about 1/3 of all municipal programs will transition per year, and that during these 3 transition years producers maintain:

  • Existing service levels provided by municipalities
  • The list of materials currently collected
  • Eligible sources funded under the existing shared financing program

Until the final regulation is approved by the Province of Ontario, it’s difficult to predict how the City and its residents will be impacted by this transition to EPR.

Challenges to Success for the Blue Bin Program

Contaminated Recyclables

Toronto Star

In the City of Toronto, certain materials cannot be recycled. For example, those standup pouches filling the shelves containing anything from laundry pods to frozen berries, cannot be recycled. Placing items like standup pouches in the blue bin is not just wrong, but actually considered contamination, and can significantly impact the success of the recycling process. In 2019, City of Toronto director of processing & resource management Grace Maione stated, “This is a problem because what they’ve done here is they’ve mixed a whole bunch of different plastic resins… this here then gets mixed up either with the newspaper because it comes out flat like this.” She continued, “The automated sorters would pick that up as newspapers and probably put it into the newspaper bale and now you’ve contaminated that bale with this, so the more of these you have in that newspaper bale the less quality that bale becomes.”

The downgrading of materials results in the City not getting the top price for the bales they’re trying to sell, and getting less money when recyclable materials end up in landfill. A common example of this occurs when individuals assume their single-use coffee cups are recyclable (which they usually aren’t), throwing them into the blue bin while they still have remnants of liquid – ultimately contaminating the whole bag, and will go will straight to the landfill instead. In Toronto, the contamination rate has consistently trended upwards, from 22% in 2015 to 30% in 2019, suggesting that about 1/3 of the items in Blue Bins do not belong there. This rise in contaminated recyclables is directly linked to lifestyle trends (e.g. increases in take-out food) and in the increase in development of multi-residential buildings – which for a variety of reasons have a higher contamination rate than single-family homes. The combined financial impact to Toronto from the reduced value of the material and increased contamination was estimated at approximately $9M in 2018.

At present, Ontario law requires packaging producers to bear half the cost of the Blue Bin program. In 2017, the cost of the City’s Blue Bin program was $70M, while they earned $20M in recyclables sales for a net program cost of $50M – half of which was paid for by producers. However, because the City received almost $9M less in recycling revenues in 2018, both the City and producers were forced to bear a higher cost. “The economics of recycling have changed,” stated David Lindsay, Ontario’s Special Advisor on Recycling & Plastic Waste in his report following several weeks of consultation in the summer of 2019. Lindsay observed the average cost of recycling a tonne of Blue Bin materials increased by 50% from 2003 and 2017. It was based on this report that the Ontario government announced in August 2020 that it would be adopting the EPR model previously discussed. While the ideas was previously considered by Ontario governments, it was never adopted due to a lack of agreement between municipalities and producers on subjects such as program costs.

Recycling Challenges for Buildings

Well-Organized Communal Waste Area

While many Torontonians are competent at using the City’s Blue Bin program, over 20% of typical residential garbage bags are filled with recyclable materials – meaning over 84,000 tonnes of recyclable resources end up in the landfill each year. In 2019, Canada Fibers’ director of integrated market development, Michael Zabaneh, stated, “Most people are doing it right. But unfortunately, some are just throwing their recyclables in whatever bin is being collected that week.” Specifically, the issues with with the Blue Bin program are plentiful when it comes to Toronto’s buildings.

  • Not all buildings in Toronto recycle the same materials, which can be confusing for the buildings workers or tenants. What they can recycle at home may not be the same as school or work. Businesses and institutions have an average diversion rate of only 11%, with many recycling select materials (e.g., paper or cans), while some don’t recycle at all.
  • Most residential buildings provide a convenient garbage disposal system with access to chutes on every floor, the same convenience is not always offered to residents for recycling. The majority of apartment and condo buildings require residents to take their recyclables to a less convenient, centralized location – making recycling a larger effort. Communal waste collection areas in buildings make residents feel less personally responsible for how they dispose of their waste, making it more probable that mistakes will be made. Alternatively, in a single family home, residents observe their neighbours’ participation in curb-side recycling programs – providing additional motivation for proper waste diversion.
  • Most multi-residential condo buildings in Toronto hire private waste management companies to deal with their waste disposal, and are not required to recycle their clients materials unless specifically hired to do so – which usually comes at a premium cost
  • Overall, municipal waste audits have revealed much lower recycling rates in multi-residential buildings than in single family homes.

Common Blue Bin Mistakes

There are a number of common everyday mistakes that Torontonians make when it comes to the everyday use of the City’s Blue Bin program. Most of these mistakes relate to a lack of de-contaminating products before placing them in the blue bin (i.e., rinsing all food waste), or mixing in non-recyclable products (i.e., black plastics). The most common mistakes include the disposal of:

Single Use Coffee Cups

Coffee cups and disposable hot drink cups/lids in general are not recyclable in Toronto’s Blue Bin program. While some municipalities may be able to recycle coffee cups, Toronto does not have the capacity to do this at present. As well, disposable coffee cup lids are accepted in the blue bin program as long as they are not black or compostable plastic.  Always remember to rinse the lids first before placing them in the blue bin!

Pizza Boxes

Cheese, pepperoni, and other pizza ingredients usually end up leaving grease and food stains on the cardboard box, causing contamination. If only part of the pizza box has grease on it, you can cut the grease stained parts off, placing them in the garbage, and the grease-free cardboard into the blue bin. By doing this, you avoid placing more waste than necessary in the landfill. The same goes for other recyclable materials that carry food. If the item is too saturated in grease or food waste, do not recycle it, just throw it out.

Jars

Many everyday common products are provided to the public in plastic or glass jars. The City of Toronto suggests consuming as much of the food as possible before giving the jar a good rinse with soap and hot water to ensure there is no trace left of its contents. Then, once the jar and its lid are clean, you can refasten the lid on the jar, and then place it. with your other recyclables in your blue bin. Alternatively, many glass jars (i.e., mason jars) can be very useful container. Try reusing your jars before recycling them to extend their usefulness in this form.

Black Plastic

While still commonly used by many restaurants as takeout containers, black plastic cannot be recycled in the City. Toronto’s optical sorting technology at the recycling facility cannot distinguish black plastic from the black conveyor belt, and as a result can’t sort it. The City began looking into an alternatives as black plastic is ending up in the blue bin, contaminating the entire lot. In the last few years the City’s contamination rates have increased by 25% and each percentage point hike costs anywhere between $600K to $1M each year in processing fees and a decrease in revenue from the sale of recyclables. As well, more often than not black plastic ends up in the blue bin due to its confusing labelling, since the black plastic has a tiny recycling symbol on it, most people assume it is recyclable.

Other Recycling Programs & Solutions

There are additional efforts outside of the Blue Bin program being made by the City of Toronto, including their Chute Closure and 3Rs Ambassador Programs. As well, some small businesses in the City have taken it upon themselves to set up their own recycling processes.

Chute Closure Program

The City of Toronto has established the Chute Closure Program in an attempt to allow multi-residential buildings which receive City of Toronto collection services to close their garbage chutes. Closing the chute allows buildings to have greater oversight over their buildings waste streams, save them money, and reduce overall contamination. To be eligible for the program, buildings must:

  • Receive City of Toronto collection services
  • Have sufficient space for storage of un-compacted waste containers on the property (if applicable)
  • Have sufficient space for storage of recycling containers on the property
  • Have ordered, received, distributed, and made residents aware of in-unit containers a minimum of 6 months prior to the initial chute closure application

3Rs Ambassador Program

The City of Toronto established the 3Rs Ambassador Program to engage volunteers in apartments, condos, and co-ops to help promote the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). Eligible ambassadors can tailor programs to suit their building ad its residents, with the long-term goal of having at least 1 3Rs Ambassador in all apartment, condo and co-op buildings in the City. Volunteers must be 16 years of age or older, and live in an apartment, condo or co-op building in Toronto that receives waste collection services from the City. As well, potential ambassadors should make the building manager or superintendent aware of and agree with the Program, as they might need to assist in delivering education or outreach to residents.

Local Business Solutions

While there are a number of local business solutions for recycling, these are 3 examples of popular choices in Toronto:

The Sweet Potato

The Sweet Potato is a natural grocery store located in The Junction. When they found out that black plastic wasn’t recyclable in the City, they found a private recycling company that can process black plastic, who they now send their recyclable black plastics to in Fergus, ON. Not only does The Sweet Potato send their own black plastics, but they also created a program allowing the community to bring their black recyclables to their store.

The Sweet Potato only asks community members to pre-wash the items before bringing them in. It doesn’t matter what brand they are or where they were purchased, all clean black plastic will be accepted – and The Sweet Potato will cover the costs.

Urban St. Organics

Urban St. Organics was created by John Ciocioiu after noticing that many offices don’t have proper waste management systems like compost. The company provides green and blue bins to companies and then collects their waste at night. They work with smaller sorting companies who are able to recycle the products that larger ones cannot. For instance, when it comes to single-use coffee cups, they are taken to a sorting facility and then the different elements are broken down.

TerraCycle

TerraCycle offers free recycling programs funded by brands, manufacturers, and retailers around the world to help you collection and recycle hard-to-recycle waste. Individuals or small businesses can collect in their homes, schools, or offices. All you have to do is download free shipping labels and send TerraCycle your waste to be recycled. Participants can even earn rewards for their school or favourite charity.

TerraCycle also offers its Zero Waste Box; a platform which allows the recycling of almost any type of waste, from coffee pods to complex chemicals. All you have to do is choose a waste stream and a preferred box size, collect your waste, and send it back to TerraCycle to be repurposed. Shipping back is included, however, the Zero Waste Box requires purchase.

Conclusion

Overall, recycling in the City of Toronto can be confusing and frustrating, but the updated EPR model for the Blue Bin program could be just the thing the City needs. While the real outcomes of the program are unclear at present, it is definitely a step in the right direction. Moving forward, ensuring clarity and cohesion in the recycling processes of the City are paramount to its success. It is important that both multi-residential buildings and the City make properly recycling easy and straightforward for Torontonians to ensure less confusion and ultimately less mistakes. With companies like The Sweet Potato taking on the community responsibility of properly recycling black plastics, and Urban St. Organics providing composting and recycling services to businesses – the future of Toronto’s recycling system is looking hopeful!

Leave a Reply