Recycling isn’t the solution we think it is

January 12, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

Christmas is over and packed away again for another eleven months, except for Orthodox Christians, who celebrate on or from January 7th (as per the older Julian calendar). And like every year, the first garbage day after Christmas showed overflowing blue recycling boxes and doubled-up recycling bags that demonstrated a gluttony of Christmas presents and food and beverage packaging.

While this excess is of course due to a short-lived, annual celebration, we have a much larger and year-round problem with the amount of packaging that is sent to recycling—or so we think! Most of us believe, or at least hope, that what we put in our recycling bins will, in fact, go to a recycling facility, and be processed either into the same kind of items they were before (like glass bottles or jars, aluminum cans, or plastic containers or bottles), and sold and reused as something new. The sad fact is, here in Canada we are all suffering from a recycling pipedream.

The dirty truth is that although 57.3 percent of recyclable materials were collected in 2019, which was down from 60.2 percent in 2018, only a measly 25 percent of those collected items are, in fact, recycled in recycling facilities. It gets worse; of the plastics collected, only 9 per cent are processed, four percent are incinerated, and the rest goes to landfill or ends up in our landscape and waterways. That ranks Canada number 26 in terms of its recycling rate. By comparison, Germany recycles a whopping 70 percent of its municipal waste, and Sweden 99 percent. 

How did Sweden do it? It is based on two main measures. Firstly, they improved recycling availability and visibility. Since the early 1980s, the country started setting up small local recycling stations instead of building large central plants. This led to most residences or apartments having a recycling collection point within 300 metres. That way, citizens can drop off recyclable items more frequently and conveniently and there is better clarity and understanding of where each item should go.  

Secondly, Sweden introduced a waste collection tax, like a pay-as-you-throw system; if you produce more waste, you pay more. That resulted in a reduction of total waste volume, an increase in recycling rates, and overall a greater appreciation by every one of the durability of products, which in turn led to more sustainable buying habits. Manufacturers were also incentivized to produce products and packaging that had a longer lifespan, as well as a 50 percent tax exemption for repair services of household appliances and electronic equipment, for example. 

Sweden is also not afraid of applying waste-to-energy disposal, i.e. incinerating waste to generate electricity, so around 50 percent of household waste is burnt, and commercial and industrial waste account for half of all incinerated materials. While burning waste remains controversial, even with today’s high-tech facilities and filtering methods, it does mean that the ginormous amounts of waste every country produces and dumps into smelly, off-gassing, groundwater-polluting landfill sites are reduced by a huge factor. And that is worth a lot. 

Going back to Canada’s waste management performance, our recycling system seems no more than a band-aid; it helps patch up an underlying problem for a short while only and is more for improved optics and public perception than effective treatment. This country produces 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste per year and only 9 percent is recycled and repurposed.

What can you do? Buy more food, household and health and beauty care items in non-plastic and reusable packaging and shop more at bulk-buy stores, where you can reuse and refill your own durable, refillable glass or steel containers or buy unpackaged goods. Bulk Barn is a good place for this, although our local store in Orangeville is closed temporarily for renovations but The Village Refillery on Mill Street is open and constantly growing its selection. They are part of the growing and more sustainable “zero waste movement”. Bringing your own containers helps your blue bin and your conscience. All their bulk foods, beauty care, and cleaning products are eco-friendly and organic, and any liquid cleaner for household or personal care can be refilled from their vast selection. 

I find it very satisfying to take my empty bottles of shampoo, conditioner, household cleaners and laundry detergent to be refilled, again and again, without needing to throw horrible plastic containers into my little blue bin with a great deal of guilt, knowing that I am being duped about their final destination. 

Canadian governments really need to pull up their socks and follow the examples of countries like Sweden and Germany. And to consumers, I have to say it: for heaven’s sake, everybody please stop buying water by the caseloads in those ridiculous, excessively wasteful little plastic bottles!  

Readers Comments (0)

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.