Stories & Features

10 things you really need to know about recycling

Image of cans baled for recycling
These days you can recycle more than just old soup tins, but not everything can go in your blue bin.

What's recyclable, what's not, and how you can help Canada clean up its act

In case you missed it, China is no longer the dumping ground for items we discard as we pat ourselves on the back for recycling. The fact is that China can't handle all that stuff anymore, and a lot of it was garbage anyway.

That daunting task now falls to our own recyclers who, despite opening their doors to an increasing number of products, are plagued with stuff that clogs conveyors, contaminates other materials, needs to go to the landfill, or contains toxic materials that can harm workers.

Here are 10 things you need to know about recycling that can help us reduce our landfills and clean up our recycling act.

1. Most plastic doesn't get recycled

The Globe & Mail produced a few startling statistics early in 2019. One was that the amount of discarded plastic in Canada in 2016 was 3.3 million tonnes, equivalent to the weight of 24 CN towers. The other is that, sadly, 85% of that plastic went into landfills. The fact is that a whole lot of recyclable plastic doesn't get recycled, and many plastic items – including children's toys, plastic or foam coolers, and plastic furniture – aren't recyclable at all.

What you can do: Keep in mind when shopping to avoid non-recyclable plastics and single-use plastic items, even if they are recyclable. Bookmark Recycling B.C.'s What Can I Recycle page as a guide to what goes in the blue bin (empty coffee and tea pods, for example, but not the lids), what needs to be returned to a depot (plastic tea, juice, and flavoured beverage jugs), and what just doesn't make the cut (plastic wrap, blister packs, lawn edging and tarps).

2. From thermostats to batteries, electronics can be particularly nasty in a landfill

Old thermostats and other electronics can contain dangerous materials such as mercury, or electronic components that shouldn't be thrown in the garbage. B.C. has had a strong electronics recycling program in place for years, and the Thermostat Recovery Program (TRP) now enables recovery and recycling of thermostats that are no longer in use. The long list of electronics that can be recycled includes everything from CDs and smartphones to electronic toys and musical instruments.

What you can do: Bookmark and get to know the Recycling Council of BC's Recyclopedia, which allows you to find where specific items – including electronics – can be recycled in your area. If you can't find what you're looking for, call the RCBC hotline at 1 800 667 4321.

3. If it's dirty, it's bad news for recyclers

Did you know that even a few spoonfuls of peanut butter left in a jar can contaminate a tonne of paper? Taking the time to rinse containers and ensure that no food gets into the recycling bin should be a priority, as our recyclers have had to adopt costly processes to weed out contaminated products. In some Canadian cities the contamination rates of blue box items are as high as 25% of items.

What you can do: We know it's hard, but come to terms with the fact that an oil-soaked pizza box isn't recyclable paper and is better off in the landfill or your compost bin. Rinse liquids and loose food out of jars, coffee pods, and other recyclable containers (there's generally no need for soap) as food is a contaminant.

Image of a discarded single-use coffee cup
Ditching single use coffee cups and switching to a reusable option is a great way to minimize your environmental impact.

4. You need to dissect your daily (paper) cup of coffee

You’d think that by now, compostable or recyclable paper coffee cups would be the norm at Starbucks and other coffee shops. Not so. While a few cafes use compostable cups, most paper cups need to be rinsed and separated from the plastic lid before they're recycled (in the "container" bin, not the paper bin). Those plastic stoppers and any plastic straws still go in the landfill.

What you can do: You saw this coming. Rely on a reusable cup as much as possible, and if you find it inconvenient, consider a silicone collapsing cup – several options are available online or in stores – as an option. Also, if you're drinking your coffee in a café, insist on getting your bevvy in a reusable cup. Staff often ignore this request, so make it clear that you don't want a paper cup.

5. That TV or coffee table "donated" in your recycling room is going to the landfill

You can tell yourself that someone in your strata or on your block might use that old TV, microwave, chair, or frying pan. The reality is that you're just passing on the recycling task to someone else, and there's a good chance your very busy building manager is just going to toss it in a bin.

What you can do: Take the time to donate items or recycle them properly – always take electronics to a proper recycling depot. Try making a run to the local recycling depot a once-in-month routine, and find out which items your local thrift store actually wants. Don't just dump stuff at the back door after hours.

6. You may be surprised at what is, and what isn't, recyclable

You can get a fire extinguisher, power tools, blenders and other kitchen devices recycled. But a plastic or foam cooler that isn't good enough to donate goes in the landfill. Ripped or unwearable clothing and linens go into the landfill, too – a whopping 44 million pounds worth in Metro Vancouver last year. Those foam meat and fish trays, the net bags for your avocados, along with plastic shopping and frozen vegetable bags, can't go in the blue bin, but you can drop them off for recycling at local depots. As for padded envelopes... they go into the garbage because they contain bubble wrap.

What you can do: Donate reusable items when you can, then consult the Recyclopedia to see if the item you can't put in your blue bin or in the strata recycling room can be dropped off somewhere to be recycled. Try to avoid buying stuff that's not easily recyclable or reusable.

7. Refundable beverage bottles and containers don't belong in the blue bin.

Anything that makes it more difficult for recyclers to sort and handle items is a bad idea, and that includes refundable wine bottles, beer cans and bottles, and soft drink cans and bottles.

What you can do: Separate refundable bottles, cans, and drink boxes and take them to a Return-It depot near you. See Return-It's list of included items and how much of a refund you get for each one.

Image of used CFL bulbs
Light bulbs aren't trash, but recycling them can be tricky. Make sure you know how to dispose of each bulb appropriately.

8. Separate lights and lighting fixtures

Lighting items don't belong in the garbage or the blue box, so they need to be sorted.

What you can do: Separate old bulbs – halogens, incandescents, compact fluorescent or even light strings – and any old light fixtures and take them to a LightRecycle depot. Check out the list of accepted lights and fixtures.

9. That old TV needs your attention

Don't relegate the old television to the basement or guest room. Unplugging a second or third TV will save you energy, and all it costs is a quick trip to a Return-It depot.

What you can do: Return-It depots accept most home electronics, including desktop and laptop computers, tablets, telephones, and electronic children's toys. If your monitor or TV screen is broken, you'll need to visit a special depot that can accept broken glass, but otherwise, just find the depot nearest you.

10. There's a helpful website for appliance recycling

The last thing you need is that old fridge or stove sitting around in the garage or basement for years. Many retailers and local governments offer drop-off or pick-up options for old appliances, and private collection sites will often take items as scrap metal.

What you can do: Go to the Major Appliances Recycling Roundtable site and search by postal code to find facilities and options for appliance recycling in your area.