There was a good letter in the Record that asked some questions about curbside recycling. So I thought I would try my best to answer them. They make reference to the current recycling yard is closing, if you are here wondering about that, I talked about that here. Short version: the road accessing the current recycling yard will most certainly NOT be accessible during most of the construction period for the Canada Games Pool replacement as it will be a hole in the ground for much of that time, so the City is working on some alternatives, and there will be more to report on this soon.
The most holistic answer to most of the questions in the letter is that the City of New Westminster does not operate in a vacuum, but is a relatively small community in a large, dynamic region. There are multiple jurisdictions involved in our solid waste systems, including Metro Vancouver (who manage all landfill waste and organic waste recycling) and the province (who manage paper and packaging recycling through Recycle BC). These operate alongside Extended Product Responsibility (EPR) programs (like oil waste management and tire recycling), and within a larger regional and global commodities market for the recycled materials, without which there would be no recycling at all.
So the answer to the question why is one type of thing collected at the curbside (newspapers and soup cans) and another is not (glass jars and Styrofoam) is because the organization that takes our recycling from us (be that a government agency, a commercial operation, or a hybrid of both) has the ability to dictate what they will and will not take as part of that commercial arrangement. If no-one will take a type of waste, has to go to landfill, so recycling relies on these agencies and businesses.
When we made the big shift to “comingled” recyclables a number of years ago, it necessarily sent us down a path where we were reliant on a certain type of Materials Recovery Facility to separate those wastes into material we can sell or have someone take off of our hands for a lower cost than sending the material to a landfill or the Burnaby incinerator. For example, the simplest reason why glass jars cannot go in comingled curbside recycling is because the newsprint and mixed paper has some value in the recycling market, and that value goes away if a little bit of broken glass is mixed in with it. We can sell recycled mixed paper for up to $85/Tonne (if we can find a customer, which is becoming harder as there is a significant oversupply of paper fibre right now), but if that paper is contaminated with a broken peanut butter jar, that paper is more likely going to landfill at a cost of $140/Tonne or more for disposal.
When it comes to “depot items”, there are a lot of things that cannot be recycled curbside, from waste paint to toasters to batteries, because handling them in a MRF is hazardous and results in contamination of potentially-recyclable materials. There may be a market for them if the initial separation of materials can happen, so they can;t go in the curbside bin, but can go in their own special bin in a collection point, be that London Drugs or a Return-It depot, or the tire store. This is why so much of our solid waste system regionally relies on education programs about recycling – what can got in curbside, and what can’t. Things that are “technically” recyclable become non-recyclable when they enter the wrong stream, and potentially make a bunch of other stuff not recyclable at the same time. As you allude to, putting technically recyclable stuff in the wrong stream may assuage guilt, it doesn’t help the environment.
Most of these technically-recyclable but not-at-the-curbside materials have multiple places they can be taken in New Westminster, including very likely, the place you bought the actual item. In my earlier post, I linked to this tool from Metro Vancouver that allows you to search for places where you recycle your wastes. There are a half dozen places in New Westminster where you can take Styrofoam or plastic shopping begs to recycle them. Glass jars can also go to a few places in town, but the commodity value of that waste glass is so low, that it is challenging to find anyone to take it. Of course, glass is environmentally inert and non-polluting, so aside from the cost ($140/Tonne +) there is little reason to divert it from the landfill, unless it can be brought into an industrial process like cement making at a lower environmental cost than other raw materials like crushed aggregate, but we are getting deep down the rabbit hole here…
The hardest part about this conversation for an environmentalist like me is the reaction you get when you tell people that recycling is not a particularly effective environmental intervention. For many materials, it simply makes no environmental or economic sense. “Reduce Reuse Recycle” is too often offered as a circular, as if they are all equal in weight when it comes to environmental sustainability. They should always instead be offered as a hierarchy. Reducing your use of single-use plastics and items that are difficult or impossible to recycle (and I am going to throw in here – economically unsustainable to recycle) should be your first priority.
If we are playing with “R” words, we can add “Refuse” – as in refuse to buy items that are packaged in unsustainable ways, and “Rechoose” – as in seek out products and formats that don’t create hard to recycle waste. We have been well trained as a society to think about recycling at the time when we are finished with a product, but we are terrible at thinking about it at the time we purchase something. I suspect our reliance on (even blind faith in) EPR programs was part of this problem.