Un-Recycling: Deep Dive

Many of us have been taught the "3 Rs" in school – reduce, reuse and recycle. Usually, most of us end up focusing most strongly on the last of these Rs i.e., Recycling. However, there is often little awareness about how ineffective Recycling is in waste reduction. In reality, and this can be a hard truth to hear: Recycling has become a tool for us to justify our culture of over-consumption.

Why is recycling a problem?

Most of us are used to the routine of cleaning and sorting recyclable waste and putting it into the blue-bin. While this seems like the ‘right thing to do’, the reality is that Recycling is one of the least environmentally friendly “environmental” things one can do. This is because:

  • Recycling is a global market-driven industry i.e., it only works when it is profitable for someone to convert our blue-bin garbage into, say, plastic lawn furniture, egg cartons, or drywall. Unfortunately, market forces mean that it is not profitable to deal with most of our blue-bin waste and about two-thirds of ‘recyclable’ waste still ends up in landfills (where it would normally end up anyway, if not put in the blue-bin)1.
  • The blue-bin has provided us with a ‘social license’ to create more waste. In reality, even if an item is successfully recycled, 95 per cent of the environmental damage has already occurred – in the process of manufacturing and transporting the item2.
  • Only about 7 per cent of Ontario’s waste is recycled. The rest is sent to landfills or incinerators or ends up in the environment.3

The only viable answer to this problem lies with the ‘R’ that we were also taught about in school but ignore the most – Reduce. 

The Disposable Coffee Cup & Us

The disposable coffee cup has become a symbol of our prosperous times. Even though these cups often find their way into the blue-bin, as per the City of Toronto: “There is no paper recycling market available to the City of Toronto that is currently willing to take post-consumer poly-coat paper cups from our recycling system. The paper used to make coffee cups is a low-grade paper (little value).” Estimates suggest that Canadians use between 1.6 and 2 billion disposable coffee cups a year2. These represent up to 35,000 tonnes of paper, made from more than 70,000 tonnes of raw wood, harvested from thousands of hectares of forest. On average, a person may use up to 250 disposable coffee cups per year2.

Ontario is now moving towards a 'producer responsibility recycling program i.e., one where the onus of recycling would be put on producers. That said, little is known about the fine print and details of this program. For example, experts suggest that paper laminate coffee cups will not be recycled in Ontario due to issues surrounding pulping time at fiber re-processors and a lack of economically viable and scalable options.

What can you do?

While we are increasingly conscious of our personal environmental footprints, the reality is that the scale of change needed requires action at a systemic level. There are multiple organizations on the ground across the province that are actively engaging scientists, activists, policymakers and industries. 

To learn more about organizations across Toronto and Ontario at the frontline of fighting local climate change, please visit the TCAN website

  1. HALLIDAY, M. (2020, Mar 31). Why Recycling Doesn’t Work. Retrieved from The Walrus: https://thewalrus.ca/why-recycling-doesnt-work
  2. Wilkins, C. (2017, Nov 4). Canada's dirty secret. Retrieved from Canadian Geographic Enterprises: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/canadas-dirty-secret
  3. Toronto Environmental Alliance. (2020, Aug 20). Fifty-two groups call on Ontario government to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix the Blue Box and eliminate packaging waste. Retrieved from Toronto Environmental Alliance
  4. CBC/Radio-Canada. (2017, Aug 07). Quebec's Green Party proposes deposit system for reusable 'to-go' coffee cups. Retrieved from CBC/Radio-Canada: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/reusable-coffee-cups-green-party-1.4776056