As promised in my last post, I’ll take you for a deep dive into our various waste streams (figuratively, not literally).

Most people know recycling and composting are good for the environment and just plain ol’ right thing to do. Not a lot of debate there, though if you had any doubts, here’s a nice quote from Stanford:

The more we recycle, the less garbage winds up in our landfills and incineration plants. By reusing aluminum, paper, glass, plastics, and other materials, we can save production and energy costs, and reduce the negative impacts that the extraction and processing of virgin materials has on the environment.

Some of us sort our waste like a pro, tossing in blue, green and trash bins with confidence. For some of us, the intentions are really good, but the execution … not so much.

Sorting can be a challenge since there is no such thing as “universal rules” for recycling. Why? The blue bin is not the end game for those materials … it’s a new beginning (yes, just as poetic as it sounds). It also takes a whole lotta links in the chain for things to get to the right place.

Let’s look at the cycle at many locations at UHN:

  1. I throw out stuff (in the right bins, otherwise the whole bag ends up in trash)
  2. Environmental Services Staff (ESS) collect it centrally on each floor
  3. Another ESS takes it to the loading dock
  4. They sort all the little bags into the correct compactor or bin
  5. Our recycling company picks it up and takes it to the MRF (that’s Materials Recovery Facility for your next game of Acronym Bingo)
  6. They sort and the materials and bale it (kinda like hay)
  7. They sell the bales to companies
  8. Companies use the stuff to make new stuff
  9. I buy and use the new stuff, then discard the waste
  10. and we’re back to step 1

Here is a quick example of a MRF (though some operate differently)…

OK, but why the different rules for what goes where?

In a nutshell: Recycling companies are market-driven, so they are more likely to collect a material if they know they can sell it.

Check out these beautiful bales of recycling!

In this game of “urban mining”, some materials are golden, and others … meh. That’s why you’ll almost always see cardboard, paper, cans and bottles in the YES column, but other materials may or may not make the cut (think Styrofoam, foil & plastic bags). Some materials never make the cut, so please keep them out of the blue bin (I’m looking at you, **coffee cups and hazardous waste).

Fun Fact: it takes just as much energy to make 1 can out of new aluminum vs 20 cans out of recycled aluminum. Whoa!

Your curbside collection is usually not available to big buildings. For example, my workplace (UHN) has a different company collecting waste than at my home even though both are located in Toronto. Because of its recycler, UHN trashes Styrofoam. Meanwhile, at curbside we recycle Styrofoam.

Confused yet? Head hurting? Sit back and have a coffee (but in a reusable mug, save the agro 🙂

Now back to sorting …

Some places have mixed or “commingled recycling”, meaning all recyclables go into 1 blue bin. The downside? The materials may not be in great shape when they get to the plant (like that newspaper covered in yogurt drippings … it’ll still get recycled, but lower level). The upside? This is way easier to collect. City of Toronto has commingled, as do most UHN sites (details on our intranet blue bin page).

recycling -separated vs mixed

Other places have “separated recycling”, meaning you have a separate recycling bin for paper vs cans & bottles and such. This may be harder for you and me to sort out, but the materials are in better shape for their next stage of life. Recycling companies usually reward the extra effort by giving generous rebates (like cash back for clean bundles of paper and cardboard). Special separation which turns “trash to cash” is not new. The scrap metal market and the Beer Store bottle return has been pretty lucrative for years!

Funfact: With an 80% return rate to the Beer Store, all the bottles, cans and packaging that has been reused and recycled avoids emitting over 200 thousand tonnes of greenhouse gases. Ontarians also collected over $160 million dollars in rebates!


Whatever system you have, recycle and compost as much as possible to increase that lovely diversion rate (how much stuff was diverted from landfill). Toronto’s residential diversion rate has increased from 44% in 2008 to 52% in 2016! Granted, that 52% is a blend of houses (65%) and condos/apartments which have a mere 27% diversion rate … probably why the mayor has come up with the Towering Challenge. The City recently set a mighty fine diversion rate goal, 70% by 2026! With half of the city living in apartments/condos, the pressure is on!

Public institutions and buildings don’t usually fare as well as residential for a whole lotta reasons worthy of another blog (sorry, that sounded like a terrible excuse, my bad). Anyhow, UHN’s diversion rate in 2008 was 34% and it has edged up to 40%. Nice gains, but more work to come.

So how do we fix it?

SET: At work and home, start with a good set up. Put bins together as a sorting zone, and put labels and signs on them to remind you at the moment you go to throw. At home, that’s easily done (though may involve some good-natured reminders/nagging). At work, you may need to collaborate with some folks (the sort of things our green teams do).

Aideen, longtime green team champ, sets it up for sorting success in a patient waiting room.

SORT: Walk the talk by sorting as well as you can everyday and spread the knowledge. Soon it will seem really strange to see things in the wrong bins. If you happen to see mistakes, encourage a bag change so that the wrong item doesn’t confuse the next person.

CELEBRATE: There is a lot of doom and gloom in the world, so take a moment to celebrate successes and have some fun. And because this is just oh-so awesome, here’s a little replay of the Blue Bin video by the green team in the Medical Surgical Intensive Care Unit to inspire us all…

P.S. to make your home sorting easier, I’ve included some links to local “Waste Wizards”. These tools are great! You type in your questionable material and it will show you where it goes. Some even have a downloadable app (because 2017).

Toronto Waste Wizard

Durham Region

Halton Region





Peel Region

Simcoe County


York Region

Happy sorting!

**a note about coffee cups: they were once thought to be recyclable, but it is too hard to process them (the plastic layer inside attached to the paper outside is hard to separate and get good materials to work with later). They are now considered garbage almost anywhere you look. Better to lug a mug.