The well-meaning but misguided process of wishing and hoping something is recyclable (because it should be!!!), and throwing it into the recycling bin regardless of your local rules.

In reality, this contaminates the recycling stream, making the rest more likely to end up in landfill.

Hey, we know this comes from a good place. We want to recycle! We don’t want to add to landfill. Throwing things in the garbage can induce some major guilt and despair. Recycling those items makes us all feel better … and that’s sometimes the problem.

When we throw things in recycling that don’t belong there, we jeopardize the whole process. For recycling to work, it needs to be clean and uncontaminated.

We can’t always have Jack Armstrong calling our recycling plays, so here’s a little hint:

What NOT to put in almost any recycling bin:

  • no containers still covered in food (rinse out that yogurt cup, and trash the foil lid)
  • no paper plates smeared with food (this is awesome in the compost bin, nasty in recycling)
  • no napkins, tissues and paper towels (they also prefer the compost bin)
  • no bottles filled with juice or pop, and definitely trash that straw! (better yet, don’t use one)
  • no coffee pods (even the “recyclable” ones are rarely accepted. If/when they are, the grounds go in compost, foil lid in trash, then rinse out the cup to recycle … pretty complicated for a convenience product. Return-to-vendor programs are good, but not as good as brewing old-school and composting the grounds)
  • no chip bags or candy bar wrappers (though tasty, it’s junk for you and the environment)
  • no stand-up pouches (pictured below since people stare at me blankly when I mention them)
  • and above all else … no trash in the recycling.

    Stand-up pouches go in the trash

We talked about how recycling works, way back in 2017. Kinda like Fight Club, the number 1 rule of recycling is that there are no universal rules. Local recycling companies make their own rules based on what they know they can sell. Some areas also have recycling laws e.g. in Ontario, Thou Shalt Recycle these 6 things, so trashing them is illegal:

  1. Aluminum food or beverage cans
  2. Cardboard
  3. Fine paper
  4. Glass bottles and jars
  5. Newsprint
  6. Steel food or beverage cans

These materials are all great in the recycling bin. I noticed one glaring omission: plastic, and plastic is everywhere! Some of it is recyclable but a lot is not. It begs the question, why do we use plastic that has no end game but landfill, or worse, the ocean?

plastic litter in tree
plastic bags caught in trees and shrubs, spotted on my walk home. Yuck!

So many places use black plastic for take-out containers because it makes the food look good, but very few recycling programs take black plastic. With the advent of more takeout meals than ever, this can really pile up!

Funfact – black plastic is hard to recycle as common sorting machines can’t detect it. To the Near Infra-Red (NIR) sorter “eye”, black plastic blends with the conveyor belt underneath. Add the difficulty in finding a buyer and we see why it’s usually trashed.

Things have changed since 2017, namely, the biggest customer for recycled materials no longer wants them. To be fair, why should China be the dumping ground for the world? That said, without China as a market, a lot of recyclables, particularly plastics, are having a harder time finding a good second home.

This market shift is changing lots of recycling programs, including ours. UHN and many other hospitals in the GTA have some new rules for recycling.

What NOT to put in UHN’s recycling bins (New, July 2019):

  • All the advice above
  • no coffee cups: the plastic lining in the paper cup makes it hard to process
  • no black plastic
  • no plastic bags and any soft plastic
  • no plastic cutlery though City of Toronto Municipal collection takes it
  • no Styrofoam / foamed polystyrene not new but mentioned as it differs from Toronto Municipal rules. Best to avoid Styrofoam as it is carcinogenic
  • no blue sterilization wrap (great for reuse as a drop cloth, or more)

mr.recycle - veng in blue wrap suit
Veng Chhin in a blue sterilization wrap suit for the height of 3R fashion!

UHNers: test your knowledge here: 

What else can you do?

  1. Buy less garbage – and stop the problem before it starts
  2. Find reusable alternatives for things you use once (looking at you, coffee cups, food containers, shopping bags etc.)
  3. Learn your local rules at home and at work (which may not be the same)
  4. Follow those rules, and help your friends/family too
  5. If in doubt, throw it out in the trash … no more wish-cycling
  6. Buy stuff in easily recyclable or compostable packaging
  7. Even better, buy stuff in reusable packaging à la deposit-return, or no package at all
  8. Ask companies to change their packaging for the better. They might listen to customers.
  9. Ask politicians to make rules so that companies make better packaging and less pollution. They might listen to voters.

As always, the best way to combat wish-cycling is to not buy those things in the first place. You can’t trash ’em if you don’t have ’em. Look for reusables and better alternatives.

Want to dig deeper?

Change Notice: an earlier version of this piece noted that UHN’s new recycling rules would begin in April. That has been amended to July due to the need for a transition period for tools, materials and workflow.