Talkin' Trash With UHN

Freerange, organic, green healthcare ideas

Thanks for learning UHN’s new recycling rules … here’s more

If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve taken our quiz on recycling rules. Thanks!!! If not, give it a try … here for Toronto General and PMCRT, and here for Toronto Western, Princess Margaret and Toronto Rehab.

Here’s an easy recap.

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

  • 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 foamed polystyrene (aka Styrofoam … not new to UHN, but mentioned for being different from municipal collection)
  • no blue sterilization wrap (great for reuse as a drop cloth, or more)


What NOT to put in almost any recycling bin:

Though there are no universal rules for recycling, this is close.  

  • 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 plastic cutlery  (City of Toronto may recycle plastic cutlery, but few other places do)
  • 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)
  • No gloves
  • and above all else … no trash in the recycling.


We talked about how recycling works, way back in 2017. Like Fight Club, the number 1 rule of recycling is that there are no universal rules. Local recycling companies decide based on what 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

One glaring omission: plastic, and plastic is everywhere! Some plastic is recyclable but a lot is not. Many places use black plastic take-out containers because it makes food look good, but almost no recycling programs accept it. The sorting technology can’t “see” black plastic to sort it.  With more takeout meals than ever, this really piles up! For waste, cost and nutrition reasons, there’s never been a better time to cook vs dial.

The recycling market changed drastically in 2018 when China, the biggest customer for recycled materials, no longer wanted them. Consequently, a lot of recyclables, particularly plastics, are having a harder time finding a good second home. This market shift contributed to UHN’s program changes.

For recycling to work, it needs to be clean and uncontaminated as environmental services staff cannot fix it afterwards because of time and safety. That means we all must fill the bins  less than 10% contamination rate or the whole bin will go to landfill. As it costs more to send items to landfill than recycle them, send recyclables to landfill is bad environmentally and financially.

Improper recycling is sometimes sloppy, and sometimes wishful thinking.



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 alongside it.

To recycle right, let’s make like Jack Armstrong and get that garbage outta here!

What else can I 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 (there are Apps for that)
  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.

Want to dig deeper?

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