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Written By: Andrew Rutland

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been sceptical about recycling. I’ve always done it of course, but I recall seeing curbside recycling bins filled with unclean, unsorted waste like plastic jars still smeared in peanut butter and wondering what happened to it all after it’s picked up. This pessimistic attitude reached its lowest point in 2018 when I heard about China’s new import restrictions on low-quality recyclables. Once the largest importer of recyclable waste, these restrictions crippled the global recycling industry and municipalities were so overwhelmed with material that now had nowhere to go, they began tossing it in the landfill anyway.

Recycling was once considered a panacea for the plastic problem, and in a perfect world maybe it could have been. The problem is that collecting, sorting and finding uses for recycled plastic is a Herculean task within an industry that must deal with sporadic supply and demand from sources all over the globe. To this day, it is still usually cheaper to create a product with virgin plastic than recycled plastic. But it hasn’t always been like this, and the concept of recycling may not be as recent as you think.  

Societies have always had to deal with the issue of waste. Archaeological excavations are consistently unearthing ‘middens’ – great mounds of ancient domestic garbage filled with bones, shells and artefacts (all biodegradable under most conditions, of course). While this can hardly be considered waste management, it wasn’t long until societies started organizing their waste disposal.

An article by Matt Bradbury for Resource Center outlined the history of what we would consider “modern” waste management and recycling, beginning in 500 B.C.E. with the first municipal waste dump in Athens, Greece. Bradbury notes that by only 1031 C.E., Japan was already recycling paper in a manner similar to today. He also notes that times of war and hardship often led to the repurposing of materials as well. For example, in 1776 colonial rebels melted down existing metals to form bullets so they could supply the Revolutionary Army, and in 1940 countries fighting in World War II collected and recycled nylon, rubber and metals from citizens for the war effort. By the 1980s, following the strong environmental activism of the 1970s, curbside recycling programs were popping up all over North America.

In fact, while not the first municipality to mandate curbside recycling, the Region of Waterloo was actually the first municipality to use the iconic blue box, now nearly ubiquitously associated with the recycling movement. The symbol on the box – and virtually every recyclable product – was designed by a 23-year-old design student named Gary Anderson.

It would seem that early recycling efforts were driven by a need for a particularly valuable material, and existing objects were specifically sought out or collected for that purpose. Nowadays, we don’t recycle because we’ve run out of oil or trees, but because we have nowhere good to put it. Municipal waste dumps take up a lot of space, and we know that as garbage rots away inside them, the anaerobic conditions generate methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Despite our efforts, much of our waste is still not entering the global recycling industry. According to the Government of Canada, only about 32% of waste (including organics, electronics etc.) is diverted from ending up in a landfill, and when it comes specifically to recyclable plastics in Canada, only 9% get a second life. In Ontario, the recovery rate is a little better, with about 60% of recyclable material being collected through the blue box program.

In the Region of Waterloo, while the overall waste diversion rate is only a little higher than the provincial average at 65%, of what does make it into the blue bins here, 90% of it is actually recycled. The relative amounts of organics, yard waste, and recyclable materials that are diverted from landfill are increasing, and the relative amount of garbage we send to the landfill is decreasing.

For a recycling skeptic, this was pleasantly surprising news. While we may be getting better at recycling here in the Region of Waterloo, and this aspect of the circular economy will no doubt become increasingly important in the future, we need to remember that it is still only a solution for existing waste, not a long term solution to waste in general. Remember that in the mantra that often accompanies Greg Anderson’s three-arrowed recycling logo “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, recycling comes last.

This is not a coincidence. We must first reduce the number of materials we extract and use from the environment in the first place. Then, we should seek to directly reuse them as long as possible, and only when that fails should we undertake the difficult and expensive process of recycling.

Still, when you can’t help but generate some recyclable waste, as we all do, you can feel comfortable knowing that when you set out your blue bin to the curb in the area where it first appeared nearly 40 years ago, most of what’s inside will be recycled. 


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