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3 Ways Canadians Are Recycling Wrong

Almost all households in Canada have access to a recycling program and 98% of them use it, according to 2011 data released by Statistics Canada.

But another number may be cancelling out the intended impact — high contamination rates for residential recycling.

The rates vary across the country, but cities like Edmonton (which has a 24% contamination rate) and Toronto (26%) are struggling to succeed.

A new series by CBC called “Reduce, Reuse and Rethink” looks at problems and innovations in recycling across Canada, and their recent report shows that not only are many Canadians bad at recycling, but it’s costing the country millions.

Take action: Fight Waste to Protect Our Oceans

1. You Put Waste in Your Blue Bins

Although not always on purpose, many Canadians attempt to recycle garbage.

"It's shameful, it's awful. In some instances almost one in three pounds of what goes in a blue box shouldn't be there," Mark Badger, executive vice-president of Canada Fibers, told CBC.

Canada Fibers sorts approximately 60% of the curbside recycling picked up in Ontario, across 12 plants.

Badger said that items like blood bags, needles, dead animals, bullets and bear spray have come through his plant. It’s all hazardous and puts a strain on the contamination process.

Read More: These Are the Biggest Recycling Mistakes You're Probably Making

Contaminated items can cause other recyclables to become contaminated, which means that many good recyclables become garbage or decrease in value.

“You basically pay twice to manage garbage,” Jim McKay, general manager of solid waste management for the City of Toronto, told CBC.

Toronto has the highest contamination rate in Canada at 26%.

Each point decrease in this rate could lower recycling costs in the city by $600,000 to $1 million a year, according to McKay.

If Toronto’s average contamination rate hits 27%, the city will be charged an extra $5 million under their contract with Canada Fibers, according to CBC.

2. You Don’t Fully Wash Recyclable Containers

After finishing something like tomato sauce, yogurt or cottage cheese, many Canadians will give the containers a rinse and toss them into their blue bins.

The problem is that even a small amount of food — like tomato sauce, yogurt or cottage cheese — can spill onto other recyclable materials in the bin and contaminate it all. If a stack of paper becomes contaminated by a blob of tomato sauce, for instance, it’s no longer recyclable.

Damaged recyclables either become garbage or end up with a decreased value, which makes it harder to sell to cover the costs of recycling programs.

Read more: Adidas Sold 1 Million Shoes Made of Ocean Plastic Last Year

St. John’s has a contamination rate of just 3%, while Vancouver’s is just 4.6%. These low contamination rates not only keep the cost of the programs low, but it's also easier for these cities to sell their recyclables at a better price.

In fact, Municipal Councillor Ian Froude told CBC that St. John’s sells almost all of its recyclables within Canada.

St. John’s and Vancouver do not accept or enforce special handling of glass and Styrofoam, as well as plastic bags. These items are common contaminants, so by not accepting them or by enforcing special treatment, they are able to keep their contamination rates low.

3. You Don’t Know What’s Recyclable in Your City

Recycling varies from city to city across Canada. What might be regular old recycling in Toronto has different rules in Vancouver.

And what’s more is that some non-recyclables confusingly seem recyclable — because in some places they might be.

For example, McKay pointed out that black plastic coffee cup lids that have the recycling symbol are, in fact, not recyclable in Toronto specifically.

Read more: Recycled Cell Phone Gold Will Be Used for 2020 Olympic Medals

"It looks like recycling, feels like recycling, it's actually marked as recycling," he told CBC. "It's not."

The Canada Fibers plant in Toronto cannot properly identify and sort black plastic, according to CBC.

Unclear processes can create confusion among residents who want to do the right thing. People are sometimes confused as to where to toss everyday items — like coffee cup lids — and this tiny confusion can end up costing a city a whole lot.

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