The world’s first Blue Box system was launched in Ontario over 30 years ago, went on to win a United Nations award, and today remains a convenient and easy method of collecting various materials from households and sending them on for recycling.
At heart, though, the Blue Box is a Paper Box. The major material brought into households, apart from organics and their resulting food scraps, has always been paper of one kind or another, and still is.
In the latest data year (2013), paper products represented two-thirds by weight of what was available for recycling from Ontario homes. An impressive 76% of this paper was collected and sent for recycling (85% of the printed paper, mostly old newspapers; 93% of the old corrugated boxes, and 48% of the old boxboard cartons. There’s clearly room for improvement there).
The collection rates for the non-paper materials that end up in Ontario homes are something of a mixed bag: most of the non-LCBO deposit glass makes it to the Blue Box (91%), together with PET and HDPE bottles (59% and 57% respectively). But only 40% of aluminum packaging is being recovered and only 30% of plastics overall.
While the plastics industry is trying to encourage more recycling, and several PPEC-member companies are closely involved with these efforts((Cascades Recovery and Emterra Environmental are both involved in a Green By Nature venture to boost plastics recycling in British Columbia, and Canada Fibers recently announced its participation in a plastics recycling venture in Ontario)), the ugly truth is that the recycling of plastic packaging is lagging way behind. The biggest change in this sector over the last 10 years has been the tonnage of what’s called “Other Plastics” being placed in the Blue Box. Whether this is because of the advent of single-stream (throw it all together) collection, or because residents are confused about which plastics are recyclable and which are not, and out of frustration just pitch them all in the blue box for someone else to sort out, is a good question. As for plastic film, its Blue Box recovery rate has barely budged, moving from 6% to 7% over a decade.
The stark contrast in recovery rates between materials raises some fundamental questions about the design of Ontario’s Blue Box system itself. There’s the perennial issue of whether some materials would be better on deposit; the role of energy-from-waste (EFW) in solid waste management; and whether the current industry funding formula is sending the “right” message to packaging and printed paper producers. Our next blog takes a look at the materials that don’t make it to the Blue Box, and what we may be able to do about it.