Tour of the Niagara Recycling Centre

Last week I took a tour of the Niagara Region’s Recycling Centre. I know, I know, sounds super exciting, right?!? But when you don’t know much about how recycling works, and you have an interest in limiting plastic and/or waste, it is actually REALLY interesting! Especially because our tour guide Bert was super knowledgable.

I won’t get into too much detail that was provided at the tour, but I wanted to relay some of the important information so you are able to have a picture of what is actually going on with our recycling/plastics in Niagara and in Ontario without necessarily having to schedule a morning of your time to go on the tour yourself – but if you want to go, I would definitely recommend it!

First things first – Niagara has 1 recycling facility located in Niagara Falls, and it does not actually recycle the items collected. All the blue and grey bin items are sent there, and then they are sorted, packaged, and sold to companies that do the actual recycling by creating a new product. Niagara recycles approx. 30-40 tonnes per year. This facility also takes care of paper from the KW area (kinda weird, right?!), and we also take in all of Haldimand County’s recycling also, so including those the Centre deals with approx. 75 tonnes of recyclable material every year (wow!).

All About the Money, Money, Money…

Although many items are able to be recycled, it does not mean they are being recycled at your local facility. Our tour guy essentially said that all items CAN be recycled, but unfortunately there’s no market for it or the recycling facility does not have the proper equipment to process it. For example, not all styrofoam gets recycled in Ontario. Companies don’t want to buy it unless it is broken down and compacted because it is such a light material that takes up a lot of space. Niagara’s facility thankfully has a machine that breaks it down into a dense block, but many facilities in Ontario don’t have this machine and therefore sends styrofoam to the landfill.

Sent to Landfill

So, how much gets sent to the landfill that enters Niagara’s facility? Surprisingly only 3-5% – those items that people put in their containers that are in fact NOT recyclable, or items that are contaminated and therefore cannot be recycled (ex: you put your plastic peanut butter jar in your blue bin with it 1/4 full still of peanut butter – yuck). I went into this tour thinking this percentage would be much higher, so this made me happy! Unfortunately other facilities in Ontario do have a much higher straight to landfill percentage.

One item that does not get recycled is glass, which surprised me. Niagara does have a machine that breaks it down into sand for cleaning via sandblasting, so at least in Niagara we are getting one more use out of glass, but otherwise, companies are not buying glass and recycling it.

Other plastic items that are sorted out and sent to the landfill are smaller light weight plastics, such as Kiurig coffee containers (for those of you who are well intentioned and are separating them in order to recycle). Other similar plastic items are not recyclable, like the lid to a pop bottle. This is mainly because of the way they sort plastic, which is too complicated to explain here.

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COFFEE, Coffee, coffee…..

I asked Bert what was the #1 item that people put in bins to be recycled but are not in fact able to be recycled. His answer was coffee cups. He said the facility receives MILLIONS of these every year and they send it straight to landfill. He said if there was suddenly a market where someone had discovered a way to recycle it and sell the recycled result, then it would be a different story. So….take this as a friendly wink wink, nudge nudge to bring your own mug next time you’re out for your cuppa heaven (yes, I LOVE me my coffeeeeeee).

Why Not Just Recycle? 

Although this was a very encouraging trip to the recycling facility and made me more comfortable than I was before in the recycling process, the fact remains – it isn’t a sustainable solution. Why?

Everything has a lifespan, no matter if it’s recyclable. At some point in time all recyclable material will end up in the landfill anyway, and for plastic that is a big deal because it will not break down for a REALLY long time (read more about plastic here). There is 1 exception to this – aluminum. Yup, that is the only material that has a forever lifespan and can be recreated into another can of pop over and over and over FOREVER. I am thankful that we have a process where we can get more lives out of the materials we use and that it doesn’t go straight to landfill, but it was incredibly disheartening to hear confirmation of what I expected, that at the end, it’s going to end up in the landfill anyway.

We are facing a landfill crisis in Niagara (probably other areas in Ontario also). We have 2 publicly funded “dumps” that are very near full, and then what happens? Well, we either use one that is privately owned and say “bye bye” to more taxpayer dollars and/or start shipping it somewhere else, like Buffalo, NY if they’ll take it.

The entire process requires energy, and the majority of our energy is fueled by fossil fuels. Plastic is made from oil. To process recycling requires burning fossil fuels. To ship recycling all over the world (which Niagara does) takes trucks, trains, and boats, all fueled by fossil fuels. To pick up our recycling requires trucks that burn gas. So this issue is not solely about the landfill, but is also about the wider impact of pollution leading to climate change.

Our tour guide, Bert, said that what recycling has essentially done in the past 30-40 years has postponed the inevitable crisis we are going to face with the amount of disposable stuff in our lives.

For all these reasons I find the zero waste movement, with an additional focus to not be dependent on recycling to be a sustainable solution, and is why I am passionate about writing this information down and sharing it all with you here!

If you do want to take a tour yourself, contact Bert, registered old guy tour guide of the Niagara Recycling Centre:

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