What exactly happens when your blue box is picked up off the curb in Waterloo Region?

The pickup is just the start of a long journey for recyclables.

The thundering racket of machinery at the Nyle Ludolph Materials Recycling Centre in Waterloo, named for the Kitchener creator of the blue box program, makes it difficult to hear Kathleen Barsoum as she tours the facility.

Barsoum, waste management co-ordinator with the Region of Waterloo, is proud of the local recycling program's success. 

“Over 90 per cent of the collected blue box materials here in the Region of Waterloo gets recycled. You can divert about 80 per cent of your home waste into recycling,” Barsoum said. “We don’t send materials overseas. There are plenty of local recycling processors, if the material is well sorted. Our residents do very well in sorting — not perfect, but well. Our rates of contamination come in around 10 to 15 per cent. That’s comparatively better than some other municipalities, but it’s still too high.”

After the blue boxes’ contents have been collected, they arrive at the waste management centre to be separated according to material type, and then baled. Recycling processors have strict contamination rules and will only accept material with contamination of one per cent or less.

Modern manufacturing techniques are also creating challenges.

“We’re seeing mixed material packaging used for snacks, coffee and paint. We can’t send it to the paper pulper due to the metal, and we can’t send it to metal recycling due to the paper. Another example is laminated plastic, such as potato chip bags. As a laminate, it can’t be recycled,” Barsoum said. 

Plastic is sent to recyclers in Ontario, steel goes to Hamilton, and cartons to Burlington. Garbage and non-metal bulky items go directly to the landfill. Appliances go to scrap metal and organics are processed in Guelph.

“Food waste can be turned into compost in less than three months, simply using mother nature’s recipe,” stated Barsoum. “The majority of the finished compost goes to farms in southwest Ontario.”

Local governments and businesses are working to lessen the environmental impact of their activities. Inspired by New Dundee students, Coun. Angie Hallman introduced a motion in 2019 that led to a ban on single-use plastic straws in Wilmot Township facilities. As of Jan. 1, rental contracts now stipulate that plastic straws are prohibited.

“We have introduced compostable straws into our concession booth at the Wilmot Recreation Complex,” said director of facilities and recreation services Scott Nancekivell. Staff haven’t received any user feedback on the changes yet.

Wilmot’s decision pre-empted the federal government’s announcement on Jan. 30 that it will ban single-use plastics by the end of 2021.

New Hamburg Sobeys Front End Clerk Ashley Cutting and franchise owner Bill Fleming with some of the options available to customers who come without their own shopping bags

New Hamburg Sobeys Front End Clerk Ashley Cutting and franchise owner Bill Fleming with some of the options available to customers who come without their own shopping bags

On Feb. 1, Sobeys became the first national grocery retailer in Canada to ban single-use plastic bags from its stores. The chain used to go through 225 million plastic bags a year.

“We’ve had an extremely positive response from our customers, who were aware of the changes and brought their own bags the day after the new policy began," said New Hamburg Sobeys co-owner Bill Fleming. 

Sobeys sells options for shoppers who don’t come prepared, such as sturdy, washable totes or reusable bags. Customers can also request paper bags for 10 cents. Three cents from each bag helps fund a tree-planting program.

Barsoum welcomes initiatives like this.

“There has been a grassroots movement to refuse straws and single-serve items, and we support that wholeheartedly. We have the power to send a message simply with our purchase decisions,” she said. “We first and foremost encourage reduction. Don’t make the waste in the first place. Be conscious of what you are buying and the packaging on it. If you have to make the waste, find a way to reuse it; then and only then, recycle it.”

The region’s app, Waste Whiz, provides local recycling advice: https://bit.ly/3a9dGlt.