Why I’m happy to sort my waste and recycling

When I first moved to the Netherlands, nearly all the waste we produced went straight into the garbage. You can imagine how frustrated that made me! Now that I’ve sort of figured out the waste and recycling systems, we’ve managed to reduce the amount of stuff we put into the garbage by about half. I’ve still got some learning to do, but hope to reduce our waste by another half in the coming year – new years resolution #2 (after finding a job!)

My former hometown of Toronto uses a single stream recycling system, where residents put all of their recyclables – paper, plastic, metals, and glass – into a single bin. The municipality collects these bins and takes them to a materials recovery facility (MRF) where they’re sorted back into their respective types for recycling. Many municipalities use a single-stream system because it’s convenient for their residents to use the recycling bin – almost as easy as using the trash can. Costs for a single-stream system are lower though processing costs are higher.

The biggest problem with single stream systems is contamination, resulting in lower scrap material quality and lower revenues for the recyclers. There is a particular concern that broken glass can get into the paper stream and mess with the paper mill and that bits of wet paper can get into everything. About a quarter of single-stream recycling goes to the dump, for glass, waste can be as high as 40%.

The system used here is a multi-stream recycling system. It’s more efficient for processors than a single-stream system because the majority of materials have already been sorted, and contamination levels are significantly less, eliminating waste and expense of removal.

In our apartment, we separate plastic bottles for a deposit refund, other plastic, paper, compost and glass from our garbage.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

The garbage, compost, and other plastics are collected bi-weekly by the municipality. We take everything else to the grocery store, which acts as a sort of small waste depot. There you can find a place to deal with glass, paper, containers with a deposit, grease, batteries and light bulbs.

In the parking lot, you’ll find receptacles for glass, sorted into white, green & brown, and paper.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

There’s also several bins for clothing donations.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

Inside, you can find a machine where you can return beer bottles and plastic bottles for a deposit refund.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste and recycling

This machine scans the barcodes and prints out a ticket that can be redeemed at the cash register.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

At the cash register is where you’ll find the containers for light bulbs, batteries and grease.

Why I don't mind sorting my waste & recycling

Since so many people go to the grocery store regularly, it’s not out of the way to take plastic, glass, and paper from time to time. If you’re like me, it’s more a problem to remember to do it than actually to do it!

If you’re interested in learning more about how single stream recycling works, I’d recommend taking a quick glance at this short NPR story from earlier this year.

Recycling

I mentioned in a previous post about waste that I felt better about using aluminum cans for my cat food rather than plastic bags because it seems like more of a recycling process rather than a downcycling process, but I never got into any more details about why.

I define recycling simply as the processing of waste materials into new materials or products of the same quality. So from this, you can probably guess that I define upcycling as the processing of waste materials into materials or products of better quality, and downcycling as the processing of waste materials into materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality.

For now, I`m  happier with the aluminum can because there is no limit to the amount of times an aluminum can can be recycled. An aluminum can that is thrown away can still be a can 500 years from now! Yes, it still needs to be processed, which takes energy and creates waste, but it`s still better than mining bauxite from the earth, don`t you think?

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“Plastic” is a very generic term for a wide variety of materials which have very different physical and chemical properties. This is one of the things that makes them so difficult to recycle. Plastic Identification Codes (PIC) is the system that identifies the different types so they can be separated for reprocessing. However, just because a plastic has a PIC on it does not mean it can be recycled. Mixing plastics during reprocessing can weaken recovered plastic, which makes it less appealing to manufacturers to use in their products. Even if it is sorted by type, plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times and it is often used to produce items that are not themselves recyclable.

Recycle Please
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Don’t get me wrong, downcycling has its place. I would much rather potentially useful materials are reused a few times rather than just being sent to the landfill immediately. But at some point, that material has an end of life. It will no longer be useful and will end up in a landfill or ocean garbage island. Yuck.

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Here’s a wee hint from my dad, who’s a bit in the know about waste management. Leave the lids off your plastic bottles when you throw them in the recycling. They’re made of a different type of plastic that can’t be recycled. It’s apparently a problem for recyclers.

Check out My Plastic Free Life. Beth is doing a much better job that I am at cutting plastic waste from her life.