While the good work you do to separate your waste into blue and grey boxes may seem like an environmental act, it’s also good business.
All the raw materials from the Region’s recycling program are sorted, baled and sold to end users. There is an ecological component to it too, of course: the products are reused, thus requiring less production; and they are diverted from landfill.
Recyclables are brought in to the Niagara Recycling plant in 40 to 50 trucks per day. Fifteen trucks of sorted and baled materials go out in that same time period.
“We want to see all resources being reused,” says Niagara Recycling chair Bert Murphy on a tour of the facility, while making it clear “this is strictly a sorting facility.”
Murphy believes Niagara is in a landfill crisis, so diversion is key. “Last year we recycled 78,000 tons of materials,” he says, which means that much waste was diverted.
Murphy explains the two streams — blue and grey boxes — divide into more than 15 others. The grey box provides five different materials, and the blue box at least 11. There are seven kinds of plastic and two types of metal, as well as juice boxes, and glass.
“Each material goes through a baler, then we are done with it — with one exception,” he says, pointing out there is only one plant in Ontario making a specific product: “This one. We clean, dry, sort and grind glass down to a product called Niagara Ecoglass, used for sandblasting.”
The building is a giant warehouse divided into purpose-built stages of dumping, sorting and baling. The process starts on the tipping floor, where all residential collection trucks dump, as well as commercial and industrial loads from Niagara, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Haldimand County. The contents are then loaded onto miles of conveyor belts that snake through the facility.
Sorting is done on the loft-style second floor, where each section is perched on islands overlooking the ground floor. The belts move through pre-sorting and secondary sorting, some through cross vibratory feeders and fibre-optical sorters. But most material is separated by groups of hard-working staff, hand-sorting newspapers from cereal boxes, and clear plastic bottles from ice cream tubs. The business has 90 employees, and 63 of them are hand-sorters.
Each person has a chute nearby where they drop various materials; the chutes lead to bunkers below, which are opened to send the contents to balers.
The noise is formidable, and the speed startling. The well-trained staff cull bits and pieces from the conveyor in a blur of productivity.
As workers snag straws from a belt shuttling aluminum cans — one straw can contaminate an entire bale, tour leader Ashley Northcotte says — she explains aluminum represents seven per cent of recyclable content, and 30 per cent of revenue. “It’s the most valuable material, and can be used over and over,” she says. Murphy calls aluminum cans the “gold” of recycling.
Newspaper can be recycled five times, with the fibres getting shorter each time, until “trip number six is this,” says Murphy, holding up a molded pulp piece, like an egg carton or a take-out tray for hot drinks.
Workers pull many plastic bags off the paper-sorting belt, some of them full of newspapers. “Plastic bags are one big problem in recycling — they are the biggest contaminant in the program,” says Murphy. The bags also turn up on the other belts, in with blue box products. Murphy says people need to be aware that single use bags can be recycled, but they must be isolated and contained.
“Don’t put things in plastic bags,” says Murphy. “What we need people to do is put all single-use plastic bags in one bag, tie it up, and put it in your grey box.”
Despite people’s misconceptions and mistakes with their recycling, Northcotte says 95 to 97 per cent of the product that arrives at the plant goes out to be recycled, the small remainder going to landfill.
Murphy says at least some of that is take-out coffee cups. “Oh please, no coffee cups,” he says with great frustration. “We don’t accept them here, but we get millions. Millions.” He is quick to point out, though, that the lids are recyclable.
“The biggest problem is the lack of sufficient knowledge being given to the public,” says Murphy, a geologist by training.
For example, Northcotte says, “nothing gets cleaned here, just sorted, so the cleaner the better.” Many people are unaware of this, and toss dirty food containers into their bins, creating problems for the sorters at the other end. Murphy points out lids should be kept on water and pop bottles. “Squeeze out the air so the bottle takes up less space, and put the cap back on.” he says.
On the theme of education, all the recyclables collected from Niagara’s elementary schools are shipped to Buffalo. “The schools decided to move to single stream collection,” says Murphy, and Niagara Recycling has the two-stream model. Broken glass from a single-stream program is too much of a problem and creates contamination, he adds.
School groups also make up the bulk of the tours of the facility. “Last year there were 55 tours, and 35 of them were schools,” says Murphy. Members of the public can register for tours in April and October, when they take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
A senior citizen himself, Murphy says most resistance to recycling is in older people; he also cites skepticism and disbelief.
He once followed up with a letter-to-the-editor-writer who was convinced the garbage put into a garbage truck was neither sorted nor recycled. Murphy also mentions his concern about the decline of bottle returns that could occur if alcohol is sold through corner stores.
“Deposits work,” he says.