Recycling Mistakes

Make a New Year’s resolution to combat recycling contamination

For many Canadians, recycling has become a part of daily life. Despite the positive growth of the recycling industry, however, the amount of trash entering landfills continues to pose problems for the future. We simply don’t have the capacity to sustain current levels. The planet needs us to be wiser and more stewardly. 

In 2018, CBC ran a series about the recycling habits of Canadians. Their study revealed an important wrinkle: that recycling mistakes are costing recycling programs millions of dollars each year. Canada is facing an increasing problem with recycling contamination. This is “the technical name for non-recyclable material or garbage in the recycling system,” according to Emily Chung, “from leftover food in containers to non-recyclable plastic packaging to more obvious garbage such as clothing and propane tanks.” Contaminated recycling makes recycling more difficult and expensive. 

In a Global News report, Arti Patel reported that recycling mistakes in Canada cost the nation millions of dollars per year. She notes that people commonly assume that when they toss something in the recycling bin, someone else will sort it out. This is not always the case. As Chung observed, this “can turn tonnes of other perfectly good recyclables into garbage or at least lower their value and make them more difficult to sell to offset the cost of recycling programs.” One city official pointed out that “you basically pay twice to manage garbage.”

Recognizing the concept of contaminated recycling has opened my eyes to the extent of the problem. When I head out for a walk on recycling days, I am struck by how many blue boxes contain contaminated materials – food remnants. At fast food restaurants, I see how poorly both customers and employees sort food wastes and packaging, even when appropriate disposal bins are available and clearly labelled. Many “recycling mistakes” can be easily addressed through changed behaviour.

Recyclable or not?
Part of the challenge, however, is that new products and new consumer patterns have made recycling more complex. As Daniel Hoornweg, a former World Bank waste management advisor observed, as the reduce / reuse / recycle mindset has grown, so has the opposite mindset: manufacture / consume / discard. While we may be recycling more, we are also creating more products and packaging that require more disposal. Last year, China banned the import of contaminated recycling, a decision that has significantly impacted nations that had been farming their recycling overseas, including Canada and the U.S. Further complicating the issue, different regions and municipalities have different recycling policies. As a result, not everything that should be recycled (or claims to be recyclable) can actually be recycled. Coffee cups, for example, certainly should be recycled, but in a number of Canadian municipalities, cannot be, even though the cups claim to be recyclable. As one city official recognized, “It’s becoming complicated for a resident to understand what is recyclable and what isn’t.” 


Many early recyclers were Christians who took seriously their responsibility to care for Creation and steward the earth’s finite resources. In addition to adopting a recycling mindset, Christians also have an obligation to honour recycling workers and approaches. We can educate ourselves and take responsibility for our own trash.  

Many people have the best of intentions when it comes to recycling, but tend to be habitual and somewhat unthinking in practice. They toss pizza boxes, peanut butter jars and yogurt containers in blue bins without realizing that pizza grease, peanut butter and yogurt remnants are some of the most common household recycling contaminants. We’re mistakenly confident that we are part of the solution, not the problem.

The bigger picture
Recycling is part of the solution to our growing waste disposal crisis, but it is not enough. Hoornweg observes that “the solution is not at the ‘back end’ but in reducing ‘front end’ consumerism. By the time waste gets recycled, 95 percent of the environmental damage has already occurred – in manufacturing, in oil extraction, in the poisoning of our rivers and air . . .  the output of carbon.”

In a Huffington Post article last year, Carl Duivenvoorden identified three important strategies: think waste minimization when you shop, become a committed recycler, and compost everything possible. Many municipalities have worked hard over the past few years to improve their green bin composting program. These programs are often underused. Recycling alone is not sufficient for addressing the global trash crisis. We need to make better choices. There are steps we can take to reduce waste.

“If you’re not sure whether something is recyclable and don’t have time to do the research,” Chung says, “it’s better to put it in your recycling bin and risk a little contamination.” Michael Robertson, a materials recovery manager agrees: “We would rather have it come here so we can determine if it’s recyclable than erring the other way and losing the opportunity to recycle that material.”  


  • Sean is Assistant Professor of Education at Redeemer and former News Editor for Christian Courier. Sean’s research focuses on the communication of educational care. He appreciates CC’s cultural relevance, Biblical distinctiveness and willingness to address the complexity of living with hope and courage in a broken world.

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