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They Sure Don’t Make It Easy: Recycling in Multiple Jurisdictions in Canada

By Alicia Cappello

· Other bloggers,General

Let me start with a little background. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve lived in six different places – two countries, two provinces, and one state. Plus, when I lived in the US, I worked in a different state from where I lived. This means that over the last couple of decades, I’ve had to learn the waste management rules of seven different locations. And it was, and is, not easy.

I recently moved back to Ontario and am now in Trent Lakes. Trent Lakes is a small municipality east of Lindsay and west of Peterborough in the Kawartha Lakes area (although should not be confused for the City of Kawartha Lakes, which is a different municipality). While Trent Lakes is its own municipality, it is also part of the County of Peterborough. Because I live in a rural area of Trent Lakes, we do not have curbside pickup. Instead, we have to take our garbage, recycling and (thankfully) compost to a local transfer station (also sometimes referred to as the dump, although nothing is kept there permanently).

Plus, I regularly visit the City of Peterborough and the City of Toronto. And, a friend who currently lives part-time in Toronto also lives and works in Ottawa, Ontario, so I’ve learned a little bit about Ottawa waste management as well.

The main thing I have learned about waste management after all these years – EVERY PLACE IS DIFFERENT. There is NO consistency between locations, even in the same province. And some of the differences between provinces is quite amazing (e.g., Alberta has a bottle return program, Ontario does not).

CBC News recently started a series of articles about Recycling and created a closed Facebook page for Canadians to share story ideas and concerns (which can be found here if you’d like to join). I joined the Facebook page immediately upon hearing about it and discovered that I am not the only one who feels the pain of living in different areas and having to follow a different set of waste management rules in each place. I would classify the problem as systemic, and something needs to be done.

I believe that one of the main reasons people do not recycle -- at all or properly -- is because the rules are so numerous and confusing. For people who live and work in different municipalities, the rules may differ on an hourly basis, every day! And because a lot of commercial locations (i.e., someone’s work location) have to pay for commercial waste management services that differ from the residential services, the rules might even be different within the same municipality!

Case in point … in Edmonton (where I lived for 6 years), the City’s waste management department is considered its own utility. So while it provides waste management services for residents (as part of their taxes), it can also provide waste management services to businesses, for a fee. Or, those businesses can opt to use a different waste management service (like GFL or Waste Management Inc.). When a business selects its waste management service provider, it also selects what it does and does not want to pay for. In Edmonton, businesses can pay a bit extra to have their garbage taken to the city facility where organics are separated and composted, and some non-organics are separated and sent to the bio-fuels facility. OR, they can pay less and simply have all their garbage taken to landfill. This means that one person could place a banana peel in their garbage at home and that banana peel would be sorted and composted when it reached the waste management facility. But they could place another banana peel in the garbage bin under their desk while at work, and that banana peel could end up in landfill.

Of course, this doesn’t include the fact that Edmonton’s composting facility was recently shut down because the building was condemned due to issues with the roof (Edmonton Journal article can be found here). Technically, ALL garbage going to Edmonton’s waste management facility (at the moment) is not being composted. PLUS, because that’s not bad enough, the city recently released an audit report on the waste management program and did not like what it found (you can read the audit yourself here).

So, what are some of the differences I’ve come across? Here’s a list of items where the rules differ between municipalities:

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R = Recycling, G = Garbage, C = Composting, N = No, Y = Yes


1Edmonton recommends that bubble wrap be donated to the Reuse Centre rather than be put in the garbage.

2Toronto will only recycle coffee cup lids that are NOT black. Black lids have to go in the garbage.

3Ottawa has something called a Take it back! partner, which will accept certain items (like bubble wrap) to either reuse or recycle it properly.

4Kawartha Lakes uses green bins for paper recycling, like boxes, etc., not for organics, like food.

5Edmonton technically takes all organics in their garbage, as it is sorted at the waste management facility. Technically speaking, that could include compost bags, as they’d end up being sorted and put through the non-organic stream. But most people don’t separate organics and non-organics in Edmonton unless they have a backyard compost bin.

6Toronto allows compostable and non-compostable plastics bags in their green bins.

7ALL cities and municipalities had a “what goes where” app on their waste management websites.

These differences, plus the confusing rules, plus the fact that so many things are labelled as recyclable but are not actually recyclable (e.g., bubble wrap), causes significant problems with contamination (see infographic below from this CBC article).

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According to the CBC, China had been importing about half the world’s paper and plastic for recycling, plus glass and metal. In 2018, China decided to restrict the amount and types of waste it imports from places like Canada. One reason … contamination. Not only was the waste they were receiving contaminated with the wrong kind of waste (i.e., plastics mixed with non-recyclable material) but they were also receiving really dirty waste that made it impossible to recycle. China is implementing this ban for good reasons, they need to take care of their own waste before they start importing the waste of other countries.


All in all, Canada’s recycling programs need to change. Not just to reduce the amount of contamination and make it easier for citizens to understand what goes where, but also because recycling really should be a last resort. That’s another confusing aspect of recycling programs, many citizens assume that recycling is the solution to any waste problem because it is the most ‘advertised’ aspect of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. However, we should be focusing more on reducing, reusing, and repurposing.


Why did I write an article about recycling for a climate change blog? Simple … the more confusing recycling programs are, the more likely it is that citizens will place everything in the garbage. And since the majority of waste management programs send their garbage to landfills, this may mean an increase, or at least no decrease, in the amount of garbage heading to landfill. 


A landfill, unfortunately, produces greenhouse gases (mostly methane) as garbage decomposes and break down. Methane, for those of you who do not know, is not as abundant as carbon dioxide, but is actually 25 times worse than CO2 when it comes to global warming. In other words, the less, the better. According to the Government of Canada, methane released from landfills in Canada account for 20% of the country’s methane emissions (source). While methane can be captured from landfill and re-used to generate electricity, the real solution is to prevent its creation in the first place – by composting and recycling.

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I am a Climate Reality Leader trained in 2017 in Denver, Colorado. I am also a Master Composter Recycler for the City of Edmonton, which apparently is quite useless now that I no longer live in Edmonton and the rules have all changed! I was also the Regional Organizer for the Community Climate Hubs in the Prairie Region until I moved back to Ontario in February 2018; I look forward to rejoining as an R.O. in the future.

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