Does What We Put in the Recycling Bin End Up in the Garbage Dump?

Valérie Levée – The Rumor Detector

Agence Science-Presse (www.sciencepresse.qc.ca)

Watching garbage trucks dump our recyclables all together into their great big rear ends, we can be excused for wondering if they really do separate all the plastic, paper, glass and metal we throw in there. The trucks head to the sorting centres, but afterward, do all these materials just end up in the town garbage dump, as many believe?

The Rumor Detector investigates this rumor, and has numbers to show what happens.

Almost One Million Tons

In 2018, according to the rundown of residual materials put out by RECYC-QUÉBEC, Quebec’s sorting centres received 933,000 tons of residual materials. All these materials were brought to the sorting centres, les centres de tri, where they were sorted, as the name would suggest.

Operation Triage

The first sorting separates material that are really recyclable from unrecyclable material. In 2018, from the 933,000 tons received, 79% was recyclable, and 21% wasn’t.

This 208,000 tons of recyclable material went to landfills, and consisted of:

● Recyclable but contaminated materials, or combined materials (for example, plastic and metal) that were difficult to take apart;

● Materials that shouldn’t have been put in the recycling bin in the first place, like wet cardboard, tissue paper, unidentified plastics, toys and other articles that aren’t recyclable;

● 78,000 tons of recyclable glass, which wasn’t recycled but was used as covering material or to maintain access roads in dumps.

The 786,000 tons of recyclable materials consisted of:

● 642,000 tons of paper and cardboard (82%);

● 39,000 tons of metal (4%);

● 59,000 tons of plastics (8%);

● 45,000 tons of glass (6%).

A more in-depth sorting separates plastics according to their numbers, iron alloys and aluminum, corrugated cardboard and office paper, milk cartons…

Materials for Sale

Once sorted, these materials have a value and therefore a price, which allows the sorting centres to sell them on the recycling market. They go to paper mills, scrap metal yards or the plastics industry, among other places.

Prices vary according to supply and demand. For example, in September 2021:

● Aluminum cans were worth $1,894/ton;

● High density polyethylene (HDPE), also called plastic number 2, went for $1,707/ton;

● Office paper, $238/ton;

● Milk cartons, $31/ton.

As for glass, the prices are negative, and the sorting centres have to pay to get rid of it.

55 % of Material Recycled in Québec

More than half (55%) of the 786,000 tons of material sorted in Quebec finds takers in Quebec. Though it is true that a lot of paper finds its way out of the province, 48% ends up in Quebec paper mills. And 66% of all sorted plastic and 94% of sorted metal are recycled in Quebec. That’s also true for 100% of the glass, with an asterisk: sorted glass isn’t recycled into glass, but is turned into abrasives, filtering materials and other products.

Verdict

Even though some of the materials tossed into a recycling bin are neither recycled nor recyclable, most of the cardboard, paper, plastic, glass and metal that gets disposed of in these bins is sent to a recycling business.

Bannir les sacs de plastique : efficace pour l’environnement ? Ça dépend  (November 17, 2020)

Sacs compostables : le vrai du faux  (May 19, 2017)

Obstacles au recyclage (Je vote pour la science, October 24, 2018)

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This article is part of the Rumor Detector series. Click here to see more in the series.

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